Sarah Lim: The forgotten landscape of the San Joaquin Valley

One of the greatest benefits of living in the San Joaquin Valley is experiencing its natural beauty.

Within the ever-changing physical landscape, some things remain relatively the same. The colorful wildflowers, the peripatetic wildlife, the crisscrossing (dry) rivers and streams, and the distinct seasons, for example, continue to serve as a reminder of the Valley that existed before European settlement.

In the book “A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California,” naturalist and artist Laura Cunningham answers the question: What did California look like before it was California? In paintings, photos and prose, Cunningham brings to life a landscape teeming with wildlife and native communities.

One of her paintings, “Old Tulare Lake under the Sierra,” depicts the flyway of the snow geese and the Yokuts Indian hunters who appear to be rowing home with a boat full of game.

From studying explorer-naturalist John Xantus’ letters in the 1850s, Cunningham describes the Valley as a winter wonderland for the waterfowl, which often literally blackened the sky, particularly in January.

An exhibit based on her book will be on display Thursday at the Merced County Courthouse Museum. Her beautiful artwork, which recreates the forgotten landscapes of California 500 years ago, is juxtaposed with vivid photos that capture the same scenes as they now appear.

Xantus was not the only one who saw and recorded the Valley’s pristine landscape. In fact, the first outsiders who discovered the San Joaquin Valley were Spanish explorers, led by Gabriel Moraga, in 1806 who were in search of suitable sites for missions.

Accompanying Moraga in this expedition was diarist Father Pedro Munoz, whose goal was not only recording the trip and selecting the mission sites, but also baptizing as many American Indians as possible.

Therefore, Munoz’s vision of the Valley was more about his observations of the native settlements and interaction with the Indians. For example, on the expedition’s fifth day on Sept. 25, 1806, they came into contact with a group of Indians at their camp site near the San Joaquin River in the vicinity of Santa Rita. Munoz wrote:

“Forty-two armed Indians visited our camp this afternoon, demonstrating great affability and making us a present of fish. Showing to them an image of Our Lady of Dolores, I tried to explain to them the object of our coming, which afforded them great joy, and their behavior was such that it seemed as if they already were enlisted under the banner of the Holy Christ.”

During his 43-day expedition, Munoz discovered more Indian villages and had many more friendly as well as hostile encounters with the native people. His diary depicts the dense native population as a key part of the Valley’s landscape.

Unlike Munoz, naturalist John Muir’s objective in visiting the Valley was to explore its natural wonders. He visited for the first time in the spring of 1868 and saw it as a Garden of Eden. As he was looking at the foothills of the Coast Ranges and the inland valley, he couldn’t help using poetic prose to describe the scenery:

“Their union with the Valley is by curves and slopes of inimitable beauty. They were robed with the greenest grass and richest light I ever beheld, and were colored and shaded with myriads of flowers of every hue, chiefly of purple and golden yellow. Hundreds of crystal rills joined song with the larks, filling all the Valley with music like a sea, making it Eden from end to end.”

So how was the Valley perceived in the eye of the settler?

The settlers often viewed the natural landscape of the Valley as a hardship and a challenge. It was a picture of desolation.

Merced County in the early 1860s was portrayed as a “wild, barren, desolate waste” with no shade trees or clear water but hungry wild animals, according to a writer from the San Joaquin Valley Argus. The writer was trying to contrast the progress that had been made in Merced County over the past 20 years when he wrote this in December 1883.

He continued to describe the horrible conditions because of the rain when the area was first settled: “During the stormy season the black mud, dangerous bogs, and quick-sands prevented stockmen from hunting their herds, so the cattle and horses were let to roam over the man-forsaken plains with the deer and other wild animals.”

The divergent views of the Valley landscape between the naturalists and the settlers persist today. While the former strives to preserve, the latter seeks to develop. Cunningham’s work facilitates an “understanding of the possibilities for both change and conservation in our present-day landscape.”

Please join us for the “A State of Change” exhibit opening at 5 p.m. Thursday. During the reception, Cunningham will autograph her book and give a presentation at 6 p.m. The event is free to the public. For more information, contact the museum at (209) 723-2401.