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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A short walk in Ishi country

It was an overcast Sunday, and a bit cool. Perfect hiking weather. We drove to the Deer Creek Trail in the Ishi Wilderness Area. As the crow flies Ishi's homeland isn't that far from our house, but we can’t fly across Butte Creek Canyon. The trailhead is an hour and twenty minutes away by car. We have to drive down into the Sacramento Valley, skirt the city of Chico, and head up the Pacific slope on Route 32 towards Mount Lassen.

We parked at the steel bridge, crossed the road and followed the trail into the conifers and oaks. Spring seemed a bit tardy. The white alders along the creek were just starting to leaf out, and Indian warrior had just started to bloom.

It felt good to be in the woods. Though these same trees dominate the landscape elsewhere in northern California, mossy pinnacles and volcanic ledges lend a special feeling. To me they are the witnesses to the past, like Steinbeck's silent watchers of Big Sur. The tragedy of Ishi's personal story makes the past tangible here. Perhaps he and his clan sought shelter under these very rocks.

Once he surrendered to captivity however, Ishi had no interest in visiting his old haunts. Perhaps there were too many spirits and sad memories, but Professor Kroeber finally talked him into it, and the famous anthropologist and his colleagues had the opportunity to see Ishi hunt and fish in his element. There's a picture of a smiling Ishi dog-paddling one of Deer Creek's dark pools. We passed three deep pools that could have been the place.

Ishi often made reference to Coyote, and the anthropologists decided it was time to record the Yana mythology. They prepared themselves for a couple hours of recording, but Coyote's story was an epic saga, and Ishi really got into it. He couldn’t stop after two hours. The story went on and on for several days. The anthropologists were amazed at the many threads. I find the underestimation of UC's distinguished anthropologists very amusing.

Native American's have had a legendary knack for unexpected statements of penetrating eloquence, which brings to mind a story that the late Bart O'Gara told me in Missoula, Montana in the early 1980s. A young well-intentioned man of his acquaintance, much inspired by his own daily work as a game warden, got it into his head that the Lakota could restore their pride and find employment as wildlife biologists. He conceived of a program to train the young men as game wardens. A meeting of the tribal elders was held, and he made his pitch, which played rather heavily on the theme of the Lakota's inherent skills and natural superiority as hunters and trackers. When the sermon ended the elders were asked for their views, and the senior spokesman summoned that unexpected eloquence (I paraphrase from memory): "You know, this is what they tell us, that we were great hunters and did all those things. (pause) Maybe it is true. (another pause) But maybe it is just bullshit."

Nowadays California's native people own casinos and donate generously to our communities. There's a poetic justice in their adoption of our values, but I don't have an iota of interest in casinos. Ishi's spirit world has far more to offer me. So give me Ishi's mountains and rivers. Coyote and the cast of characters are still here, the ones I want to capture with camera traps.

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