Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, August 15, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 7

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part I. Man's Egosystems

Chapter 7. The Ohlone Ecosystem

Before we begin asking where our oil-addicted ways are leading us, we might want to become reacquainted with the road we have traveled so far as a species, and our reasons for choosing it. Understanding how we came to be on our present course might help us imagine what is in our future.

In just 250 years, California has gone from being a land populated by Native Americans living in the wild to one of the most highly developed regions in the world, in the Western sense of the term. For this reason, it may provide a glimpse into what lies ahead for all of us.

In 1770, California was one of the few areas in North America where Native Americans still made their living solely by hunting, fishing, and gathering; they had no domesticated animals. The American Indians of the Pacific coast region were completely integrated into their local ecosystems. I have often wondered what human beings were like in completely natural surroundings. Numerous visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium furthered my understanding of ecosystems. {a}

The first thing one needs to know about ecosystems is that they do not have specific boundaries. Small ecosystems are part of larger ones, which are part of ecosystems that are larger still, and so on all the way up to the great ecosystem Planet Earth. Forests, rivers, lakes, and seacoasts are all ecosystems. At first glance they may seem simple, but in reality ecosystems are complex and very fragile and so intricately interwoven that it would be very difficult to know where one leaves off and the next one begins. Only Nature can tell.

An ecosystem's balance depends on the natural energy it receives, generally from the Sun, and how efficient its various constituents are at capturing it. Algae and phytoplankton in water, and plants and trees on land, convert the energy in sunlight to organic material through photosynthesis. After that, the ecosystem depends on the natural intelligence of its populations to transfer nutrients between species, which they generally do by devouring one another. The "phytoplankton - copepod - jelly - rockfish - sea lion" food chain is typical of the marine ecosystem of the northern California coast. This "consumer chain" has five different levels of species, each of which feeds on the level below it, although that is not an absolute rule. The "kelp - sea urchin - sea otter" sequence is another example. The "chains" transferring organic material in the ocean are too varied and numerous to count and they form an extremely complex network of interrelationships. The same holds true of ecosystems on land, although we think we understand the latter better.

When a chain is broken, the ecosystem has to readapt, which it cannot always do. Sometimes the damage is irreversible. The disappearance of a species affects not only the species it nourished but also those that nourished it, those with whom it lived in symbiosis, and those that recycled its waste, the latter being an essential function of an ecosystem.

The ecosystem of the marine kelp forest, whose giant stalks feed and shelter an extremely rich variety of sea life, is essential to the balance of life along the California coast. But this environment is among those that have been the most affected by the activities of Man over the last two centuries. Playful sea otters still live in the seaweed of the kelp forest. They eat an amount of food each day equivalent to one quarter of their body weight. Their diet consists almost exclusively of shellfish and other invertebrates such as urchins, crabs, starfish and abalone. Their magnificent fur attracted early traders, who nearly trapped them to extinction. The descriptions of La Perouse, commissioned by Louis XVI of France in 1786 to lead an expedition around the world, are very telling in this regard:

"In addition to the piety that has motivated Spain to devote huge sums of money to maintaining its missions and presidios, powerful reasons of State are now attracting the Spanish government to this area of America so rich in natural resources, where otter skins are as abundant as in the Aleutian Islands and other areas frequented by the Russians ... Mr Fages (governor of Monterey) assured me that he could provide as many as twenty thousand (of these skins) a year ..." {10}

It might have been difficult for Mr Fages to keep his word because 20,000 is the estimated population of sea otters along the entire coast of California at that time. Hunting then reduced these noble creatures to less than 100. They have since rebounded to about two thousand on the California coast, where they are nonetheless a protected species. But protection will not prevent their extinction. Competing with humans for food and struggling against the effects of marine pollution, sea otters are having great difficulty finding what they need to survive. Other species, including certain types of rockfish, have been even less fortunate; over-fished, they have completely disappeared.

Fur raft rides
crests and troughs
with meal on belly

crack, crack, cracking

drifts without a care
sloshes with ease
among the rocks

protected by an
outline of water

disappears in a
swirl of bubbles.

- Dan Linehan {11}

This information provided a basis for understanding the Native Americans who lived around the Bay of San Francisco during the centuries before the Spanish conquistadors arrived to take charge of their lives and their souls just a little over two hundred years ago. In what is now known as Silicon Valley, they had children, gathered acorns, plucked geese, sacrificed deer, sang, and danced for hundreds of years. They lived in small tribes - the Chitacpacs, Uypis, and Alsons, to name just a few - that rarely contained more than two hundred members. Each tribe usually had its own dialect These groups did not meet together and had no common chief. It is only because their ways of life were similar that today's historians refer to them collectively as the Ohlones. {12}

There is a lot to admire about the Ohlones. Their existence did not jeopardize the future. There is also much to learn. What did they do on their tiny tribal territories? How did they define them? Did they live in constant fear of wild animals?

Each Ohlone tribe had its own hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds. But, on or off their territories, they respected Nature as the basis of their existence. They understood instinctively that it was fragile and needed as much protection as they did, if not more. Nature was part of them - even better, they were part of it. The Ohlones were bound to the natural world like a child to its mother. It is said that, to them, plants were alive in the same way as animals and people are. And when they killed animals for food, they did so ceremonially, sometimes with all the ritual of a sacrifice. They respected life and were naturally bound to Nature.

Some may be surprised to know that the Ohlones never tried to rid themselves of the dangerous animals that lived all around them. In all likelihood, the thought never even crossed their minds. An environment without wild animals, even dangerous ones, would probably have seemed bleak to them, perhaps even difficult to accept. A California without grizzlies would have been as inconceivable to the Ohlones as a California without cars to us. They venerated these animals and believed in their spirits. Some peoples still hold such beliefs today. The present inhabitants of the grasslands of southern Chad still venerate the lion.

The Ohlones stayed the same from father to son, from mother to daughter, for thousands of years. They endured capricious seasons, powerful storms, dangerous seas, winds, and forest fires, never taking life for granted. Overcoming or avoiding these risks was accepted as a daily challenge. They were surrounded by uncertainty, in every bush and every sound at night; it was a permanent fixture in their lives. In their societies, innovation was a threat to the clan's equilibrium, whereas in today's societies, survival requires constant innovation. The quest for progress, as we know it, did not exist. The Ohlone man of progress, if there was one, would have been rapidly and strictly ostracized or otherwise silenced. Native Americans passed down the knowledge appropriate to their place from generation to generation. It was their store of expertise; it was also their life insurance.

Just as religious people today view God as having always been there, the Ohlones thought the Earth had no beginning. The Earth was their Goddess. They had enough trouble understanding Her without trying to understand what was beyond Her. What might be beyond what they saw in the night sky was no more meaningful to them than the universe beyond our solar system is to us. It was just an enigma.

Their village chiefs felt no need to transcend their gods in order to be respected. Their gods were here on Earth. In the land of the Ohlones there was no Gilgamesh {b}, as there was in Mesopotamia. The Ohlones had not yet taken the liberty of felling the mighty sequoia trees around them; it did not occur to them to form an alliance with a God of Heaven to wage war against the spirits of the forest. The Humbaba of California had nothing to fear from the Ohlones. And neither, it seems, did the god of the grizzlies.

That was all before the Spanish expeditionary corps arrived in the land reputed to be ruled by Queen Califia and her brave Amazonian maidens.

"A widely circulated historical romance of 1510 went on to relate that the island was 'peopled by black women without any men among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons. Their arms were of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts that they tamed and rode.' They were ruled by a Queen Califia, who was 'very large in person, the most beautiful of them all, of blooming years, strong of limb and of great strength'. The women kept their island pure of men with a scavenger corps of griffins that devoured men and boys.

"From that beguiling tale, familiar to the Spaniards who conquered Mexico in the 1520s, came the name of California, first applied to Baja California, which was thought to be an island, and then gradually extended northward to the limits of the Spanish domain in the Pacific Northwest." {13}

The meeting of the Spaniards and the Ohlones was a culture shock of terrific magnitude. The Ohlones were "earthlings" in the strictest sense, in all of their beliefs. The Spaniards were envoys of a king representing a God of Heaven, from Whom he believed he received all power to wield authority as he desired - including over the Ohlones and their lands.

What followed was more than culture shock; it was cultural annihilation !

Immersed in our Western way of life, it is difficult for us to imagine the life of an Ohlone. In spite of my best efforts to picture these Homo sapiens who lived for centuries along the Pacific coast, I am unable to separate myself from my own surroundings. They were bound to Nature and to place; I am permanently bound to today's materialistic way of life. The idea of being transported through time to a Native American village fills me with dread. There were no guarantees. In a natural ecosystem, I would have to embrace my destiny as a friend. It would be hard for me to give up my cities with their streets and shops, doctors, businesses, and news of the world beyond. The Ohlones' lack of knowledge concerning anything beyond the plain, the mountains, or the Pacific, would be deeply disturbing to me. I would have to surrender to the will of the spirits, to the wind and the rain, to tempests and to droughts. I would have to invoke the spirits that rule over love, cure sickness, change the seasons, and keep the bulrush boats afloat; the gods who make the geese and hummingbirds return from far migrations, and who paint the sky each day. All of this is beyond me. I cannot really climb into the skin of an Ohlone. I probably do not have the slightest idea of what life was really like for them.

Like many, I have been educated to accept man's exploitation of the Earth, and to watch as it accelerates, in both speed and depth, a little more each day. Since the time of the Ohlones, California has been transformed into a land that exists almost exclusively to serve human interests. The Native Americans struck a balance with Nature to ensure their survival. In their difficult and demanding environment they were extremely attentive to everything around them. An irresponsible attitude or too great a distraction and they would have been lost. Imagining their lives makes me wonder whether we, with all our comfort and assistance, even exist in the same sense that the Ohlones did. But the Ohlones could no more comprehend life in today's Silicon Valley or our new technological universe than we can comprehend their lives in the forest and along the seashore. Seeing the way we live, they might even think we were a different life form.

The Ohlones would scarcely believe that those who came clutching Bibles to tell them how to live would eventually become oil addicts. They would be even more surprised to learn that we would go to the ends of the Earth to procure our magic potion.


{a} Monterey is on the west coast of the United States about 100 miles south of San Francisco. The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to "inspire conservation of the oceans". Two million visitors including 80,000 school children come to the aquarium each year to learn about life in a marine environment.

{b} "Gilgamesh: The Mesopotamia Epic"

Gilgamesh was the Mesopotamian ruler of the city of Uruk. His life is the subject of civilization's oldest "book", inscribed on day tablets by a Middle Eastern scholar around 2500 BC. King Gilgamesh is 2/3rds god and 1/3rd human. He battles his rival, Enkidu, who lives in the wild in perfect harmony with nature. They become great friends. Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu to leave his flowery meadows and join him in civilization. Together they fight Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, in order to cut down the great cedars he protected.

This epic may be interpreted as the story of an authentic "natural man", Enkidu, who leaves the primitive life in the forest he loved and respected to adopt the urban life of Gilgamesh, who believes he is authorized by Heaven to exploit Nature for his own profit. Our modern civilization has its earliest origins in Mesopotamia.

{10} Translation from M L A Mllet-Mureau, Voyage de ha Perouse autour du Monde, (Paris, France: Imprimerie de la Republique, 1797) pages 275-276. Courtesy of Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology, Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

{11} Dan Linehan, Spindrifting Through Ocean Archways, Poetry of Monterey, February 2004, 8.

{12} Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way. Indian Life in the San Francisco Monterey Bay Area, (Berkeley, California: Heyday Books, 1978), 3.

{13} Paul C Johnston, Pictorial History of California, (New York: Bonanza Books, 1972), 13.

Bill Totten


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