by Bob Neale
Lucky to be where I am
I have the best job in the world, though sometimes I take it for granted. I’ve found that the best time to renew my appreciation for my job is when I find some critical field work to accomplish, some task that requires a long contemplative walk across the landscape. There is something about paying attention to the land that reduces my blood pressure and takes the strain off my shoulders.
Often, what I am looking at is simple: Is the fence in good shape? How are the oak trees that the kids planted last year faring? Other times, I find myself standing on a ridge-top looking across the landscape, breathing the crisp fall air, watching the low angle light slice through the clouds and cast color across the field, thinking about how it all fits together. At times like that, I think how lucky I am to be able to view it. It makes me feel like I’m the first one to see this, to experience this wonder and joy.
But I’m not. In the moment, it can be easy to forget that people have been living in Sonoma County for thousands of years. Wherever you go, a Pomo, Miwok or Wappo person once stood and contemplated the same landscape. There isn’t a creek or coastal bluff that hasn’t been home to countless generations before us, or a grassland, oak woodland or redwood forest that hasn’t been hunted. Our Sonoma County landscapes have been, and still are, sacred places for many.
Protecting the cultural landscape
We at Sonoma Land Trust believe that protecting the cultural landscape is a very important part of our land conservation work in the county. Almost all of our properties have important cultural resources, both historic and prehistoric, that require special care and attention in order to preserve their integrity and to respect the cultural beliefs associated with these places.
Many people have helped us to develop our cultural resource protection practices over the past few years. Tribal members from the Kashaya Pomo and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have provided many hours and much patience teaching us how to be respectful of their culture and how to recognize and protect the sacred places we find on the land now entrusted to our care. Sonoma State University students, Leslie Smirnoff in particular, provided us with important introductions to these tribes and developed our first comprehensive Cultural Resource Management Plan. Members of local historical societies and friends of Glen Oaks Ranch have helped us to understand the historical context of many of our buildings and the importance of caring for these places so the stories they hold can be told and remembered.
As a result, the land management practices of our staff and our organization have changed. In partnership with SSU and their Anthropological Studies Center, as well as local archaeological firms, we now survey and identify sensitive cultural areas so we can both understand the ways that people may have utilized the landscape, some of their stories and how we can protect those places. Repairing buildings, maintaining roads, even doing restoration activities can harm sensitive sites, so our first goal is to know where they are so we can either avoid working in the area or modify our projects.
When Ingrid and Corby lead our On the Land activities, people are fascinated by the stories. Our hikes often occur near cultural places — but we can’t tell you where many of them are. Why? Because collecting artifacts causes a lot of harm, often destroying sensitive sites and disrespecting sacred places. Imagine someone sneaking into your local church in the early morning hours, digging a hole in the floor and stealing things from the graves — essentially the equivalent of artifact-collecting. Thus, in accordance with the best management practices recommended by the archaeologists and in keeping with the commitments we have made with the tribes, we can’t share information about location, although we do try to tell stories about the past so people can feel that connection.
Connected to history
There are things that everyone can do to help protect our human history and collective experience. Because Sonoma County has such a rich human history and because natural resources were so plentiful, it is common to find projectile points, ancient ruins and other artifacts when out hiking. Should that happen, please leave the artifacts where you found them — don’t slip them in your pocket. By leaving them in place, you preserve the scientific context and more importantly, you respect the cultural importance of the people associated with the artifacts.
And isn’t it the wondering, the contemplating and meditating that is the important thing? Imagine, when you see that obsidian point on the ground, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, somebody was wandering this path in the course of their day. What were they thinking? What were they looking at? Imagine the emotions, the thoughts, all the things we share and how our lives are different. Then, wander on your way back to the office with its flickering screens and carry on with your life -- a little more relaxed, a little more connected to nature and, hopefully, a little more connected to humanity. See ya on the ridge-top.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.