Arthur Dawson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT/TOWNS
“Meadowlark Woods” is the translation of the Mishewal-Wappo name for the Santa Rosa area: whitsé la holma noma. At the time the Sonoma Mission was established in 1823, whitsé la holma noma was west of Mishewal lands, in Pomo territory. It was a place they passed through on their way to the coast.
Meadowlarks must have been abundant in those days. About the size of a robin, they have a yellow chest with a black V, and a distinctive song.
Meadowlarks build their nests in small depressions in the ground, often weaving grasses and stems together to create a weatherproof dome.
The Mishewal name is a clue to what Santa Rosa was like before it was (re)settled in the 19th century. As their name suggests, meadowlarks like open grasslands and the edges of marshes. “Meadowlark Woods” evokes a mosaic of grasslands, trees and wetlands.
Frank Marryat, an Englishman who visited in 1850, described it as, “sprinkled with oak trees, and it seems ever as if we were about to enter a forest which we never reach, for in the distance, the trees, though really far apart, appear to grow in dark and heavy masses.”
Grassland birds tend to have more complicated songs than those of forest birds. Perhaps it was this complexity, which more closely resembles human speech, that inspired the Coast Miwok, another neighbor of the Mishewal, to say that meadowlarks “talked too much” and “could speak any language.” (Mockingbirds have a similar reputation. Their scientific name means “many-tongued mimic” — they copy the sounds of other birds, insects, amphibians and even machines.)
Children were told not to speak to meadowlarks. They were likely to insult you by saying you were stingy, or mean, or that you ate too much. One 19th century story tells of a Chilean immigrant who was approached by a chattering meadowlark that taunted in Spanish, “Lopez ya no tiene mas whiskey” (Lopez has no more whiskey).
Today, there’s little risk of being mocked by a meadowlark in Santa Rosa. A few large oaks, the last survivors of Meadowlark Woods, can still be found in its urban neighborhoods. But to hear a meadowlark you have to leave the city and go to a place that remains open and grassy.
Contact Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.