Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, ForestsTags , , ,

Sonoma County groups embrace return of the mighty acorn


Oak trees are among the most visible icons of the ancient Northern California landscape. With dark limbs curling above a carpet of grass, they lend an almost parklike visage to the foothills. The ten native species here also have seasonally dropped vast quantities of edible harvests of acorns, which support a bounty of wildlife and once fed indigenous people, who used fire and other tested practices to protect and nurture productive “orchards” in the woodlands.

The acorn was the original California cuisine, a reliable, nutritious staple on every menu that literally grew on trees. But after thousands of years, the venerable acorn was ignominiously edged out, to be replaced by imports of wheat flour, French fries, instant rice and corn flakes.

Despite its culinary disappearance, appreciation for the humble oak tree nut was never completely extinguished, and now it’s making a modest comeback, thanks to renewed interest in local, sustainable, functional and even foraged foods.

A mid-February workshop at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation entitled “Seed to Table: How to Process and Eat Acorns of the Laguna Watershed,” was nearly sold out several weeks in advance.

The wild acorn is also the focus of local tribal groups seeking ways to strengthen cultural ties, reclaim their rich California heritage, and restore links to healthy diets from ancestral lands. A local, indigenously produced new product, Acorn Bites, is set to hit the local market in February.


Posted on Categories Habitats, Land Use, WildlifeTags , , , ,

History of Sonoma Baylands, the ‘big sky country’

Editor’s Note: To the south, Sonoma and Napa counties melt into San Pablo Bay, a coastline of many marshy miles. When healthy, those wetlands function like natural sponges, filtering toxins and absorbing water from tidal surges and rising sea levels. Since 1996, the Sonoma Land Trust has been working to restore portions of that marshland, often breaching levees built by farmers to keep the water out. Here, historical ecologist Arthur Dawson explains the land’s history and its valuable environmental attributes.
The Sonoma Baylands have been nicknamed “big sky country,” and they are. Standing by the edge of the bay, there is a delicious sense of solitude. Millions of people live nearby, but you may not see a single one of them, even though the horizon stretches all the way to Mount Diablo and Tamalpais.
It wasn’t always this way. Fifteen thousand years ago you would have seen a wide valley, greened by countless creeks and dotted with the villages of the First Peoples. Across that valley flowed an enormous river, carrying half the runoff of California. A tremendous roar filled the Golden Gate, as all that water poured over a steep cascade on its way to the ocean, which lay beyond the hills that would become the Farallon Islands.
As the last ice age ended, the sea slowly rose and that valley was transformed into San Francisco Bay. Vast tidal marshes formed as pickleweed, tules and other salt-tolerant plants colonized the water’s advancing edge. This rich habitat attracted myriads of fish and birds. By necessity, the First Peoples periodically moved their villages to higher ground, but stayed close to the marsh because it was such a good place to hunt and fish.
With such abundant resources, the Bay Area was more densely populated than almost anywhere else in the Americas when the Spanish arrived in the 18th century. Groups along the marsh edge soon began losing their people to the missions. Some were taken forcibly, others chose to leave. Introduced diseases, against which they had no immunity, also took a heavy toll.
Read more at: Sonoma Baylands, the ‘big sky country’

Posted on Categories Land Use, WildlifeTags , , , Leave a comment on Santa Rosa was once Meadowlark Woods

Santa Rosa was once Meadowlark Woods


“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

via Sense of Place: Meadowlark Woods.

Posted on Categories Forests, WildlifeTags , , Leave a comment on Historical extent of oaks in Sonoma County

Historical extent of oaks in Sonoma County


Oaks are intricately tied to the human history of Sonoma County, California. The impressive size of individual trees, and the extent and beauty of the lowland groves are common themes in our county’s historical records. Early writers often compared the valleys where oaks grew to a park, with open spaces between the trees and little understory . This is a testament to the natural vigor of the trees themselves, and to the stewardship of native peoples, who had been tending the land here for thousands of years.

Quotations from early California settlers

“We passed through an extremely large roblar (trees very tall and thick) . . . running 3 leagues [8 miles]east to west, and a league and a half [four miles] north to south” — Jose Altimira, founder of the Sonoma Mission, describing Sonoma Valley in 1823.

“the valleys are . . . 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 oaks, though really far apart, appear to grow in dark and heavy masses” — Frank Marryat, describing Sonoma Valley in 1850.

Oak landscape as first recorded

The Spanish term “roblar,” commonly used in Mexican California, is not really conveyed by the English words “forest,” or “grove.” An “oak-dominated landscape” is probably close, if we imagine a place on the floor of a valley where oaks are prominent among a mosaic of grasslands, wetlands, and riparian corridors (see map on the following page). Within a roblar, oaks grow in varying densities, from savannah to denser woodlands. Historically, the roblars of Sonoma County were likely dominated by Valley oaks (Q. lobata) and their hybrids, though blue, black, Oregon and coast live oaks (Q. douglasii, kelloggii, garryana, and agrifolia) were also part of the mix.

Read more at Historical extent of oaks, Sonoma County, California.