Call it the Santa Barbara naturalist’s creation story: In the beginning, everything is a bush. On the first day, we discover some bushes are different than others. On the second day, we learn which is really a bush, which is a flower, and which is a tree. On the third day, we can name a plant or two or five or dozens. On the fourth day, we start to understand the role of each plant in the ecosystem. On the fifth day, we realize these bushes may also be useful to humans, specifically those who lived here centuries before us. On the sixth day, we come to cherish, respect, and protect the plants that surround us. And on the seventh day, we finally get our bible.
That day is today, and that bible is Jan Timbrook’s Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California. It’s the first comprehensive field guide to understanding how the plant world was utilized and mythologized by one of the most culturally developed and prosperous Native American people in all of North America. Decorated with botanical paintings by the Oak Group’s Chris Chapman and slice-of-life sketches by Timbrook, the guide is the product of nearly 30 years of research and writing. It was worth the wait.
“It’s my life’s work,” explained an excited Timbrook earlier this summer, as she awaited the finished copies of Chumash Ethnobotany. Timbrook started researching the book in 1978, when she first began working at Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History. Then assisting esteemed Chumash expert Travis Hudson, Timbrook realized that she had the three basic skills needed to complete this exhaustive, 272-page tome that covers more than 150 plant species, both native and introduced.
First, she was already familiar with deciphering the 300,000 pages of handwritten notes by legendary anthropologist John P. Harrington, who collected the bulk of ethnographic info from the last traditionally living Chumash. Second, she spoke Spanish, and could understand which plants were being referenced by Harrington and other anthropologists’ Spanish-speaking sources. And third, while an undergrad at UCSB, Timbrook had taken Bob Haller’s Plants of California class, an “inspiring, life-altering” experience that honed her flora-identifying chops.
Last week, almost 30 years after she began, with copies finally in hand, Timbrook seemed satisfied. She said, “We as researchers have a sacred responsibility to share the results of our studies with the public, not just give papers at scientific meetings and publish in esoteric journals. I hope this book will contribute to a wider appreciation and greater understanding of Chumash culture among the community at large.”
And it should, for the result of all her hard work is an easy-to-read guide that will appeal to plant experts, armchair anthropologists, naturalists young and old, and anyone seeking a deeper understand of the natural world around them. Unlike a dry scholarly textbook or utilitarian guidebook-though like a combo of both, it does list plant names in English, Spanish, Latin, and a variety of Chumashan languages as well as a pronunciation guide, multiple indices, and an exhaustive bibliography-the writing is lively and engaging. That’s because Timbrook worked especially hard on her prose, for, as she explained, “Anthropology is so interesting, but anthropologists are some of the worst writers in the world. It’s a glimpse into how other cultures think. What could be more fascinating that that?”
Particularly fascinating for Timbrook were the numerous Chumash names that reflected the appearance of certain plants. For yarrow, which has bushy white flowers, the Chumash from Santa Ynez said “steleq’ ‘a’emet,” their word for squirrel tail. And, more humorously, the Chumash called blue-eyed grass “sh’ichki- ‘i’waqaq,” which means “frog’s g-string” and indicates that loin cloths may predate the Mission period.
As for the living Chumash, Timbrook said they have been “tremendously supportive” and she hopes that this book will help them “carry on some part of their ancestors’ knowledge about the plant world.” She said, “We’re all links in the chain of transmission of cultural knowledge.”
But while it may be okay for the modern Chumash to reconnect with forgotten native knowledge, Timbrook makes it very clear that she hopes no one uses her book to start trying to live off the land like the Chumash did. “I do not want people to do that, principally because there is so little native flora left at all,” she said. “It’s irresponsible to harvest wild plants for your own use if you don’t need to.” Instead, Timbrook hopes this book will cultivate more respect for the flora, and result in more protection rather than exploitation. Basketry plants such as Indian rush and dogbane hemp are particularly endangered, because many of the marshes where they thrive have been paved over.
But, in the three decades of writing the book, she must have sampled her research, right? “I like acorn soup,” admitted Timbrook. “That together with roasted venison or smoked fish-they’re great flavor accompaniments.”
Menu suggestions aside, this book represents a collection of knowledge never offered by one single source. “Not all of the Chumash knew all of the plants,” said Timbrook. “No one individual would be the repository of all that knowledge.” Or, as Chumash source Maria Solares is quoted at the end of the book, “Only an old-time mountain Indian would know the names of all the plants that grow in the mountains.”
Well, Santa Barbara, this naturalist bible is the best link to that “old-time mountain Indian” and will surely be enjoyed by generations to come. We’ve presented condensed and edited excerpts from Chumash Ethnobotany and paintings by Chris Chapman.
We hope you enjoy this wisdom responsibly.
From the wood of the California juniper the Chumash made sinew-backed bows which always retained their shape, no matter how much they were bent. The stave was cut green, allowed to dry, then worked until it was even and smooth. :
The berrylike seed cones of the juniper were ground up into a bright yellow meal called hukhminash, which had a sweet but resinous flavor. Fernando Librado tasted it but had to spit it out-he said there were two Indian foods he could not stomach, whale and mulus. Most of Harrington’s consultants had eaten it, but few had seen it prepared.
California poppy figures in Chumash beliefs and myths. According to Fernando Librado, people used to say that poppies were the ruin of girls. Boys would take girls out gathering poppies, and the flowers’ beauty would overcome the girls and cause them to yield to the boys. :