Almost every day, while walking around Santa Barbara, my eyes and brain conspire to imagine what the ground I’m standing upon would have looked like centuries ago, before the pavement and progress of modernity conquered and transformed the landscape. I doubt my habit is unique; surely, the legions of hikers who head to the hills every weekend must be drawn there in part to experience a slice of this dream. And in a state where big cities commonly smash right into empty wilderness zones, this wondering of what once was is almost a natural Californian thing to do.
It’s surprising, then, that it’s taken this long for someone to take that vision, study it methodically, and accurately record it all in a book. That’s where Laura Cunningham and her recently released natural history masterpiece, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, come in. The naturalist/artist—who was raised in the East Bay, got a degree in paleontology, and then worked for decades as a biologist tracking alligator lizards, tortoises, and other species—began painting her ideas in 1980 and, for the past 30 years, has honed both her scientific research skills and artistic abilities. The resulting textbook-like tome blends her sketches and paintings with engaging and nutrient-rich first-person text, exploring landscapes such as the grassland, marsh, and shoreline, while also delving deep into iconic species such as the grizzly bear, salmon, and condor.
It’s perhaps the first popular publication in the relatively new field of historical ecology, which seeks to correctly depict the past in an attempt to better understand our present world and plan for the future. In anticipation of her slide show at the S.B. Museum of Natural History on Thursday, February 17, Cunningham, who’s described as a landscape detective, recently spoke to me from her home in Beatty, Nevada, just outside of Death Valley National Park.
Is historical ecology a new field? It’s actually been around maybe 10 or 15 years, although it was not around when I was in college, or I would have tried to major in it and get a degree. It’s fairly new, but I am definitely not starting it. It’s the first phase, and they are just beginning to come out with larger books explaining the theories behind it. There’s a lot of work to be done yet. It’s still pretty specialized. Most people don’t even know what the phrase is. But I think it’s gaining momentum.
You explain that the book is not about advocating a return to the past. So what is it? I just have always been a history buff. But I don’t live in Europe where there are interesting ruins. We have all this human history around us here, but it’s oral tradition from native peoples. But there’s still a lot of history that we can discover from the land itself—the animals, the plants, the geologic formations, how the land was shaped by rivers. If you’re a history buff, to me it’s just natural.
So you were a naturalist before learning how to paint? I’ve always been a self-taught artist and decided early on that’s not the way you make a living. So I became a biologist. … That paid the bills. But all along the way, I’ve been doing art. I went to museums and studied the masters. [Specifically,] the Hudson River School, which was a bunch of Eastern artists who came West with army expeditions and went by themselves to places like Yellowstone and Yosemite. They took their paint boxes and tried to sketch landscapes and landforms. Then came Albert Bierstadt, who made it into a big, fancy, exaggerated art form. I liked the look of that technique. Maybe I was born in the wrong time. It would have been really interesting to be one of those artist/naturalists, coming to a new land in California and seeing all of that. I made the book as if I was doing that, a naturalist coming here for the first time.
Your paintings are solid, but the motivation seems to be history and science rather than art. Would you agree? The one formal training I had was at UC Santa Cruz in the natural science illustration program (which has now moved to CSU Monterey Bay). I’ve always wanted to have a purpose for the art. It’s not just art for art’s sake, and that’s what the Hudson River School was all about. They always had a purpose, whether it was scientific recording or this was God’s land and we’ll record it for all mankind, the greater purpose. I was trained in science, so I thought art could be a useful tool.
And you began this work in 1980? Well, even when I was a kid, I would wonder what this place was like before the freeways and houses. In about 1980, I came out with real primitive attempts at a painting that reconstructed the landscape with elk and antelope and bunchgrasses. It was my first attempt, and I improved from then on.
Where in California is it most like it once was? Actually, that’s pretty easy. For the oak grassland area, it’s Tejon Ranch, which I hope they do make into a big park sometime. That still has the wildfire regime; it’s not overgrazed; it’s very pristine. And some parts of the South Coast ranges—that Cuyama Valley is really almost like it was, except for the Indians.
You focus on the natural processes that slowly shape the land. What fascinates you about them? My major in college was paleontology, so as a kid I really liked dinosaurs. It’s always amazed me that you had giant reptiles walking around the state and now they’re gone. That’s a big change. Looking at the last 10,000 years, I was interested in seeing how things change. That’s what caught my eye first, these processes, which are still kind of going on, with floods and wildfire. They’re not as big as T. rexes running around the world, but they are ecological changes that are subtly happening.
And you mention that sometimes you have to watch a landscape for at least a year to understand. Sometimes you have to study one thing for 40 years before you even pick up on it.
What’s the intent of this book? Do you expect to have it in classrooms? I never thought of that. The publisher never mentioned it being a textbook, but my intention was to teach people about California ecology and history. My original hope was that it would be a coffee-table art book. But when we got into the process, there was so much text there. … I’m trying to do volume two because we cut out a lot of chapters. We cut out the Southern California deserts, the redwoods … .
You mention that areas near Santa Barbara are good “relict” landscapes. The Cuyama Valley and Tejon Ranch and parts of the South Coast range. I spent a lot of time in your area. It doesn’t have the big cities that are getting suburbs all over the place. The ranches are a little larger, so they’re not as overgrazed. Generally, I’d say that area is in good shape.
Laura Cunningham will give an illustrated talk about her book A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (Heyday Books; $50) at the S.B. Museum of Natural History on Thursday, February 17, 7 p.m., and at the Wildling Art Museum in Los Olivos on Friday, February 18, 7:30 p.m. Both events are free.