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Tomol Route

Michael McGinnis

Tomol Route


Our Changing Relationship to the Sea

Ecology and Cultural Heritage


A subtle change of seasons is in the air, and reflected in light blue sky of the fall. The colors of each day are part of our Mediterranean heritage. Santa Barbara County is an essential part of California’s Mediterranean-type ecosystem or MTE. The five regions of the world with MTEs are characterized by mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. Extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, they cover only 2.25 percent of the Earth’s land surface and contain 20 percent of its named vascular plant species. These regions are found in parts of Australia, Chile, and South Africa; in and around the Mediterranean Basin; and in the California floristic province.

Michael McGinnis
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Michael McGinnis

The California floristic province is identified as one of the most important areas for biodiversity in the world, and our region is recognized as an area of high cultural and biodiversity value. The coastal area along our region has been inhabited by a diverse Chumash peoples for at least 8,000 years. The first inhabitants of the region lived on the islands off the coast for roughly 13,000 years.

Today, the high level of biodiversity that exists in our region is a consequence of the good stewardship of people who use the land and sea, but also the leadership of those in our region who had the foresight and skill to preserve and conserve. The future of our region’s biodiversity will likely depend on an extended sense of community and place that extends to the marine systems associated with the region.

In order to understand the importance of cultural heritage and maritime ecology, we need to place the area in the proper context. As with other Mediterranean regions, we are increasingly more vulnerable to shortages of water, food security issues, changes to our climate, and other potential threats and pressures. Our ecological and economic security is based on maintaining the goods and services provided by healthy ecosystems — the soil, clean water and air, and the presence of pollinators are among these goods are services. It is essential that we protect the coast and marine ecosystems of this region in order to protect our food security, and sustain our natural and cultural diversity.

A crucial part of our region’s history is the link to the sea and islands. Chumash peoples have crossed the Channel for thousands of years, and more recently, they have been returning to Santa Cruz Island in an annual celebration of renewal and reconnection. For the past several years, members of the diverse Chumash tribes have made the crossing on historic tomols or canoes. This is a remarkably symbolic event — we also need to make the connection to the ocean, and to better understand our maritime ways and patterns. Maritime culture is irrevocably connected to and dependent upon on a healthy coastal and marine system.

The links between healthy maritime ecosystems and cultures are irrevocable — as the oceanic commons is depleted, unique maritime cultures are lost. During the winter and spring of 2008, I spent six months as a Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Montenegro, along the Adriatic Sea. This coastal marine area is part of the Mediterranean Basin. I went there to study how other Mediterranean cultures were dealing with environmental problems. I lived in an old coastal village, the City of Kotor, which is surrounded by the southern-most fjord of Europe. The coastal marine areas of the region include a rich history of use and development. The loss of species associated with the Adriatic Sea is symptomatic of the changes that are occurring across the world’s oceans; the marine area is overfished and polluted, and the coast is developed and industrialized.

Back here in Santa Barbara I recognized that we face many similar challenges and pressures. Traversing the Los Angeles Basin, citizens scarcely recognize any natural rivers or creeks. Like most metropolitan cities, L.A. is subdivided by freeways, theme parks, shopping centers, and industrial and residential developments. Before 1850, the basin included two rivers that met on a coast wetland estimated to be 18,000 acres. Historians document the spring migration of birds; the bird abundance was so great that hunters had to cover their ears during their arrival.

Today, there are fewer than 200 acres of wetland associated with the area, and the coast has been transformed into the world’s third largest harbor. The Los Angeles River is approximately 51 miles of mixed riparian habitat and pavement, a condition that dates from the 1930s. There are 51 dams in the L.A. River watershed. The river enters San Pedro Bay at Queensway Bay in the southeastern corner of the City of Long Beach. Virtually the entire river has been channelized and paved.

In the early 1950s, the sociologist William Whyte, in an article for Fortune magazine, described the urbanization of southern California as “urban sprawl.” Urban sprawl and suburbanization continue to threaten human communities and ecosystems. In the Los Angeles Basin, there is very little “wild” nature left — or for that matter public space. By 1959, only 3 percent of coastal Los Angeles could be considered “wild.” By 1995, one percent of L.A. coastal habitats remained wild while 84 percent of the landscape was urbanized.

During the next several weeks, I will be describing some of the unique features of our maritime culture and ecology. Future articles will focus on some of the challenges and opportunities we face. I believe that the first step to renew our relationship to this region is to become better acquainted with the system of relationships that exists between the mountains, coastal watersheds, and marine environment. We have witnessed the dramatic changes to the general ecology of the South Coast — a place that has been shaped by generations of Californians and by indigenous peoples. The problem rests in how we organize to address common problems and challenges.

Making the connection to the sea can involve an extension of human identity: It starts with the identification of the neighborhood creek. In time, this identification with the creek can be extended to the animals and plants of an entire watershed. The poet and philosopher Gary Snyder refers to “watershed consciousness” as a way of thinking ecologically about the creek, river, and bay. “The watershed is the first and last nation,” he writes, “whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable. Races of birds, subspecies of trees, and types of hats or rain gear go by the watershed. The watershed gives us a home, and a place to go upstream, downstream, or across in.” A creek or river eventually enters the sea. So our sense of community and place extends southward and seaward, out to the islands on the blue horizon.

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