Book Review: The Oholone Way

Still looking for a special gift for a friend? Getting nervous, time is running out? Well, for starters, you could consider some of the whimsical cards Christine from Idora Design is making available here. Or you could get a book (or both).

We've actually reviewed a number of books about or related to California native plants, and you can read all our reviews here. I've also added a librarything Bookshelf in our side bar. But before the year is over, I want to add two more reviews, and here's the first.

I'd long intended to read The Oholone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, by Malcom Margolin. I finally purchased the book in the San Francisco Arboretum store when I wanted to spend a little money as my way of leaving a donation. While the book, at 25 years old, may not have all the details completely right, I found it a fascinating and enjoyable read, and learned a lot.

The book paints a picture of what the Bay Area was like before the Europeans arrived. And this picture includes both the Indians who lived here and the natural world that surrounded them.

"Tall, sometimes shoulder-high stands of native bunch grasses covered the vast meadowlands and the tree-dotted savannahs...The intermingling of grasslands, savannahs, salt- and freshwater marshes and forests created wildlife habitats of almost unimaginable richness and variety." And here's where it gets interesting: "In the days of the Oholone, the water table was much closer to the surface...The explorers suffered far more from mosquitoes, spongy earth, and hard-to-ford rivers than they did from thirst." A very different world, even without summer rains. What would it be like?

The author then tells us about life in an Oholone Indian village. Villagers prepare food, gamble, sing and tell stories. All the food comes directly from the land: The men hunt and fish, and the women gather acorns, grasses, berries, and other fruits of the land. People also ate other animals including insects such as grasshoppers. And while hunter-gatherer peoples are often considered marginal, the Oholone where living in an area of abundance and used the available resources well. "...for century after century the people went about their daily life secure in the knowledge that they lived in a generous land, a land that would always support them".

The Oholones also harvested acorns, and different families had different seed meadows. "The Oholones, like most other California Indians, periodically burned their land. They did it deliberately, and by doing so they profoundly altered the ecology of the Bay Area...The first explorers who so lyrically and enthusiastically described the park-like forests and open meadows of the Bay Area had not stumbled upon a virgin wilderness untouched by human hands...They had instead entered a landscape that had been consciously and dramatically altered for centuries."

The book explores many of the aspects of Oholone life, including Marriage, Basketmaking, Dancing, Shamans, and, inevitably, the last two centuries, during which the missionaries almost obliterated the Oholone and their way of life. Some members of those tribes still remain, though, and a Wikipedia article has some interesting information.

I found the book offered so much food for thought. How do people interact with their environment? With each other? Is a society that is stable and changes little over thousands of years a good thing? What's the cost of such a society (not much individual freedom, for one)? Is it worth it? And I like learning new things, looking at things another way.

Furthermore, while the book is not about gardening, it is about how humans relate to the world around them. And when the Indians were collecting seeds, enjoying flowers, and making space by burning, was that not the start of what we now do when we garden?


Christine said…
Oh my gosh, thanks for the mention! I've always thought it would be cool to try to replicate a typical pre-settler Native American meal, but I'm not sure I'm brave enough for grasshopper. Although it's not specifically about gardening as you say, I'm sure the experiences of the Ohlone are just as instructive in understanding the environment we live in.
This book sounds very interesting. Your review, itself, is like a little story! Thank you Town Mouse!
Country Mouse said…
Funny thing, I'm also reading a book about California Indians. Your book sounds a lot more interesting. I love reading eye witness accounts from the first visitors here, and accounts of life here before the visitors decided to stay. We do live in a region of amazing abundance and variety of plant and animal life. I'm reading "California Indians and Their Environment" which is in the series "California Natural History Guides" by UC Press. My Inner Editor is itching to get out my red pen on that book. However where it shines is in the detailed section on native plants, and how the native people used them. It's a great reference. I better stop or I'll be doing my book review in the comments to your book review!
susan morrison said…
It feels a bit like we're moving in a circle. From utterly disrespecting a way of life that lived in harmony with the environment to gradually realizing our current lifestyles can be sustained indefinitely. Sounds like an interesting book and I'm not surprised it's encouraging you to make contemporary parallels.
Brad B said…
If I may, I just read another book from Malcolm Margolin called "The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs and Reminiscences." It's a collection of first hand accounts from peoples all over the state, some who remember life before first contact with Europeans/ Americans. Others from the present still continuing their traditions and from the generations in between. I highly recommend it.
ryan said…
That's a book I've meant to read, too. Not strictly a gardening book, like you say, but belonging in the Bay Area native gardeners' canon.