Dishing Dirt: Historical ecologist Arthur Dawson aims to be a native of where he lives.
–>Saying This Place Right
Arthur Dawson tells the story of the land
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Though he did not coin the title “historical ecologist,” Glen Ellen resident Arthur Dawson inhabits this role in a way that is indeed unique to him. His job, he says, allows him to be “part detective, part environmental scientist and part storyteller.” Such a sum of parts describes this Renaissance man’s disparate excellence. He shares some of his knowledge of lore and historical ecology when he appears in a storytelling event April 17 at the Sonoma County Museum as part of its “Sonoma Confidential” exhibit.
Dawson brings to his work a love of history, a degree in natural resources and biology and an adventurer’s call to trek the solitary natural places where only his feet can deliver him. “Historical ecology has brought together all these different skills I never thought I’d get to put together in one place,” he says.
Through his research at the Sonoma Ecology Center, where the Historical Ecology Project began, Dawson has created an archive that includes maps, statistics, excerpts from The Farmers’ Almanac and stories from elders about what the Sonoma Valley used to be like, covering everything from topography and agriculture to wild creatures and the people who settled there.
“I like to think of historical ecology as the story of the land,” Dawson says. “People come to a place, and however it was when they got there, that’s how they think it is supposed to be. There’s no accessible community memory, aside from elders, to tell people what conditions were like and how things have changed.
“There’s also what I would call a predominant mindset, especially among us environmentalists, that things are just getting worse all the time and that things were better 100 years ago, and better 200 years before that. To some extent that’s true,” he says, shaking his head, “but it’s a complicated story.”
Dawson cites the 1870 decline in steelhead populations in Sonoma’s creeks over the last hundred years as an example. “Most people would think, ‘Eighteen seventy, wow that’s a pretty pristine time.’ But if fish are an indicator, as we think they are, it was not a particularly good time for the valley’s environment.”
Global trends concern him more. On a community scale, he believes there is still a lot that can be done.
“My sense from the research is that fish are on the rebound again, and it shows that it’s not just a straight downhill story, that things are actually getting better, which means there are things we can do to help the environment along. If we get ideas of what the limits are to this landscape–which we’re doing–that, to me, is the foundation of sustainability.”
Dawson speaks about the Sonoma Valley like he has lived there all his life, but he was actually born and raised in Princeton, N.J. His affection for the valley, inspired at least partly, he says, by such East Coast similarities as stone fences, woods and meadows, is directly related to his involvement with its community in the 16 years he’s lived there.
His wife, Jill, was born and raised in the Sonoma Valley, and they elected Glen Ellen as their final stopping place after over two years of traveling in the late ’80s. Their travels took them through South America, Europe and Alaska, and it was during those years that Dawson the poet awoke.
“As a kid, I really wanted to be a writer and a poet,” he explains. “But I came from a very scientifically oriented family and got this really strong message that if you wanted to be something, you should be a scientist. My father was a well-regarded plasma physicist who was once short-listed for the Nobel Prize. I held the idea of being a writer in the back of my mind.”
But when Dawson and his wife were traveling, a friend loaned him News of the Universe, a book of poems edited by Robert Bly. “That book, and seeing how many different ways there are to live a human life, brought me back to realizing what you can say with poetry,” he says.
Thus began his attempt to record his journeys through poetry, a process, he says, that turned out to be much more difficult than he’d anticipated. He found himself spending weeks trying to express just one small incident to his satisfaction.
Like any poet, Dawson is easily captured by a phrase or inspired by an image. Hearing Gary Snyder read at the Sonoma Community Center in 1996 was the next catalyst. “Snyder said something that really stuck with me: ‘Our job is to become natives of where we live.’ I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have local kids writing about the natural and local history of the valley?”
Not only did he think it was cool, so did the Community Foundation and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, who funded the two-year project that saw Dawson leading poetry workshops, which were directly linked to the valley’s history, in every elementary school in the valley. “Developing the curriculum was tricky. Defining a sense of place is not easy. A lot of people have a feeling for what you mean, but when you try to nail it down, it’s slippery,” he explains.
Ultimately, a thousand kids took part in the project, and the resulting book, Where Oaks Play Catch with the Sun, is a striking collection of poems that belie the youth of the poets.
Inspired by the poetry of place-names, Dawson then wrote an article on the history of place-names. “A light bulb went on,” he remembers. Realizing he had the genesis of a book, Dawson did research on the Sonoma Valley, talked to “old-timers and looked into the Miwok language. I uncovered some stuff that nobody had known for a long time.”
Among the discoveries documented in his resulting book, The Stories Behind Sonoma Valley Place Names, now in its third printing, are such forgotten words as Pulpula, the name of a former Miwok village that stood where Cline Cellars is today on Highway 121. In researching further, Dawson found that “the closest-sounding word to that in the Miwok dictionary means ‘ponds.’ Sure enough, there were a bunch of ponds there, both historically and currently.”
Needing to establish a distribution system, Dawson the publisher was born, founding his Kulupi Press to help handle the work.
Kulupi is the Miwok word for hummingbird, but it also means “the mythological being that carries messages from one village to another,” he says, noting that he had what he terms a “very significant” dream about a hummingbird while in Brazil. His research into Miwok turned up this lucky strike.
“I am always hesitant using Native American names, because the amount of damage done to the culture is so great,” he admits, “but I felt like I earned the right to use that word through my research.”
The child who once wrote a book at the age of seven modeled after the Odyssey, and who lamented the bulldozing of his beloved woods behind his home, has not so much changed over time as he has integrated all that is most important to him.
“I feel like I have pretty much followed my bliss, and it’s led me directions I never expected,” he says.
Arthur Dawson blissfully dons his storytelling hat when he appears with other master tale-spinners Anita Jones and Ane Carla Rovetta as part of the Storytelling in the Galleries event on Sunday, April 17, at the Sonoma County Museum. 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. Noon to 4pm. Free. 707.579.1500.
From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.