Book Review: A State of Change

A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, by Laura Cunningham, Heyday (, 2010, 350 pages, $50.00

If you find it hard to imagine a California that predates today’s smog-smeared horizons, urban sprawl, and cornrowed crop fields, an age before cities, cars, or cattle, crack open the pages of author/artist Laura Cunningham’s A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. For those of you familiar with Richard Beidleman’s California’s Frontier Naturalists, the post-contact saga of the scientific world’s exploration and cataloging of California’s natural resources (reviewed here), think of Cunningham’s work as a prequel. But where Beidleman wove his story with words, Cunningham instead paints California’s pre-contact past in oils and inks in illustrations that breath new life into the unchecked rivers and rough-hewn hills of old, not to mention the bestiary of  wildlife that inhabited those hallow grounds.

Those who say there’s no going back have underestimated Cunningham’s speculative vision. Take for example the breath-catching cover illustration, a day-dreamy glimpse of a California grizzly padding through virgin hillsides dappled with needlegrass and prickly pear and buckwheat. Or her illustration of a manzanita sprig that, seemingly pressed between the opening pages, springs from the dedication page. In this vein, Cunningham’s thoughtful art reveals her vision of the pre-contact landscape of California, from the fur seal-lined coastal islands to the endless Engelmann oak savanna of the San Gabriel Mountains to the amber-glow sands of the Mojave Desert, based on years of well-researched, careful reconstruction. Even the ink work and sketches reproduced from her field notebooks betray the flex of muscle or a hint of breeze, sure evidence of long hours of studied observation.

Through her practice of historical ecology, a reconstruction process that consists of studying historical accounts, old photographs, archaeology, paleontology, reconnaissance visits, and other contemporary studies, Cunningham wields her forensic arts to peer into California’s past landscapes. Beginning with California’s golden grizzly, Cunningham then moves from the salt-flecked shoreline through a maze of marshes and brimful rivers into the bunchgrass-lands, sentinel oak woodlands, and fire-scoured scrublands. Traipsing through these vistas, we are transported to a time when hoofstock – elk, deer, buffalo, antelope – threaded through country-sides sewn with needlegrasses  and California condors were as common as crows.

My only regret – Cunningham’s too – is that her original project, “a comprehensive, encyclopedic work on California’s early natural history,” never came to pass due to “limitations of size,” leaving out further examination of the deserts and redwood forests, among other locales. Nevertheless, this is an adventure not to be missed.

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