I've spent years traveling the state of California, hiking Nature Conservancy preserves and camping state parks, but in certain places like the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, all that is left to explore are postage stamp remnants, scraps no larger than Wal-Mart parking lots, that have been poorly protected from boaters' beer cans, hunters' rifle reports, and the onslaught of nonnative weeds and grasses. To be exact, only 1% of those valleys are left untilled or unpaved. The Cosumnes Preserve, Paine Wildflower Preserve, Woodson Bridge and Kern National Wildlife Refuge ? despite the extent of my travels, I need to see more of those valleys than even hiking can offer, to not only visualize and comprehend their original landscape, but to feel it somehow, and for that I have returned again and again to Up and Down California
, a glimpse of the state's pre-suburbia splendor through the lens of William Henry Brewer.
Brewer's account has been a wormhole to another time, my teacher and transporter and standby for ten years. Admittedly, I am geography obsessed: I often fall in love with a particular locale upon first visiting it, be it southeastern Arizona, coastal British Columbia, or the Delta South, and read everything I can on the subject, feverishly, like a gambler burning through all his dough. So maybe Brewer's articulate detailing of that early California landscape appeals to the freak scholar in me, but as Journal of the West noted, the book "seems to contain information for everyone regardless of one's interests."
William Henry Brewer, born in 1828 in Poughkeepsie, New York, grew up on a farm in Enfield, New York. In 1848 he attended Yale and later studied natural science in Europe, and in 1860, shortly after the death of his wife and newborn son, Brewer was invited by Josiah D. Whitney to become the chief botanist of the California Geological Survey. The Survey, intended to produce a full and scientific description of the state's rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, was one of the most ambitious geological surveys ever attempted and yielded a vast amount of previously unknown information, including the first description of Kings Canyon. No matter, the Survey can hardly be said to have fulfilled its the original purposes. Much was learned about the mining regions and the nature of the auriferous gravels; the topography of the state was fairly well mapped; and great progress was made toward an understanding of the geological history of the country. Save for the maps, however, it is doubtful whether any immediate economic advantages can be traced to Whitney's work. Certainly no new mineral fields were discovered and no direction was given to the mining industry; on the other hand, it was during that trip, that he wrote the letters that would be his greatest contribution to Western science writing.
Brewer was with the survey in California for four years, from 1860 -1864, when Los Angeles had 4,000 inhabitants. He traveled 14,000 miles by foot, steamship, and horseback, from the eastern deserts through the soggy salt-crusted Central Valley and up to the wet, forested coast, documenting what he saw the entire way. Strangely, Brewer didn't set out to write a complete book or expedition journal; he was just filling his leisure hours ? those times off the trail, resting his saddle sores by a campfire ? writing affectionate, dryly humorous, and graphic letters to his brother back East. It is these notes and letters, 570-pages worth, that were eventually published as his "journal" by Yale University Press in 1930 as Up and Down California.
Kept in print by the University of California Press, Up and Down California has the feel of an adventure story. The expedition party sleeps outdoors in this vast wild territory in fine and foul weather; their horses sink hip-deep in muck, and one dies; the men walk into thick sandstorms, get tailed by curious Indians, encounter cattle thieves, outlaws, and murderous drunks. Yet one of the few times Brewer gets sick is when he spends a couple of nights in a hotel room. Each place and incident is described so thoroughly and so clearly in Brewer's letters that there is no need for amplification or for summary.
After the death of his wife and newborn son, California provided a rebound from Brewer's earlier misfortune. "He reacted with much the same delight that tourists, from then down to the present, have felt when traveling the byroads and trails of the Pacific Slope. His jottings convey a sense of wonder evoked by magnificent scenery and the grand variety of land forms and vegetation" (Choice).
If you're an outdoor nut with a lust for wild landscapes like me, the chapter headings alone will wet your whistle: Tejon ? Tehachapi ? Walker's Pass; "The Diablo Range South"; "West and East of the Sacramento [River]." It's manna for the armchair traveler who dreams of exploring landscapes that no longer truly exist.
Because of the limiting nature of letters, Brewer's writing had to be compact, but like a good haiku, there is great nuance, passion, and information packed into each entry, grand portraits contained within single sentences. I've read the book at least ten times, taking notes as I go, cruising my finger up maps to visualize the course of his travels. In fact, I keep a color-coded map of the state's original vegetation beside me when I read it, so I can see what he saw, understand the extent of the tule marshes that once stretched for miles outside Bakersfield and the riparian jungles of grapevine and oak that once threaded waterways outside Fresno; that way I can grasp the ecological diversity of the sunshine state and understand the grand scale of ecological changes that modern agriculture and urbanization have inflicted.
Beyond ecology, the book also serves as a sort of social record. Brewer stayed with a few families on his travels, some in the burgeoning Bay Area, others on hot, dusty ranches like the San Emigdio Ranch and one below Pacheco Pass, and he provides descriptions of life on such isolated homesteads and the social, agricultural, and economic life of the state. His descriptions of the rural properties, however brief, inspired me to dig up historic photos and maps of these old Spanish and Mexican ranches so I could see the desolation the people were living in when Brewer stopped by their home for food and rest.
Maybe this is the TV-watcher in me, but the only problem I've encountered with the book is visual: old editions don't include a map of Brewer's travels. I had to find a map online, print it out, and tape it to the inside cover. Fortunately, there's a 2003 edition that comes complete with maps that trace Brewer's route.
Brewer's contribution is unique, on par with William Bartram and John James Audubon. Where some scientists preserved now extinct birds and rare plants, and others lent their names to previously unknown species, Brewer preserved a whole state's landscape in words. His journal is the formaldehyde that the old California remains in, pickled and slightly faded, but still here, living on, like Walt Disney's head, for all curious modern onlookers to see.