Winner of WOLFoundation 2011 Essay Competition

I serve on the board of the WOLFoundation, a global non-profit focusing on environmental issues. We recently judged entrants for the 2011 essay competition, and this is the winning piece.

An Orange County Almanac: adventures in suburban ecology

By Jason M. Brown, Utah Valley University

Abandon nature all ye who enter here!

My non-stop flight from New York to LAX is arriving and the crackle-soft voice of the flight attendant shifts me in my window seat. Through the small window my hometown of Yorba Linda creeps up the foothills of Orange County, indistinguishable from the rest of the Southern California megalopolis. The eastern forests had melted into crop circles; then into meandering shades of desert-tan. Suddenly, the tangle of North-South ridges that divide Southern California’s coastal plain from its high desert had given way to the bedazzling microchip geometry of sprawling civilization. With the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other, the lines that divide culture from nature were almost visible.

You see, as a kid growing up in Orange County, nature was this place we drove to. Each summer, my family would pack into the minivan for a whirlwind tour of Yellowstone, Yosemite or Mt. Whitney. In the cooler months we would camp among the Joshua Trees of the high desert.

It didn’t seem to bother us that subdivisions and mini-mansions steadily devoured the chaparral hillsides and historic orange and avocado orchards of our once sleepy corner of the county so long as each summer we could flee to pristine places far from the smoggy, fast-paced life of the suburbs.

Orange County was once promoted as a paradise; boasting mild temperatures and millions of acres of lush irrigated vegetable gardens and fruit orchards surrounded by undulating hills of oak and sage. But after the post-WWII boom, the “Orange” in Orange County became just another hue on the planners’ pallet: pastel, pavement, repeat. In fact, one might get the impression that ecology, a word we tend to use to describe nature does not happen around here. That’s certainly what I thought when I left home as a 20-something hoping to make a connection to nature through various back-to-the-land internships and graduate degrees. Nature, I thought, was long gone in and around Orange County. I was certainly not alone in seeing the world this way, our modern civilization has inherited 500 years or so of talking about the human world (culture) as totally separate from just about everything else (nature). Look at any map of the world, and the defining boundaries are those between land and sea, countries, and sometimes, depending on the map, nature parks. The lines we have drawn around nature, both in our minds and on maps, have become as real as the boundaries between countries.

Southern California is full of these arbitrary lines. Not only between the United States and Mexico, the land and the beaches, but also along the myriad National and State Parks that embellish the coasts and Sierra Mountains of the Golden State. But each time I return to the County of Orange—for Christmas, birthdays, backpacking trips with my brothers—the boundaries that seemed so clear to me as a college student blur just a little bit more, and the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are slowly melt into thin air. Here is what I mean.

A coyote drank my latte!

My father loves to golf; I don’t. But when I’m visiting home I’ll play. Dad and I catch up, and I watch the turkey vultures ride the thermals that rise off the chaparral hillsides above the emerald green golf course near my childhood home. As we approach the ninth hole, we top a rise that looks out over the fairway and surrounding landscape—hills above, houses below. As dad tees up and waggles into position, I notice that just off of the north side of the path, the golf course abruptly ends. The contrast between the electric-green grass and the brittle-brown beyond it comes into stark and absurd relief. Bewildered, I walk the edge between Kentucky-blue and tumbleweed-tan, using my 6 iron as a tight-rope balance. It’s an eerie feeling, like seeing the camera pan out of an autopsied living room movie set, a place within a place. I raise my open palm to my brow to block the sun and plant my six iron-flag; I have found the fabled edge of culture’s flat-earth!

Suddenly, a lone coyote trots into view through the tumbleweed and sagebrush and we both freeze. She puts her nose to the ground and nervously shifts her weight between her grey-brown front paws. The fire in her eyes reflects the green behind me. Realizing I’m not a threat or a meal, she lopes onto the golf course just as my father blasts a muffled curse at his hook shot and we watch the coyote disappear into a hedgerow.

For Orange County residents the coyote is a wild animal out of place. Unlike dogs, who are treated like members of the family (culture) and unlike the iconic wolves howling in the wilderness (nature) the coyote defies any neat categorization. Reading the newspaper a few days later I stumble across an interesting page: the online Orange County Register’s “Coyote-watch.” The page features an interactive Google map that allows users to post recent coyote sightings in their neighborhoods (the reported sightings appear as paw prints on the map). Readers should visit the page with caution however, as it reads like a domestic-violence evidence file with gruesome pictures of battle-scarred dogs and interviews with shaken pet owners. One story profiled an award given by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles to the “Hero Dog of the Year.” This year’s recipient was a wire terrier named Ronald (after Ronald Reagan of course, this is Orange County). When a coyote entered his owner’s backyard over the back fence, Ronald courageously attacked the invader before it made a happy meal out of his companion, a silky terrier named Anna. Apparently the coyote mistook the backyard for a drive-thru.

The coyote’s inability to discriminate between suburban animals we hate (like rats) and suburban animals we love (like silky terriers) has gotten them into trouble with Orange County residents who have lost pets to these cunning hunter-foragers. In my conversations with friends and family, some take an empathetic tone: “Well, coyotes were here first, and with all the houses being built it’s no wonder they wander into our neighborhoods, they’re starving!” This is the classic image of a steadily advancing bulldozer over untouched wilderness. While this is certainly the case for many species unfortunate enough to have evolved on beach front property, coyotes, have in fact adapted quite well to the suburban landscape, and frankly made themselves right at home.

Here is what I mean. An ecosystem is an amorphous blob of a word that attempts to describe the interactions and relationships between all the living and non-living things in a given place. An ecosystem can support for example, a limited number of plants and animals. Plants of course make up the foundation of the food web because they produce their own food through photosynthesis. In a dry Mediterranean climate like Southern California, sun is abundant, but water limits the kinds and amount of plants that can grow. This means that even fewer of the animals that eat those plants such as mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, etc. can find enough food and reproduce. This also means that even fewer of the predators that eat mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, etc. such as coyotes can get enough food and reproduce.

Long before white people invented the suburbs, coyotes were present in fairly large numbers in Southern California. However, unlike many other species that have significantly declined or even gone extinct with the development of our peculiar habitat known as the suburbs, coyote populations have actually increased. While exact numbers are not known, some estimate that coyote populations in Southern California are some 10 fold larger than pre-colonial times.

How could this be? As we gradually shifted the sage and chaparral lands into irrigated lawns, gardens, and suburban woodlands we greatly increased the varieties and quantity of green plants that could survive here. This allowed more mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, etc. to get enough food and reproduce. This in turn allowed predators like coyotes to get more food and you guessed it, reproduce. What’s more, to a coyote the high density of defenseless bite-sized domesticates (in the form of dogs and cats) we keep are much easier targets than the rodents they are accustomed to catching; and being omnivores, coyotes have no qualms about raiding a dumpster for a midnight snack.

So between the increase in wild rodents to hunt, a plentiful buffet of house pets to choose from, and vast quantities of curbside Diners, the suburban coyote seems to have it pretty good. What’s more, because these suburban coyotes are getting plenty to eat, scientists are observing decrease in the amount of time they spend hunting. Whereas a coyote in say Yellowstone National Park may have to forage for up to 60 percent of its waking hours, suburban coyotes spend that time resting. That’s right, suburban coyotes are only working for two and half out of seven days of the work week! So while my family vacationed in Yellowstone; Yellowstone coyotes would prefer to spend the summer months in Orange County!

Some residents of Orange County would have animal control exterminate these pet-eaters.  But as long as we are playing the game of suburban ecology, we will probably keep hearing the yip of yuppie coyotes foraging through Starbucks dumpsters after a morning jog through the park!

Eucalypts go home!

A few days after golfing with my dad and the coyote, I decide to go for a walk. While strolling through the familiar streets of my childhood, I stumble upon a cherished row of eucalyptus trees that lines a nearby street. A pickup truck’s worth of workers are cleaning up after their morning task, and the soft consonants of Spanish bounce from mouths to ears. It appears that they have just finished de-limbing one of the eucalyptus trees which now stands stark and naked among its shaggy-clad companions. One of the workers prepares to make a final cut at the base of the trunk. As the chainsaw sputters and chokes, my mind begins to wander in sync with the whine of metal teeth incising the fat, tan trunk. I passed by these trees almost daily growing up and never really put them in any kind of historical or ecological context. The trees were old, no doubt planted to protect orange groves against the Santa Ana winds. The first few inches of the saw’s sweep transect the trees outer bark and youngest growth rings. The tree rustles and I imagine the blade cutting through the rings that correspond to my 30 years of life on this earth, growing up here in Orange County. It would pass by rings made during my time in graduate school and college, the two years spent as a Mormon missionary in the Dominican Republic, high school, my first kiss, first camping trip and my birth.

The rest of the crew stop their tasks and begin watching the tree for signs of tilt as the earnest blade continues past growth rings made in the 1970s, when the orange and avocado groves the eucalyptus protected from wind were being swallowed whole by subdivisions and strip malls (my own home was built during this time). As the blade digs deeper and the once-flesh-now-dust flies, it passes the 1960s, 50s, 1940s, 30s and 20s. With the blade buried deep inside the bole of the tree, it approaches the growth rings of 1913, the year the first Avocado trees were planted and Richard Nixon was born just down the street from where I stand. Finally, the sawyer cuts through the teetering eucalyptus’ infant growth rings which must have been laid around 1910, when the Janss Investment Company purchased a portion of the Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana and began subdividing it into 10- and 20-acre agricultural plots which would later become my hometown of Yorba Linda.

In a snap and a crack the truncated bole thuds to the path along the sidewalk and the sawyer quickly begins to buck it into manageable sections. One of the other workers directs the few backed up cars to pass. As I walk past the downed eucalyptus and crew, I catch the tale-end of a scowl cast by an older woman in a black Mercedes as she surveys the scene and speeds off. For many in California, illegal immigration is a touchy subject and perhaps she is sizing up the tan-skinned workers as possible suspects.

Like the Europeans, Mexicans, Chinese and other ethnicities that call California home, eucalyptus trees are immigrants. Native to Australia, they were brought to California during the gold rush of 1849, with one of the thousands of Australians leaving Sydney who hoped to strike it rich. And like the immigrants they accompanied, the eucalyptus found fertile soil and a favorable climate in the rare California coastal sage and prairies. For a few years thereafter the eucalyptus was officially promoted as a “wonder tree” that would save California from an impending timber famine and whose pungent leaves were reputed to have medicinal properties. Many soon realized however, that the structural properties that gave eucalyptus its reputation as a good timber tree had come from the wood of centuries-old groves in Southern Australia. The wood of the fast growing young trees, saturated with water warped and cracked when harvested in California and was therefore useless. Although commercial production came to an abrupt halt, the tree naturalized throughout the coastal region of central and southern California.

In the age of ecological correctness, the eucalypts have become an easy target for those who strive for a kind ecological purity. Despite the literally hundreds of non-native species that have naturalized since the European colonization of the Americas, the Eucalyptus has in recent years been singled out as a symbol of a gaggle of ecological menaces known as “invasive species.” In his 2002 article “America’s Largest Weed,” ecologist Ted Williams calls for the total removal of eucalypts or, as he refers to them “eucs.” For purists like Williams, eucalypts simply do not belong in California, despite their ability to adapt to our climate.

California ecologists have gone so far as to remove eucalypts from public lands in order to restore native chaparral and coastal ecosystems, despite the fact that there are still hundreds of “non-native” plants throughout the parks. In the Channel Islands National Park, just off the coast of Sothern California, officials have decided to keep some eucalypts that are close to historic structures as part of the cultural heritage of the Parks, while removing them from other parts of the island.

It is striking that the language used to talk about eucalypts as an ecological menace and the language used to demonize illegal immigrants as social pariah is so similar. Both discourses make use of epithets, “eucs” or “wetbacks” to distance and dehumanize. Both attempt to demonstrate destructive habits, ecological (invasive) or economic (taking away jobs). Both are derided for uncontrolled reproduction and the danger they pose to native ways of life (whether that be human or “native” ecosystems). In a strange twist the eucalypts are anthropomorphized in order to be de-humanized, and the illegal immigrant is dehumanized to be de-naturalized.

The debate over whether or not to remove eucalyptus trees from spaces delineated as “nature” exposes how this stark boundary between culture and nature is not so black and white. Advocates of eucalypt preservation accuse people like Ted Williams of ecological purism, accusing him of a kind of ethnic cleansing in the name of native floral supremacy. Williams and other ecologists have argued that protecting native species is, in the end, about protecting biological diversity in the face of the homogenizing effect of exotics.

Ecology is about interactions. When invasiveness as an ecological category is about delineating which plants and animals do not fit our preconceived notions of what is “natural” we forget that ecology is not a snapshot of a single place and time; it is dynamic and evolving. It is revealing that in the case of the Channel Islands National Park, Eucalypts were kept only around cultural sites. In this case, eucalypts were interpreted as being tainted by culture and as such are not fit to act out their evolutionary agency on their own terms within spaces been deemed “natural” by cultural institutions.

From culture/nature to culture-nature

As I sit in the airport terminal waiting for my return flight to the east coast, I notice a small sparrow dip and weave through the airport corridors. Orange County is a living monument to our attempt to separate culture and nature. We have laid an iron curtain between the two domains, patrolled by pugnacious pups named after cold warriors. But just as in the cold war we didn’t seem to realize how desperately communists and capitalists needed each other, the domains of culture and nature are not so different after all. Even a place as developed and overrun by Homo sapiens as Southern California shares something of the infinite complexity that emerges between the cracks. The good news is that the cracks are getting bigger as we realize that our social environment is intimately connected with the physical environment. The moral to the story is not that one can find “nature” in Orange County if one would just look hard enough; nor is it that intact, robust ecosystems are wholly cultural constructions. In a world of increasing ecological catastrophe the task ahead is not increasing the strength of our will over an ever passive nature. Nor is it about getting back to some pristine primal wonderland. The task is to dismantle the strictly enforced boundaries we have set up between culture and nature and to watch what happens in the chaos.

Jason M. Brown grew up among the vanishing Orange Groves of Orange County, California. He studied anthropology at Brigham Young University and in 2011 completed two masters degrees at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School in Forestry and Theology. He is currently teaching adjunct at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College where he teaches Ethics and Values and World Religion. Jason is broadly interested in environmental philosophy and theology and is working with the Utah Interfaith Power and Light to reduce the carbon emissions of congregations in Utah. This summer he will be working as a forester for the US Forest Service (and blogging about it at www.utahforeststewards.org). He also blogs at www.barefootanthropology.blogspot.com.


6 thoughts on “Winner of WOLFoundation 2011 Essay Competition

  1. Thanks for this article. As a native Californian living in Australia, it’s interesting to see the parallels between the two locales. Indeed, there are many parts of California that seem to have as many eucalyptus as southeast Queensland. Many Australians also have personal issues with immigrants – the difference is they have a stronger border.

  2. 16 times is not enough!!! We need you back …… I would love to attend one of your presentations in Australia as I have only recently discovered your excellent books and website.

  3. I’m taking some vicarious pride in this remarkable article as for six years I served on the board of the Center for The Advancement of Leadership at Utah Valley University where he teaches, and my own academic background is also anthropology. Great insights and compelling writing style. Thanks for posting it.

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