Living in Alta California
There was a time when oak trees were more common than humans, I remember that time. Years have passed since then when I was surrounded by my oak tree family and there was only one kind of human. In the autumn when our branches were heavy with fruit, they came to collect the fruit in their baskets and danced and sang around us. We joined in and sang and swayed to the music. Families spent a whole day collecting our acorns, the women shelled them, ground them into flour and made food for their families. They gathered in the shade of our branches leaning their warm bodies against ours to talk and share their stories. The sound of their voices was soothing and the birds and the squirrels that sat on our branches joined in the chatter. On special days, a medicine man collected plants and leaves to make potions for healing wounds or fevers. I did not mind when he took my bark and leaves because he would always say: “thank you.”
After a long time more people began to arrive, first the priests wearing robes and crosses, and with them, soldiers. They built houses and churches where they sang every day. The sound carried well and was very pleasant. The songs were different from the Indian songs that I was used to hearing. When I heard them mingle with the Indian songs, I thought they were not so different. I watched as the priests invited the Indians to sing with them in the church, some of them were eager to go because they liked to sing but others were scared and stayed outside beside me and the other plants and animals. The priests brought with them new kinds of plants and animals that I had never seen before. A favourite of the priests were birds called doves, that settled on the red roofs of the churches. They were many different colours, and they sang in a way that was unlike the birds who lived in my branches. The priests also brought cattle, goats, and sheep that changed the sounds and the smells around me. They planted great fields of potatoes, wheat, and grapes, as well as new fruit trees and lots of other vegetables. The soil was busy with all these new plants chattering to each other in different languages.
More and more Spanish people came to live in this place, and they called it Alta California. I was told this by a man named Guadalupe Vallejo, he spoke about his father and his uncle who arrived as the first settlers. All these new people needed houses to live in and food to eat. They cleared the land to build houses made of clay taken from the river and dried into shapes that could be placed one on top of another until a wall was built. A great deal of trouble was taken to build the houses, very unlike the Indian houses which were easy to make and to take down. Around each house, they planted huge areas of new food crops, most of which I did not know. One that I did recognise was the grapes because the priests had already grown them. Grapes covered a lot of the land and the smell when the fruit was ripe was overwhelming at first, but I got used to it.
Of course, to build all these houses and to grow all the new plants, great areas of land needed to be cleared. Many of my brother oak trees were cut down. The wood from their branches and trunks was used to make the windows and floors of the houses and for furniture and wagon wheels. I was curious about the wagon wheels, something I had never seen before. I saw them used as part of a machine to carry heavy stones and other heavy things. I felt then that the loss of my fellow oak trees at least provided something useful. Unlike the Indians, these newcomers did not say: “thank you.” When my brother oaks were felled, I felt the ground tremble with their pain and for a while I felt ill but gradually, I improved. I have seen Alta California slowly change since the days when it was just the Indians, plants, and animals.
Now I am the only oak tree in this place where I live.
[O]ne-fifth of the whole number of Indians were sometimes allowed to leave the Mission to gather acorns, dig roots, hunt, fish and enjoy a change of occupation […] The Franciscans in Alta California began to cultivate the soil as soon as they landed. The first grapevines were brought from Lower California in 1769 […].
Guadalupe Vallejo (1890), “Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California.”
Commonly known as: Coast Live Oak.
Native to: California.
Main properties: treatment of haemorrhages, chronic diarrhoea, skin sores. Also used for food, bows, baskets and shelters, firewood, and dye.
Appears in: Guadalupe Vallejo (1890), “Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California”.
Studies: Hispanic Studies.
Commonly known as: Sheena.
Interested in: The changes in environment and culture caused by the movement of people.
Favourite Plant: The Scottish thistle, emblem of Scotland and historically tied to a role in the battlefield triumphs. The thistle has no natural enemies because of the vicious spines that cover and protect it like a porcupine.