by Laura Cunningham, Heyday, 2010, 352 pages, $50
El Cerrito Plaza is a collection of stores and restaurants surrounded by acres of parking lot adjacent to busy San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay. But what did it look like 500 years ago? In A State of Change, artist-naturalist Laura Cunningham imagines and reconstructs this and many of California’s lost landscapes.
Cunningham has been traveling the state for the past 30 years to observe and sketch “semi-pristine” landscapes, relict habitats, and declining species. Those sketches and field notes, along with historical accounts, old photos and paintings, and research in biology, ecology, paleontology, and more, have informed her visions, which she translates into extraordinary paintings with deep perspective and a timeless feel. Though we’ll probably never really know how California looked before Europeans arrived, Cunningham’s paintings give us glimpses of thriving ecosystems that have all but disappeared in just a few hundred years.
Designed like an artist-naturalist’s journal, A State of Change is richly illustrated with lively sketches as well as evocative paintings. Detailed text addresses topics both broad and focused, from climate to condors, fire to salmon. Cunningham summarizes theories of California’s prehistoric ecology and adds much of her own thoughtful speculation about the impossibly complex set of factors and interactions that continually change the landscape. She also encourages readers to deeply study an area over time, perhaps a place very close to home. The outcome may be far-reaching. Of salmon and steelhead, she writes, “When people learn about the history, changes, and natural interactions of their local landscapes, when they adopt these landscapes as their true homelands and care for them, then hope may appear for these scaled sentinels.”
As for El Cerrito Plaza 500 years ago: In Cunningham’s luminous painting, Albany Hill and the Bay form a familiar backdrop, but where buildings, pavement, and cars now cover the landscape, in the painting grizzly bears forage for acorns under a spreading oak tree in an open field of native bunchgrasses. Imagine that.