California’s Frontier Naturalists, by Richard G. Beidleman, UC Press, 2006, 484 pages, $39.95
If you’ve ever taken a moment to imagine California’s landscape in its youth, you might have some inkling of the world you’ll enter when you pick up Beidleman’s ambitious chronicle of California’s pioneer natural historians. Following Sir Francis Drake’s expedition and the founding of Spanish missions, Beidleman introduces readers to the naturalists—intellectuals, artists, surgeons, soldiers, and sailors—who collected and documented California’s flora and fauna, mapped rivers and mountains, and surveyed minerals and ores. These frontier naturalists were men and women of mettle unknown today. Take, for instance, the tragicomical adventures of Dr. Thaddeus Haenke, who, upon missing his ship’s departure from Spain by two hours, sailed across the Atlantic to Uruguay, got shipwrecked, swam ashore, walked across South America (collecting plants along the way), and caught up with his expedition six months later in Chile. All this before setting foot in Monterey, California, where he later catalogued more than 250 species. Beidleman weaves delightful side stories through the narrative: the doomed love of a Russian count for a Mexican commandant’s daughter, and the repeated misadventures of naturalists in their first encounters with a curiously friendly—and then malodorous—black-and-white mammal. Far from a dry textbook account, the book treats California’s natural world with such wonder, curiosity, and respect, it will leave you reluctant to return to the real world.