Robin Grossinger directs San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Historical Ecology Program. Grossinger’s team uses hundreds of historical texts, photographs, and survey maps to depict what the Bay Area used to look like to help inform present and future stewardship, including several extensive restoration projects around the region.
BN: What is historical ecology and what got you turned on to it?
RG: Historical ecology is the study of past landscapes. People always ask me, “Don’t people already know that?” Not necessarily. There’s a reason people haven’t done it before: It’s complicated, messy, laborious. That’s what I discovered when I was sent up to the archives in Sacramento for weeks at a time as an intern. I was not that into history–you know, typical California kid, no sense of the past. But I got mentored by these longtime surveyors at the State Lands Commission who were part of this tradition of surveys and maps of the Bay and the coast. They introduced me to incredible, dining room table-size, intricately detailed, scientifically accurate 19th-century surveys of the Bay and its wetlands and rivers.
BN: How has your experience of poring over old maps and photos of the Bay Area affected the way you look at things as you travel around the region?
RG: I’ve realized every place has such depth when you start to read the landscape. You look at the street signs and the names of neighborhoods and shopping malls, see the remnant trees hidden among the houses, and then feel the contours of the land, and you have this double vision of seeing the past perforating the contemporary landscape.
One of the biggest revelations for me was how much the landscape changes. When you grow up, you sort of inherit the landscape as a fixed status quo, like “oh yeah, that’s how it is,” but then you look back at the photographs and maps of 1940s–wow, it’s totally different. 1900, totally different. 1850, totally different. And you realize, wow, in 2050 it’s going to be totally different too, and it’s what we envision and prioritize now that will shape that future landscape. It’s exciting to see the potential and the flexibility in the landscape. Our minds are so limited by the tiny fragments we see, and we need to be inspired and reminded that much more is possible.
BN: Which now-missing feature of the landscape would you most like to have back?
RG: Recently I’ve become partial to the valley oak savannas so beautifully described by many early visitors to the region. Those occupied our fertile, farmable, developable valleys, so they are pretty much gone, but I think major elements of that landscape could come back. I would love to see what it would look like to have oaks thoughtfully reintegrated within modern landscapes and providing that link to the past, diverse ecological functions, and connections to nature right within neighborhoods.
BN: What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve uncovered about a familiar Bay Area location?
RG: One really wonderful example, just because it is so on the beaten path, is the tidal marsh called Emeryville Crescent, on the way to the Bay Bridge from the East Bay. When you drive by, you can see the natural ponds, often with shorebirds feeding. There used to be thousands of ponds like these around the Bay. There are tidal channels with a native daisy called Grindelia and the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse. It’s even fringed with willows, just as there used to be sausals–Spanish for willow groves–at the former marsh edge, and where the Indian village and shell mound was. There is still seepage of freshwater nearby. You can see the same natural processes creating the same ecological features and supporting many of the same species, and it’s just a few feet from the freeway.
BN: Has your study of the Bay Area 200 years ago made you wish you could live here then instead of now?
RG: Not at all. I would like to visit, but I am definitely a creature of the contemporary Bay Area. I’m more interested in how we can creatively reintegrate some of those characteristics. We need some of the functions that landscape had in terms of carbon storage and sea level rise buffers and beautiful streams for kids to play in. We need that stuff, but I also love the Bay Area for what it is now–this diverse, fascinating, complicated landscape that we have today.
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