Was Nature Ever Wild?

When Spanish expeditions explored what is now the Santa Barbara, California, region in the 16th and 17th centuries, they found thriving native communities.

Illustration by Scott Laumann

When Spanish expeditions explored what is now the Santa Barbara, California, region in the 16th and 17th centuries, they found thriving native communities. Explorers’ diaries reported that the Chumash people were farming, harvesting shellfish and crafting canoes from local trees. Since then, archaeologists have documented more than 8,000 years of human habitation there.

For OSU historian Anita Guerrini such evidence of human influence on the land must be considered in modern restoration efforts, whether for salmon, marine mammals or birds such as the snowy plover.

“The goal of restoration is to create a self-sustaining environment,” says Guerrini, who came to OSU last summer as one of two holders of the Thomas Hart and Mary Jones Horning Chair in the Humanities. “You have to figure human use into it. You can’t just say, ‘OK, if we take the people out, this is what’s going to happen.’ But you can’t just take people out. You have to deal with that.”

In her previous post at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Guerrini taught in the history and environmental studies departments. She was a member and chair of UCSB’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Her focus on restoration arose unexpectedly from what started as a narrow historical study of an oceanfront reserve on the UCSB campus. Bordered by a heavily urbanized area, the land is the target of plans that include development restrictions and ecological restoration.

In the course of her study, Guerrini discovered that both she and UCSB marine ecologist Jenifer Dugan had an interest in expanding the kinds of evidence that could be used to set restoration goals. They collaborated on a three-year project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to explore the role of history in restoration.

Their report (upcoming in Restoria, edited by Marcus Hall) cites examples of dramatic coastal change and concludes that restoration should go beyond a specific set of conditions. “In this coastal context, it can only mean restoring the ecological processes, not a particular point in time,” they write. “Larger answers to the challenge of developing restoration goals for the . . . coasts of the world will require a synthesis of physical and ecological dynamics and processes, anthropology, history, sea level change, natural and cultural resources, and human population growth and needs.”

National parks, especially those that preserve history, face a similar challenge, Guerrini says. “Gettysburg is an example of this. It’s an historic but also an ecological site. How do you preserve history while making it ecologically sustainable? Do you keep the trees as they were in 1863?” she asks.

Guerrini has published on the history of European science, medicine and animal experimentation. She is currently working on a book about the groundbreaking contributions of animal anatomical studies to the study of natural history in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV. She has been a visiting fellow in Paris, Canberra and Edinburgh as well as at the OSU Center for the Humanities.

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By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.