Living Here

by The Frisco Bay Mussel Group

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

We who live around the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento River Estuary, all species ranging this watershed on the North Pacific Rim, feel a common resonance behind the quick beats of our separate lives; long-pulse rhythms of the region pronouncing itself through Winter-wet & Summer-dry, Something-flowering-anytime, Cool Fog, Tremor and Slide.

Borne-Native in the San Francisco Bay Region

The region proclaims itself clearly. It declares the space for holding our own distinct celebrations: Whale Migration & Salmon Run, Acorn Fall, Blackberry & Manzanita Fruit, Fawn Drop, Red Tide; processions and feasts which invite many other species, upon which many other species depend. The bay-river watershed carries these outpourings easily. They are borne, native, by the place. Their occurrence and the full life of the region are inseparable.

Human beings have lived here a long time. For thousands of years, the region held their celebrations easily. They ate enormous quantities of shellfish, acorns, salmon, berries, deer, buckeyes, grass seeds, and duck eggs. They cut countless tule reeds for mats, boats and baskets, burned over thousands of acres of dead grass, made trails everywhere, cleared land and packed down soil with villages. They netted fish from boats, strung fish traps across creeks and rivers, and dug up tidelands looking for clams and oysters. The region probably never held a species that had a greater effect upon it, but for thousands of years human beings were part of its continuous life. They lived directly in it, native.

The Shell Mound Cultures and the Ancient Kuksu Cult

Over four hundred shell mounds have been found in and around the Bay Area, and many of these mounds date back into the third, even the fourth millennium before the present. The mounds were for the most part composed of oyster, clam and mussel shells, but animal and fish remains also provide us with a pretty good idea of both the wildlife of the Bay Area during these early days, as well as the hunting and fishing practices of the first inhabitants. Deer, Elk, Sea Otter, Beaver, Squirrel, Rabbit, Gopher, Raccoon, Wild Cat, Wolf, Bear, Dog, Seal, Sea Lion, Whale, Porpoise, Canvasback Duck, Goose, Cormorant, Turtle, Skates, Thornbacks and other fish were all found within the mounds. They also contained the remains of some of the first settlers, and occasionally male bodies were found accompanied by pipes and weapons, and female bodies were found with mortar, pestle and awls. The large number of these mounds, as well as the range of artifacts, gives us some idea of the size and sophistication of this early culture. Along with a number of fishing and hunting tools and utensils, highly polished bone awls, graceful “charm stones,” delicately worked stone pipes, bone whistles, stone labrets, and certain shell beads and pendants were also found in the debris.

The appearance of this Shell Mound Culture in the Bay Area during the fourth millennium before the present can perhaps best be understood in terms of the larger movements of people going on throughout the entire Pacific Basin and upon the Pacific Rim during this period of history, a period when sedentary fishing peoples began to experiment with fish poisons and food resources (the mound itself being an excellent open air ’’lab”) thus leading to the invention of the cultivated crop and agriculture.

The largest shell mound in the Bay Area was found at Emeryville, and it was quite well known as the site of the Emeryville Shell Mound Park at the turn of the century. The mound was destroyed, and the main plant of the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company—”We cover the Earth”—was built on its spot in 1923. This mound was quite large—200 feet long, over 25 feet high, and over 50 feet wide—and visitors would note how during certain seasons, it was constructed to take full advantage of the sun setting directly between the narrows of the Golden Gate straits. The area is characterized today (coincidentally?) by a series of anonymous, brilliant wooden sculptures that have been raised on the land-fill areas adjoining the old park, and the reinhabitation of many of the abandoned industrial warehouses of Emeryville by artists, crafts people, and small press publishers in and around Shell Mound Road.

Although the Costanoan Indians may or may not have been the people who constructed these mounds, by the time of Spanish colonization the Costanoan people had occupied all the old mound areas of the East Bay and the San Francisco peninsula south to Monterey, while the Coastal Miwok peoples occupied Marin to the north. Clearly, by the time of European contact, the Sacramento River had become the key to the Indian geography of the Bay Area, and to follow the river inland was to come in contact with an increasingly populous and sophisticated Indian culture. Of the many fascinating Indian cultures occupying the inland foothills and the Valley, the Pomo peoples—perhaps the most respected basket weavers in the New World—deserve special mention. The Pomo peoples in and around Clear Lake, which can be seen as the “capital district” for north central California Indian culture, seem to have had the greatest impact on the area’s Indian cultures as a whole. In contrast to the Pomo way of life which has been richly documented, precious little is known about the Costanoan peoples who lived on the Bay. We do know that at the time of contact at least as many as 21,000 Costanoan Indians were living in this area, with another 4,000 Coastal Miwok Indians living in Marin. The Indian population for the Sacramento River Watershed area, moreover, was well over 140,000 people. By 1910, after less than two hundred years of disease and mistreatment introduced by the invaders, the Costanoan and Coastal Miwok cultures had been completely wiped out, and only 2,800 natives were still living in the greater Sacramento Watershed area—and most of them were living as far away from the center of colonial activity and civilization as they could. Visions of Gold, both Yankee & Conquistador, seem to have been the central agency of destruction.

The few reports of the Costanoan culture that survive are uniformly unflattering, and tell us more about the mind of the invader than they do about the facts of native culture. There is a bittersweet irony to these reports, a black humor that sounds at times as if the script had been written by Lenny Bruce. Consider this description of Jose Espinosa y Tello on the Costanoans of Monterey. “Men and women go naked feeding in the fields like brute beasts, or gathering seeds for the winter and engaging also in hunting and fishing. Although some of these natives have now been reduced to obedience [italics added] and form part of the Mission of San Carlos, they still preserve their former disposition and customs. Among other habits which they retain it has been noticed that in their leisure moments they will lie on the ground face downwards for whole hours with the greatest content.” Clearly the Costanoans were the subject of vicious and unfair reporting, as were, of course, most of the Indians of North America. The anthropologist Kroeber, who accepts most of these reports at face value, tells us the Costanoans were a “dark, dirty, squalid and apathetic” people. “I have never seen one laugh.” He reports one invader, Choris, as saying, “I have never seen one look you in the face.” Nonetheless, reading between the lines, certain details do emerge, and these details suggest a very different portrait of these people. “Costanoan, from the Spanish, meaning a coastal people…Coyote, Eagle, Hummingbird sitting on a mountain top. When the ocean receded and the land appeared, it was Coyote who went down and created these coastal people…. They held the Sun, and the Redwood Tree, as Sacred…Sophisticated tule huts, sophisticated tule rafts…. A line survives from one of their dances: We dance on the brink of the World.”

Very little is known about the Costanoan religion. We are told only that at the Mission San Jose the natives continued to hold their ancient winter solstice dance much to the chagrin of the officials. The existence of this dance among the Costanoans suggests that they were influenced by the famous Kuksu Cult, a widespread system of religious belief that served to unite many of the cultures of the Sacramento Watershed area. The Kuksu Cult involved dance rituals and festivals, although it was primarily male-oriented (in counter-distinction to the ancient, female-oriented ghost religion and secret societies), the degree of sexual exclusivity varied from tribe to tribe, clan to clan. The secret Kuksu initiation ceremony conveyed moral, ethical and sacred teachings, and served to inform the initiates as to their place within the circle of all beings.

The Kuksu was always depicted as a terrifying figure, half man and half bird. Consider this description by Jaime de Angulo of the arrival of the Kuksu during the Winter Solstice Festivals among the Pomo. “Finally, just as the last rays of the sun were setting on the western shore of the lake, an extraordinary series of screams and yells started up again—but this time it was coming from the hills. With great excitement the people began to point towards the West. Off in the distance you could vaguely make out the outline of an old, dead tree. An owl was sitting on the top branch of the tree, and a man…or a bird…was hanging upside down, arms and legs spread stiff and still, from one of the bottom branches. He had feathers, lots of feathers growing out of the top of his head at various angles. Suddenly a fire shot up from the ground underneath him, and he was surrounded by smoke. When the smoke cleared, the man…or bird…whatever it was…had disappeared. “That was the Kuksu,” Old Man Turtle said, “The Kuksu has returned.”

It is not known when the Kuksu Cult first entered into this area, but the point of origin is thought to have been from the Southwest. Indeed the iconography of the Kuksu Cult, fire, owl, feathers, dead tree—has much in common with similar cults throughout the large Uto-Aztecan cultural area, and the Kuksu himself seems at least in some distant sense related to the great Aztec cult figure, Quetzalcoatl.

The appearance of the Kuksu always followed the ceremony held for the ghosts of the people who had died during the previous year. After the ghosts had been given their sendoff, on the last day of the festival, just at sunset, the Kuksu would arrive, his head ablaze with feathers of many cultures, a blaze equal to the rays of the setting sun, signifying (seemingly) that a new season, and a new Sun, had begun its cycle. The arrival of the Kuksu—with his strange high pitched whistle; his head, torso, and limbs all moving to the inaudible sound of three distinct and seemingly unrelated rhythms; and his bird’s headdress an incredible shock of multi-colored feathers sticking out at various and seemingly random angles—the arrival of the Kuksu was the most important and powerful moment of the year.

The Kuksu Cult, therefore, certainly began as a Sun Cult of some order, but a Sun Cult that penetrated into an area where the Old Pleistocene Religion of the Dead and Ghost Cults were widely practiced. Indeed the Kuksu Cult in this area is often considered to be a Moon Cult too, as the native Indians held the Moon to be the night-time Sun. Hence the Kuksu Cult derived additional power, and was to an extent transformed by its close association with the older religion, and it came to have a central synthesizing impact on all the early Indian cultures of this area.

A few hundred years ago some new people moved in and began to impose a non-native way of life over the entire watershed. Instead of living directly in it, they began living off of it, on top of it. Dams, canals and pipelines were built to shift “surplus” water away from life-systems in rivers, creeks, lakes, and marshes which had always required it. Oysters and clams were stripped from the bayshore in a few years and their beds filled in with garbage and crushed hillsides to create waterfront real estate. Within a short time, redwood and fir forests became houses and San Francisco Bay turned into a huge toilet for sewage and factory wastes. Generations born here called themselves “native” but kept pushing the watershed’s life to exhaustion. Nearly all habitats for native species were destroyed. Attempts by many species to maintain themselves were stopped through outright slaughter or intolerable despoilation. Some of the largest are lost to the region now; tule elk, grizzly bear and condor.

It was extremely profitable for a few of the new people to live here this way. Anything could be seen as unused surplus by a non-native eye and it was easy to find markets elsewhere for much of it. But profits began slipping as native life-forms vanished. The place withered quickly and became increasingly less liveable for all of the people in it.


San Francisco Bay is the lower end of a vast watershed, beginning at the highest ridges of the Sierra Nevada and the inner Coast Range, continuing through the Central Valley, ending at Golden Gate. Watershed is the peak experience; selecting among bodies of water, watershed divides rain fall/runoff by direction, this rainwater to the Russian River, this to the Bay and Delta, this to the Pacific Ocean.

Watershed often divides plants, animal lives, far-off views—which watershed are you in now? Once divided, water flows in and out of steep mountain canyons, through flat valleys, into marshy, muddy bays and estuaries, always downhill, getting increasingly salty past the Sacramento-San Joaquin River confluence near Antioch, until it becomes one with the ocean in the Bay.

Watershed is a whole, defines what is upriver/downriver, what the space is we roam in, in our own bodies of water. Watershed is the universe of our water body experience. When you follow a watershed, it teaches, leads you on in. When you cut a watershed with roads, dams and ditches, it bleeds, erodes, floods. Watershed defines place, wind, food, pathways, ceremonies and chants. Enter into that flowing moment of watershed living, in this place, celebrate the return of salmon and herring, dream of waters merging, enlarge the watershed with your own self, until you are in it totally, until you are it.

Watershed is a living organism: rivers and streams and underground flows are veins and arteries; marshes are the pollution-removing kidneys; water to drink; water is the cosmic sense organ of the earth, the dimpled skin between above and below; water rhythms show us moon, season, shape and sense of land.

Flowing, tumbling water wears away hard granite, soft sandstone, creates the watershed form with what remains, brings forth nutriment for ocean creatures, creates beautiful beaches, the sound of the river turning is a low moan, waterfalls roar, water over rock.

Watershed landscape was history: we build where it’s flat, avoid floods, water the crops, hunt animals at the dark waterhole. The mud flats around the Bay come from 19th-century Sierra Nevada hydraulic-mining clay sediments. Flood control dams and channelized streams come from reactions to the 1955 Northern California floods. Disturbances of the river spread upstream as well as downstream; too much silt means no salmon spawning, no clarity for fishing, flooding at the raised river mouth.

Water falls by gravity, rises by levity.

We climb the watershed, to the ridge top, to glimpse what lies beyond, what we can see, well grounded along the ridge, but intrigued, curious as all mammals are, to see, to see what lies beyond our sight, beyond sense perception?

Down inside the watershed, a few peaks draw our attention: Mt. Hamilton in the south Bay; wind-clean San Bruno Mountain to the west, the wooded sides of Mount Tamalpais in the central and north Bay, the spread-out devil of Mt. Diablo uplifted from the sea to the east, the volcanic lava cap of Mount St. Helena, the highest, sliding in and out of view as we travel the lower Russian River watershed. From inside our Pleistocene-drowned Bay valley, we need climb only a short way to rise up high enough to see for fifty miles; Ohlone and Miwok Indians watched each other’s fires across the Bay at night, kept an eye on fishing and shellmound rubbish heaps during the day, eyes up on circling hawks.

Water and plants, land and animals are at home, a living whole, an ecosystem in a biotic region. When the water system is cut or altered, all else is affected. When plants are destroyed, land covered for urbanity, water changes, becomes sluggish, then ravages towns in floods, dries up creeks in summer, goes underground when overused.

So much of the healthy plant and animal life in our watershed region has been damaged or destroyed, we will need generations to restore it, to return the original healthy native/wild ecosystem to make our peace with this water body.

All around the Bay, there are tens of thousands of acres of diked-off tidelands which could be restored to pickleweed/cordgrass salt marsh, the planet’s intense biologically productive habitat, where the edge of the sea transfers food from land to water creatures.

Damming all creeks for flood control has been our constant practice, this great fear and unwillingness to live with watershed events. Now these creeks, watercourses through the land, wider, deeper, drier than before, need rehabilitation, to make them able-bodied again, released from bonds of concrete and riprap. To restore all creeks, to make them flow full of power, working for us and all wild life, is also our work, is right action.

Look around your town. Find the creek, follow it down, figure out—what to do? Do it, right, now.

When forests are transformed into housing developments, there is an illusion of prosperity which masks the hollowness felt by people who live in them. Landscapes full of buildings become depressing. Jobs that require annihilating living things or manufacturing monotonous garbage breed self-contempt. Constant exposure to other people or television without an opening into the naturally-evolved graces of the planet is oppressive and demeaning. There is a feeling that one’s life is being used. Used up.

Non-native culture, live-in colonialism, becomes its own worst threat. Rejection of living within the boundaries of natural life-systems requires mammoth amounts of labor and energy to build, rebuild, and keep up artificial ones. By reducing the diversity of life in the region, non-native culture constantly narrows opportunities for social and personal self-preservation. There’s a steady movement through extinction of native life towards self-extinction.

Species: Familiar and Ghost

The uniqueness of each place comes in part from ecology and climate, but even more from the biota, the animals and plants that live there, shaping the landscape, its character, and one another as they evolve together. Each species which forms a strand of a living community has its own history and has entered the regional fabric at some point in geologic time, bringing the mysterious information of its own previous being.

This subtle and deeply resonant wisdom of place deserves respect and reverence, for those who thoughtlessly destroy information so long in the gathering are guilty of a crime against consciousness. The shrines where uniqueness and subtlety are concentrated should not heedlessly be plowed or paved over. The dappled carpets of Stipa bunchgrass, constellation with shooting stars and Fritillaria, the solitary digger bees and dancing Hydropsyche are not replaceable by crude expanses of opportunistic weeds, wild oats and thistle, houseflies and Argentine ants.

Two hundred years ago, San Francisco Bay and the land rimming it was a natural paradise. Nutrients, washed down from the mountain slopes all around the great Central Valley, were carried to and accumulated in the Bay, which abounded with fish and oysters, harbor seals, sea otters and dolphins. Indian villages were more numerous along its shores than anywhere else in California. The rich alluvial deposits of the tidal flats were crowned with vast marshes, a magnet for awesome hordes of migratory ducks and geese and also the great food producer for the Bay’s water creatures, while landward grew lush meadows of bunch grass, where thousands of tule elk grazed.

In the sand dunes now overlain by the sod of Golden Gate Park, grizzly bears dug out ground squirrels among the yellow lupines and dune tansies. The tule elk and grizzlies are long gone now and the dune tansy is making a last precarious stand on a few small scraps of land soon to be built upon near the ocean beach. Two small but lovely species of butterflies, which once hovered over the flowering vales of San Francisco and nowhere else, have winked out forever, one in the last century, one in this. The beautiful San Francisco garter snake, which lived in little fault ponds along the San Andreas, has been seldom seen since developers destroyed most of its habitat in the early 1900s. A marvelous web of native plants and insects, some found nowhere else, still survives on the ridge and upper slopes of San Bruno Mountain, but development plans are closing in fast.

The sea otters have been hunted from the Bay, and most of the dolphins and harbor seals are gone. Some of the Bay’s invertebrates, native shrimps and mussels, are being crowded out by competing species brought inadvertently from distant seas on the hulls of ships.

In Lake Merced, an estuary which gradually became fresh thousands of years ago, there are fresh-water opossum shrimp and fresh-water tentacled sea worms. Both have so far been able to survive the vagaries of managing the lake for trout fishing.

Golden eagles nested commonly along the eastbay hills and hunted jackrabbits on the flatlands below. A few remain, reminders of the time when they and the great California condors wheeled high in the skies over San Francisco Bay.

The natural communities which persist are precious fragmented holograms of the once great San Francisco ecosystem. We should protect it and as much as possible restore it, for these living roots which penetrate far into the past not only maintain the biological integrity of our home region, but nourish our spirit and sense of place as well.

Winter-wet and Summer-dry, Something-flowering-anytime, Cool Fog, Tremor and Slide will remain. The region’s unique resonance will continue to sound behind whatever celebrations are carried by it, and proclaim itself more clearly than any declarations made about it. Reinhabitants of the place, people who want to maintain a full life for themselves and for the watershed, are shaping human celebrations which respond to that resonance. Celebrations which depend on but can be shared by other species. Lives which can be part of the region proclaiming itself.

(San Francisco, 1977.)

Frisco Bay Mussel Group (FBMG) operated as a regularly meeting study group for the San Francisco Bay Area and Shasta Bioregion between 1975 and 1978. Members included natural scientists, political activists, community organizers, and artists who wanted to learn from each other about local natural systems and characteristics. As a result of information presented at FBMG meetings, the group was the first to oppose the Peripheral Canal scheme to divert Northern California’s Sacramento River water to Southern California. Its full-page newspaper ad explaining the Canal’s adverse effects on San Francisco Bay prompted established environmental groups such as the Sierra Club to also speak out which eventually led to ballot defeat of the proposal.

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