The California coastal landscape has been managed in some way by people for thousands of years. In the Santa Cruz area, the native Awaswas people*, set fires to maintain and invigorate the coastal landscape. This form of land management successfully provided animal forage and a healthy crop of grasses and other plants important to the Awaswas’ diet. The Awaswas may have managed riparian plants along creeks local to Santa Cruz through periodic pruning and controlled burns. Willows, for example, might have been actively tended through a pruning process called coppicing with the intention of harvesting new shoots for basket making.
How and Why to Prune a Willow
Coppicing involves cutting back the branches of a shrub or tree to encourage new, vigorous growth. The plant is pruned back to its base during its dormant period, when the tree has lost all its leaves in winter. Much like when you heavily prune rose bushes, the willows grow back much healthier.
Coppicing also promotes the growth of long, straight, slender, and flexible branches – optimal for basket weaving. The pliable young branches of the willows growing along the edge of creeks may have been used for making baskets, fish traps, and the inner framework of Awaswas homes. The bark could also be stripped from the branches and braided into a strong rope. Local Rumsien (native tribe located on the south end of Monterey Bay around Castroville) basket maker Linda Yamane uses gray willow sticks for her baskets’ foundations.
How Controlled Burns & Weeding Shaped the Landscape
Just as willow stands were managed through coppicing, the Awaswas used other land management techniques to promote other plant communities they relied on. Tule marshes were burned periodically to clear away old growth allowing sunlight to reach new shoots. This management was extremely necessary as the construction of one cooking basket required 3,750 stems from close to 40 bunchgrass plants!
Some less desirable species, such as salt marsh coyote brush, were weeded or burned to keep them from crowding out more frequently used species like willow. Meadows were also maintained through the use of fire to prevent shrubs and eventually trees from taking over precious grasslands needed for their seeds and the animals they would attract.
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*The native peoples of the Santa Cruz area of California, refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today the descendants of the area’s indigenous forbearers who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone as well as harvesting, gathering and taking game from the coastal uplands. Though not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.
- Native American Management and the Legacy of Working Landscapes in California: Western landscapes were working long before Europeans arrived. Lucy Diekmann, Lee Panich, and Chuck Striplen. Source: Rangelands, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jun., 2007), pp. 46-50
- Personal Communication with Jim Keller, Director of Conservation and Land Initiatives, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, November 28, 2012.
- Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. M. Kat Anderson. University of California Press; 2005.
- Coppicing a Cultural Thread from the Past to the Present. Dino Labiste. Primitive Ways Website. 2013.