Point Reyes National Seashore: a Story of Forsaken Intimacy

Point Reyes National Seashore: a Story of Forsaken Intimacy

Amelia Estrada

June 13, 2001

North American Wests

Professor Richard White

Reinventing the Sand: Point Reyes National Seashore

Like most Americans, the Sierra Club was convinced in their annual publication, Island in Time,that appreciation of the biotic world of Point Reyes was “born” in 1962—in a sympathetic president’s affirming scrawl of ink. In a sense, they were right. Never before had the coast of West Marin been contemplated with such conscious detachment from the land and people who had come before. The abstract entanglements of conservation, which lead to the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore, hid behind seemingly innocuous trees and grasses, for whom educated America was on an evangelical mission from Mother Nature to “save.” On a more theoretical level, the conservationist National Park Service made a case for itself by its deceptively innocent, altruistic motives:

. . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects

and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the

same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired

for the enjoyment of future generations.[1]

It was on this sentiment that people across the nation rallied for the preservation of Point Reyes, “this nearly pristine peninsula near San Francisco,”[2] as early as the mid-1930’s.[3] Over the next few decades, handfuls of conscientious citizens would begin to passionately promote the call to environmental preservation, which they believed was utterly averse to people less public and political in their sensitivity to the natural world. Among these less outspoken groups wererural communities, such as those of West Marin, which have always included a large population of recent immigrants. Their perspectives on the land would be discounted all too often by conservationists, who would be named in this culture of recognition and of middle-class activism.

But what of the people who gave context to the land before the formation of Point Reyes National Seashore? What of the Portuguese ranch hands who had their run-ins with the local gun club for poaching in the association’s domain?[4] Or Japanese pea farmers who brought their families to the ocean for afternoon picnics on the beach? Staring at a photograph of one such scene taken in the summer of 1940, the old black and white evokes a poignancy present in pictures of times that exist only in collective memory. Their faces are gleefully innocent of the knowledge that their days on the land were about to expire, that upper middle-class suburbanites and city-dwellers would inherit the earth. They do not smile for me—the visitor, the voyeur, dissecting their lives for a class at Stanford University.

American conservation was quickly inducted into the brotherhood of this nation’s institutions (the mass media, political parties, and the like[5]) that treat uneducated people, who are aliens to public discourse, with thorough condescension. The Japanese tenants, Filipino field hands, and Chinese cooks who were also part of the social landscape of Point Reyes were lumped together with corporate moguls as the enemies of nature. American conservationists, who are historically wealthy, white, and male, became the oppressed advocates of a defenseless natural world. The wisdom of conservation cautioned against the consequences of unrestrained individualism. The foolishness of it was that it did not distinguish between this real predator and laboring immigrants who possessed more native intuition than any Yale School of Forestry degree could confer.[6] The question of this essay is as follows: how has this discrepancy within conservationist ideology been manifested at Point Reyes National Seashore?

Conservationists believe that they are the only ones who take nature seriously. They forget the myriad of people throughout history whose very existence relied on a sacred convenant with the earth—indigenous Californians from Miwoks to Midus, farmers, seafarers, and many more. Consider the history of immigrant labor on the Point Reyes dairy farms. When Portuguese from the Azores and Germans and Italian speaking Swiss began arriving in the Bay Area in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the natives naturally complained of the intensified job competition, the broken English of the new arrivals, and the perceived clannishness of immigrant employers who hired the foreign-born.[7] Journalist R.G. Sheath wrote of the European immigrants in an 1888 article on California dairying that “Their experience in the home country, except that of milking a cow, is of little value to them here . . . “[8] Many of the people seeking employment in the Bay Area were indeed from small, rural villages in Europe, their voyages sponsored by home communities or a successful predecessor who had already “made it” in America.[9]

But it was this very background as rural people that enabled the new arrivals, mostly solitary males supporting families back home, to contribute to the Bay Area’s nascent dairy industry, which would soon gain national prestige for its superior milk, butter, and cheese. The need for a close, convenient source of dairy products significantly increased after the Gold Rush of 1849, where thousands of people from almost every corner of the globe converged in the bay with dreams of instant fortune.[10] What Sheath did not realize was that without immigrants, there may not have even been a dairy industry—no milk for his coffee or butter for his toast. These people knew the land, the rhythms of the animals’ bodies, before they ever set foot on a California dairy. They were much more qualified to perform dairy labor than the urban east coasters settling in the area, who were probably not thinking about cow udders and the strenuous, all-day occupation of hand-milking on their journey west. The immigrants’ unfamiliarity with “American life” became peripheral to their economic worth.

In this respect, not much has changed since the Gold Rush. According to Mark Homrighausen, the current Rangeland Management Specialist at Point Reyes National Seashore, the Mexican laborers who comprise virtually all of the contemporary dairy workforce at Point Reyes led agriculturally-oriented lives in Mexico. Many are already adept in handling animals, a prerequisite for dairy farming. They do not come to America with urban expectations of working environments where every minute is accounted for under the watchful eye of a supervisor. They do not anticipate regular hours of employment. Because it is believed that cows produce better milk at certain times of the day, the first milking shift at a dairy farm typically begins at two or three o’clock in the morning. The cycles of nature rule the day-to-day routine of the Point Reyes dairy farms.

The founders of Point Reyes National Seashore forgot all of this. They forgot that, to immigrants, the land of West Marin provided confluence of earth between the old country and the new, that trees and stock ponds along with newborn calves recalled a familiar past. In short, Point Reyes dismissed the fact that ordinary people like the dairy workers contemplated their lives, desiring cognizance and beauty and meaning. Uneducated, unassimilated—working class immigrants are unable to partake in various aspects of American public life. Contemporary American essayist Richard Rodriguez once remarked that “In Mexico, one is most oneself in private. The very existence of tú must undermine the realm of usted. In America, one is most oneself in public. In order to show you America I would have to take you out.”[11] Americans beg for recognition in the public sphere. Because of this, the weight of private immigrant minds goes gravely underestimated. Though limited in civic freedom, the workers of the Point Reyes dairy farms send a powerful message to America. They are not hapless victims without agency in history. They seek out the dairy industry as much as the viability of the industry depends on their presence. Think of the Mexican oyster shuckers who knew the ebb and flow of the sea along the coast of Sinaloa. Think of the immigrants who pour into affluent beach communities along the California coast, places like La Jolla and Malibu, themselves natives of the Mexican coastal lifestyle. Yes, to scrub and vacuum hotels named after French hamlets. But also to continue the optimism that motivated gold rush seekers to come from distant lands, that had people seasick for three months as they sailed across the Pacific and the Atlantic to find work in America. This is their Gold Mountain, as the Chinese called treasure laden San Francisco in 1849—dreams of moonlit water, some impossible blue. It is at times like these when a direct link to silent minds and hearts would be the most revealing. But as the cosmos only permits observation of the exterior dynamic among humans, this will have to suffice.

Today, almost all of the manual labor around the Point Reyes peninsula, not just at the dairy farms, is performed by Mexican immigrants. Without the labor of Mexicans, many a dairyman has attested, there would be no dairies.[12] Without the labor of Mexicans, there would be no Marin County nor California nor United States of America. But it is not so much that this current labor force does not come from Europe, or is darker in complexion than the ones of earlier years, or speaks Spanish, not Portuguese. Indeed, Mexican immigrants, as they reveal the often ignored yet acute relationship between Mexico and the US, are critical to understanding this land. In California, Mexicans predate immigrants. They are their hosts. They are the matrix through which distant narrative lines are intersected in the pageant of California memory. It was through a Mexican and indigenous porthole that immigrants made new lives in this land. Important for this essay are the changes which have apparently occurred outside of this historical continuum of immigrants in California—how in seven decades this land of dairy farmers has become one of affluent America’s most coveted natural playgrounds.

The idea of preserving the beautiful terrain of the Point Reyes peninsula had been circulating ever since 1935, when Conrad Wirth, Director of the National Park Service, proposed a preliminary plan for the conservation of the area. Over the next few years, surrounding sections of undeveloped land would gradually move from private hands over to public possession. In 1938, fifty-two acre Drakes Beach was donated to the County of Marin and became Drakes Beach County Park. Tomales Bay State Park was given over for public recreation in 1945.[13] The National Park Service no doubt kept a careful eye on the land transactions following Wirth’s proposal. Besides increasing opportunities for public recreation in a natural setting, the changing land ownership around Point Reyes between 1935 and 1962 also continued the strengthening alliance between preservationist interests, the State of California, and the federal government during the second quarter of the twentieth century.[14]

When Wirth’s idea was revived in 1958 by the National Park Service, public sentiment throughout the country was widely supportive of the conservation of Point Reyes. Bay Area residents who felt confined by the city had been thrilled to witness the establishment of places of natural recreation in proximity to their urban situation during the 1940’s and 50’s. Led by pockets of conservationist fervor including the Sierra Club and various grassroots efforts such as the Point Reyes National Seashore Foundation, supporters of the park raised money, collected signatures, pushed doorbells, and eventually won votes in Congress.[15] In 1962, the park was finally authorized by President John F. Kennedy. Public support enthusiasm grew in the following decades. Thirty years after its establishment, the original charter’s proposal of 35,000 acres of land had doubled to 70,187 acres, of which thirty-one percent was still used for dairy farming and beef ranching in 1993.

Point Reyes National Seashore quickly won over upper middle-class America. West Marin soon found itself teeming with affluent spectators eager for their piece of primordial California. Western historian Patricia Limerick observed of the mid-century conservationist trend:

Success in recruiting visitors earned the usual paradoxical results

of Western history. Park supporters got what they wanted, then had

to cope with the consequences. As crowds flooded the parks,

Americans demonstrated their substantial fondness for nature—

and their ability, in Roderick Nash’s phrase, to “love it to death.”[16]

The message is clear in the park’s current management plan newsletter: “While a certain increase in visitation is expected, the park should not develop facilities to encourage individual visitation.”[17] They came purely for recreation, for romantic getaways—not to make a living off of the land, but to redefine their notion of living in the American West. Ironically, a place reconfigured for the upper middle-class has necessitated the stable presence of a population who will sustain the new infrastructure. The number of poor immigrant laborers in the Point Reyes area has greatly expanded over the four decades following the establishment of the park. Someone must be there to change the sheets at waterfront hotels and service the five star restaurants. Someone must be there to shuck imported oyster seedlings[18] so that giddy honeymooners can slurp the slimy flesh on oyster-tasting day trips.[19]

Point Reyes has become a place for the cosmopolitan, for those on the inside of conservationist America. The imposed yet presumably inoffensive curatorship of sand and shrub reassures “privileged” people of their status at the expense of Guatemalan oyster shuckers and dairymen—at the expense of the memory of the land itself. The bigger picture may suggest that the natural world under the philosophical values of conservation might disrupt more lives than it calms. Who knows how many immigrant workers bask in the sun at Point Reyes National Seashore today? They probably wouldn’t fill out the surveys anyway.

Approximately twenty-nine percent of West Marin Elementary School, located in Point Reyes Station, is Hispanic. This number is about equal to that of the Hispanic population of the entire Shoreline Unified School District, which serves the West Marin communities along Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay.[20]Of the English learners at West Marin, one hundred percent speak Spanish as their native language, which suggests that these students are of Hispanic background. If this is true, ninety-five percent of Hispanic children, probably of Mexican or Central American ancestry, learn English when they begin their formal education.[21]

The presence of Mexican immigrants in the Point Reyes area is beyond doubt. This isn’t so novel, really. Influxes of recent immigrants from Latin America have appeared almost everywhere in California, and nowadays, populate all corners of the United States. These are faces most Californians have seen all of their lives. What is perhaps more interesting to consider is how their children, who assimilate, speak English, and frolic around the national seashore on school field trips, negotiate between the spatial parameters of their parents’ world and those of their own. At Bing Nursery, an expensive preschool located on the campus of Stanford University, Samoan nannies from East Palo Alto politely hover at the door or next to the swing set, waiting to picking up the children they are employed to care for. Their voices become loud only in exchanges in a foreign tongue with other fellow caretakers. But their children roll across the grass and climb the playground’s treehouse and jungle gym at the end of the school day.

A quiet tension exists wherever such different lives are physically juxtaposed, often because of economic necessity. This is, in part, the story of contemporary California, and Point Reyes is a prime example. But the situation of Point Reyes is not so black and white as it may seem. Bridging the gap between the various communities of West Marin is becoming an important value of Point Reyes National Seashore as well as of many residents of the area. Local Miwoks, for example, hold several annual ceremonies on the grounds of the park, which are open to the public. Relations between Point Reyes National Seashore and the coastal Miwok are described as very good by representatives of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. In 1980, environmentalists and ranchers came together in a “unique alliance”[22] to form the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). MALT’s mission is to preserve the 150-year ranching and dairy industry of West Marin by opposing development proposals on farmlands. Plans to build affordable housing for working-class people are underway by the local communities, and cooperative efforts with the workers themselves are being actualized. Recent meetings on this issue included interpreters who represented members of the community who only speak Spanish.[23]