Michael Wilken-Robertson’s guide to plants and their people: ‘Kumeyaay Ethnobotany’ is an extensive catalog of native vegetation
Source: Jim Ruland’s The Floating Library on San Diego CityBeat, November 13, 2017
Few things give me more pleasure than exploring Southern California and Northern Baja.
As much as I love walking on the beaches in Coronado, driving through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park or visiting Valle de Guadalupe between Tecate and Ensenada, I know very little about the plants that make these diverse ecosystems unique. While I know the difference between white sage and an oak tree (duh), my knowledge of native plant life is abysmal. But Michael Wilken-Robertson’s Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias is changing that.
Kumeyaay Ethnobotany, published last month here in San Diego by Sunbelt Publications, combines scientific rigor with oral history to provide a comprehensive catalog of 47 native plants and their uses. Each entry is listed under its scientific name as well as its more common name in English, Spanish and Kumeyaay. For example, the listing for Opuntia spp. (Cactaceae) includes its name in Spanish (nopal bronco), Kumeyaay (jpaa jentil) and English (prickly pear). The guide is lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs, the bulk of which were taken by Deborah Small, to show these plants in their native habitat as well as the many uses to which they are put, from food to clothing to tools and appliances.
But Wilken-Robertson’s study is more than just a catalog. While it is not the story of the Kumeyaay, it includes many stories to help readers understand the interdependence between the region’s plants and peoples before the Spaniards came. The Kumeyaay’s ancestral land stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the desert west of the Colorado River, and extends from the Salton Sea to well below Ensenada. Today it is divided by the border between the United States and Mexico, but the founding of the Missions changed the Kumeyaay way of life and altered the course of their people’s history. For instance, engagement with the Missions—sometimes voluntarily, more often not—had drastic consequences that shaped the land and the way it was used.
While Kumeyaay Ethnobotany isn’t intended to be used as a survival guide, nor does it encourage the harvesting of flowers and plants, it is an indispensable tool for understanding the world around us.