When I moved to Carson City I wanted to know more about my new home, so I spent some time in the Nevada history section of the library.
Winter was coming on, and thoughts of winter - snow piling up in the high Sierra, dark, early evenings - made me think about the Donner Party. So I decided to start my reading with that gruesome and pathetic event. A letter from 12-year-old Virginia Reed to her cousin is a poignant account of what befell the families - the Donners, the Reeds, and others, who were snowed in for the winter of 1846 just east of what we now call Donner Pass:
I have not rote you half the truble we have had but I have rote you anof to let you now that you don't now what truble is but thank god we have all got throw and the onely family that did not eat human flesh and we have left everything but I don't cair for that we have got throw with our lives ...
In his journal, Joseph Breen, another Donner Party member, wrote: 1 solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had a heavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembling Onions in shape taste like a sweet potatoe, all full of tough little fibres.
Caught by the powerful image of the solitary Indian (probably a Washoe) maybe on his way home from a trading expedition over the mountains, pausing to give some food to the desperate, starving Americans, I decided to read next about the life of the Washoe people before Euro-American contact.
A lot impressed me about the Washoe when I read about them, but one of the things that impressed me the most was the use they made of their environment - a place that is dry, windy, cold in the winter, hot in the summer. Here's a partial list (from the chapter on the Washoe in Warren Azevedo's Handbook of North American Indians) of what the Washoe people used for food, clothing, and whatever else they needed: Yampa root, sunflower seeds, water parsnip, pinyon nuts, willow, Sierra lily bulbs, western chokecherry, pronghorn antelope, black currant, strawberry, white pelican, Lahontan cutthroat, cottontail, pika, Canada goose, mountain sheep, black oak acorns, and on and on - hundreds of items. It makes our sparse region sound like a cornucopia - a kitchen cabinet holding anything a person might need.
I wonder how many of us who live today in the Carson, Eagle, and Washoe Valleys would even know what all those plants and animals are if we saw them? We don't obtain all our food, medicine and clothing from our immediate environment any more but it seems to me that we're not truly educated unless we know something about the natural environment that makes our home. And how many of us do? I've come up with a little quiz to challenge your ecological literacy, to see how well you know the place you live.
• Name two species each of mammals, birds, insects and fish native to Northern Nevada.
• Name three native plants. When do they flower?
• Where does our water supply come from?
• What watershed is your house located in? When a drop of rainwater runs off your roof, where does it go?
• What direction do winter storms come from?**
There might be some hope for our children to get some time out of the classroom and into the field to learn some of this with the No Child Left Inside Act (HR3036), currently in the House Committee on Education and Labor (Representative Dean Heller is a member). According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, studies consistently reveal that the U.S. public suffers from a tremendous environmental literacy gap that appears to be increasing rather than decreasing. For example, two-thirds of the public fail even a basic environmental quiz, and a whopping 88 percent of the public fail a basic energy quiz.
In a letter to Rep. Heller supporting the No Child Left Inside Act, the Northern Nevada Natural Resources Education Council quotes a Reno sixth-grader, who asked, upon seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time, "Are there sharks in this ocean?"
With this level of basic environmental ignorance, I wonder how long any of us would last if we were snowed in somewhere near Donner Pass. Not as long as the Donner party probably, and nowhere near as long as the Washoe.
** (If you take a stroll along the linear park trail that starts at Governor's Field and ends in the middle of the Lompa pasture, you might find some of the answers to this quiz on the interpretive signs along the trail. The day after Thanksgiving might be a good time to take a stroll there, learn a little more about your community, and work off some of that pumpkin pie.)
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Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a 19-year resident of Carson City.