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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Dancing on the Edge of the World

I was at the Land’s End stretch of coast in San Francisco over the weekend, where the great westward push of Euro-Americans finally came to an end on our continent. It was as beautiful, and as exhilarating, as such an historic, game-changing place should be. And haunted by ghosts of the past and future.

Usually we stay at a small hostelry at the edge of Land’s End when we’re in San Francisco, where we can see Seal Rock and the Cliff House out our window. And I love to walk the Coastal Trail beginning just across the street, with Pacific winds rushing up the cliffs, the Golden Gate bridge in view to the north (fog permitting!) and steel superstructures from the dozens of shipwrecks visible in the waves below.

What is it about coastlines that draws people? The fresh, bracing winds? The gorgeous scenery? Maybe it’s also negative air ions created by all those crashing waves; research indicates they affect us physiologically as mood-enhancers. Whatever. People with ample resources grab up private land on every coast for summer homes. People without such resources go walking or camping or simply frolic on the beach for the day—that’s where I fit in.

I appreciate the cool, bracing coastlines of California and Oregon. But I also appreciate the balmy coastlines of Hawaii, and have been fortunate to have friends living there who permit us to house-sit for them, particularly when our kids were young. My son had been to Hawaii a dozen times by his 11th birthday. I regularly indulge myself in solo trips, where beach-combing and snorkeling are favorite pasttimes. Heck, I enjoy just sitting in a beachside park and smoking a slim cigar while watching the sun rise behind Diamondhead, or set over the Waialae range.

Our fascination with coasts may be very deeply rooted. There’s some (mainly non-scientific) support these days for Alister Hardy’s 1960 “aquatic ape hypothesis,” that humans evolved on coastlines and lakeshores. Several lines of evidence are adduced for the hypothesis (bipedalism, hairlessness, descended larynx) by its main proponent, the Welsh scientist/journalist Elaine Morgan.

Here on the western edge of North America, there’s good evidence that the original Americans also felt the fascination of our coastline. The Yelamu tribe of the Ohlone peoples regularly visited Land’s End, according to archeological and cultural remains, for ten thousand years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1769. They would set up camp on the coast and while away the days collecting mussels, fishing for surf perch, and hunting marine birds and mammals with nets, slings, and bows and arrows. They navigated the ever-surging water along the cliffs in highly maneuverable boats of buoyant tule reeds. Cooking was done in baskets or underground ovens, along with the plants and bulbs they’d harvested.

And in the evening, the Yelamu families would gather to sing and dance, reciting poems and stories that reached back thousands of years into their tribal past. Dancing especially was an advanced art form, with chants of “I am dancing, dancing, dancing; dancing on the edge of the world.” I can picture their strong bodies dancing on the cliff edges, with the great ocean beyond, the ever-rushing wind making their skin tingle and glow.

Thousands of years of living richly in a rich land ended abruptly with the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1769, of course. European diseases decimated the Yelamu and the rest of the Ohlone people (as well as the Yakuts and Maidu and all the other native nations) within years, a holocaust that suddenly upended thousands of years of native civilization. For the reeliing survivors, the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and military in 1776 was the final act of destruction, as they were herded into the missions, forced to convert to a strange religion, and spend their days working the farms and ranches of the Spaniards. Those who ran away were captured and forced to return to the strange new way of “life.”

Gone, swept away as swiftly as the sea breezes rushing up the cliffs to which they came no longer, were the Yelamu’s days of hunting and fishing, singing and dancing with your family on the cliff tops of Lands End.

Change is, of course, the one constant in this world. Now the cliff tops and the breezes at Land’s End are enjoyed by Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans and Asian-Americans rather than native-Americans (though some remnants of the Yelamu survive in the new society). It’s good for us all to enjoy the coastline; it’s our birth-right as humans. But it’s only decent, it seems to me, to remember also those who enjoyed it for ten thousand years before us. A new interpretive center just above the Cliff House at Land’s End does an excellent job of helping us remember the Yelamu and how they also enjoyed this area for so many millennia.

Speaking of change, it’s clear now that Land’s End and the San Francisco coastline will be changing dramatically itself in the next century or two. Our signal failure at any national level (with the possible exception of Germany) to deal with climate change means that temperatures will continue to rise, storms will increase in frequency and intensity, and as glaciers further recede, the sea level’s rise will transform the coasts upon which most humans live and love to visit.

So the coastline will change, but it will not disappear. Still we, like the Yelamu before us, will come to the end of the continent, to savor the experience. For ten thousand years the Yelamu took diligent care of their slice of the natural world, and thus had a marvelously long run of enjoying it. Our “new” American enjoyment of the coast has been of much briefer duration—a mere two hundred and some years since the Spanish missionaries and soldiers arrived—and we’ve set up major changes we’ll be forced to deal with. But we’ll do our best to handle the changes, and many of us will surely continue to walk along some coastal trail, and dance on some edge of the world.
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