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A description of distant roads: Original journals of the first expedition into California, 1769-1770 Hardcover – 2001
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Text: English, Spanish (translation)
Original Language: Spanish
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As Iris Engstrand has pointed out in her wonderful translation of Jose Mozino's ethnographic diary of the Nootka people of Vancouver Island, Mexican-born Spanish observers were some of the best equipped observers of native America who have ever lived. By training (Jesuit and Franciscans were often highly educated in botany, in mining, in drawing, in linguistics, in comparative religion), by birth (mixing in both European and Indian worlds) and especially by language (most spoke at least one Native American language in addition to Latin and Spanish), these men were much better equipped to describe the native peoples they met than were most other European travelers. And they were more capable than English or French observers of understanding Native American land use, legal arrangements, and social structure. In other words, Spanish-language documents are among the best windows onto Native America that we have--much more important than the relatively impoverished English-language sources that dominate much of our mainstream historiography.
All of this and much, much more comes out in Alan K. Brown's epic writings. If you are serious about California history or the interaction of European empires with Native American peoples, you need to own and read his work.
As a little background, I do native plant habitat restoration on my property. Needless to say, the question comes up as to how the vegetation was configured under aboriginal management . As the Portola expedition came within a few miles of this location, I bought and read Brown's translation of Crespi's Diary with great enthusiasm. I had no reason to suspect a problem. This, I had been told, was the definitive report.
As I got farther into reading it, there of course rose questions. So I bought Fages, Costanso, Cabrillo, etc., now some thirteen journals and diaries in all. In doing so I became advised of the problematic translation of variants on the two terms "sacates" and "pasto," one clearly denoting grasses and the other "pasture," both of which Dr. Brown had uniformly translated as "grasses." Yet the distinction between the two original terms is very important to inferring whether these areas were grasslands or were burned so often that they were more predominately leafy annuals, which would have a lot to do with how soils developed in those areas. As it turns out, analyses of mission bricks indicate fewer grasses and more leafy matter. So I was already apprised of problematic interpretations in the translation, but I hadn't truly become aware of the magnitude of this interpretive license.
Then I heard about Herbert Eugene Bolton's 1926 four-volume translation of Francisco Palou's Memoirs. The latter contains the entirety of Crespi's Diary in Volume 2. Unfortunately, this is a rare item, costing some $300-600 used but I was able to borrow one from a fellow scientist. So just for grins I grabbed Dr. Brown's translation, aligned the two by calendar entry, and was in for an immediate shock. Both translators re-order sentences within paragraphs at will for readability, but as long as the content is the same that is not a huge problem. Unfortunately, I ran across plant names that indicated completely different species and therefore habitat type. For example, where Bolton translated "Alder" Brown would call it a "Sycamore." Where there is alder it is usually a wet riparian area, sycamore less so. Where Bolton indicated "blackberries," Brown said "weeds," one being perennial vegetation and great cover for ground nesting birds, and the other being fodder for ungulates. The differences were everywhere.
Not knowing which to trust (if either), I divined from Brown's edition the corresponding Spanish term for each plant and popped it into Babel Fish. In every case so far, Bolton's translation has been correct and Brown's not so.
One of the great things about Brown's work is that he locates every diary entry with great care. I know this State in that detail as my mom drove my brother and I up and down Highway 101 to see her mother in El Cajon every year, stopping at missions along the way for educational reasons. So Brown's contribution here was of immense value to my ability to visualize the scene while reading because I am so familiar with those areas and would appreciate the changes in vegetation, principally due to fire suppression. Unfortunately, when Dr. Brown went to those places, he didn't see a habitat that could support alders in San Diego, and so (I suppose) concluded that Fr. Crespi was in error and "translated" the Spanish "alizos" into "sycamores." Well, maybe not.
Costanso's diary reports snow on the hills of San Diego in April. Crespi reports an Indian near Paso Robles (elevation 800 feet) telling him of snow in that area 2-1/2 feet deep. If I recall correctly, Vila's log describes the Santa Lucia Mountains as Sierra Nevada (snowy mountains). Crespi records water flows by volume in many a creek as much higher than today. Vegetation was lusher and greener, but that may be because it was native (for many reasons into which I will not go here). What we may have here is a record of California weather during the Little Ice Age, when things were different.
Hence, Dr. Brown's interpretation is no longer a faithful translation, and let this be a warning to any scholar who is ever so tempted. For if this had not been caught, we might not have learned about this record of climate change in California more rapid than anything we see today, nor would we have as good a feel for the adaptive capabilities of the native vegetative system.
So now, in order to understand how reliant upon vegetative v. animal materials the Indians were in California, I get to question every word in both translations until I get a sense of who's telling the truth and I don't speak Castillian Spanish. This sucks.
Why did Dr. Brown do this? Sadly, Dr. Brown has passed, so we can only guess. If he had an issue with Crespi's botany skills, he could have simply added a footnote. But no, now somebody else now needs to go through this thing again with a fine-toothed comb and correct it, a tragic outcome for a life of obviously diligent scholarship.
Crespi's journal comments show little knowledge of botany or drawing, and these are two important skills that these journal entries needed. Furthermore, this book has no annotations that can tell the readers just where Crespi was on the date of each entry, in terms we could understand.
The impression the reader gets while perusing these daily diaries, is of constantly confronting similar terrain, whether valleys, grasses, hills of various gradients, and of the local "heathens". These diaries are so redundant and so NOT interesting or informative, that it becomes mind-boggling why anyone (academic or not) would want to read the book for very long.
His understanding of botany was sparse and yes some inclusion of drawings or paintings would have added vital information regarding his text, yet he didn't take an artist with him on these trips, nor could he himself draw or paint.
And why in the world did the publisher not print this "historic" book, on archival or at least acid-free paper? My guess is that it's because there isn't much information in this tome that needs retaining or protecting...
To summarize, this massive book illustrates why the number of words, the amount of detail, and the weight of the book itself, aren't what makes a book superb! The amount of useable or even interesting information in all of Crespi's journal entries, is extremely small.