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Book Review: Maurice Tindall’s ‘Down to Earth: A Mendocino County Life’

Last week’s portion of this book review noted two “remarkable” features of Maurice Tindall’s Mendocino County life.  The first I described as the aggressively successful generation-long migration of his whole family from job to job and village to village around Mendocino County before settling in Peachland and Boonville.  The other more remarkable feature of his story, to me anyway, was the fearless spirit, the will to experiment and succeed in frontier survival the family, parents and children, revealed in their odyssey from Largo on the Russian River to his own justice court judgeship seventy years later.

It must have been in the ancestral genes, for he seems to describe both his parents ignoring the stress of each current job and home loss  and focusing their energy on the next opportunity somewhere else a day’s travel away.  And in his recollection, as Morris reports with a great deal of philosophical reflection, how his own career journey provided him with an education in rural life in general across the whole stage of Mendocino County.

In last week’s review I quoted Tindall as reporting Peachland’s climate as “about as good the year around as it possibly could be,” clearly the perspective of an optimistic migratory soul.  He also qualified the remark with an important piece of land use appraisal, “in Peachland the land lay better for homes, and some cultivation, the ridges and slopes were more gentle and (suitable) for pastureland.”  What he was describing was a flat grassy, soil-rich benchland surrounded by oaks and redwoods, Douglas firs, maybe a thousand acres amenable to quickly building a  rough cabin on, good for farming, home gardening and stock raising, even on a small forty acre parcel.

Numerous of Tindall’s articles describe local land use practices, whether on the home farm or hunting and fishing all over the County, along with a regular barrage of observations about the need to take good care of the land he’s living on and living off of.  The more generic ones are about hunting and trapping best practices like one shot per kill, don’t hurry and fire blindly.  One article demeans  City People practices as he describes those Sonoma County hunters firing dozens of shots per day during their hunting season expeditions into our County.  Several times in his reporting he comments on the negative consequences of overstocking and overgrazing sheep on the grasslands in his neighborhood and all over Anderson Valley.  He also devotes a couple of articles to control burn strategy.  This was an activity that the local tribal people, the Pomo, practiced for centuries and the European settlers took up as well.  Morris had himself done these autumn burns often enough he could describe what kind of brush recovered healthily from burning, what not.  Too frequent autumnal burns, for example, could destroy all the manzanita’s seed berries.

At the philosophical level of his journalism Tindall wrote in almost elegiac awe of the pioneer environmental writer Rachel Carson,… “not so long ago a lady looked,  no birds.  She did a lot of research and then wrote SILENT SPRING.”  And later on in this article he too turns prophetic: “Through the ages Man has always been the waster, upsetting Dame Nature (and) destroying for his own profit.  A great tragedy may be in the making… The time soon may come when we will be hard-put to outrun the results of our inventiveness.”

Regarding local farming and timber practices Maurices’s articles regularly address a number of environmentally destructive activities we are still wrestling with today. From his philosophical perspective “if we wish to remain on earth and not let the bugs take over, we should just quit trying to outdo Nature and go along with her.” In 1970 or so he wrote about Mendocino County, “the valleys that were once so fertile and raised large crops have been depleted and farming is not the same as it used to be… Anderson Valley was once  prosperous, with every ranch providing a living and the larger… yielding… cash money.  There was also seasonal work in the tan-bark and woods operations.”

What he was describing was the semi-subsistence, partial cash crop economy that Anderson Valley practiced from the time of the first settlers before the Civil War.  I claim that this economic arrangement was already under stress even before the Great Depression in the 1930s, that it did revive for a while in the post-World War II timber boom, and was well in decline when I first moved here in 1971.  Tindall also in this particular article does a little political economy analysis where he notes that the income per acre on these low productivity semi-subsistence farms was being further  eroded by growing county budgets and annual property tax increases- with no increase in services.  Familiar?  Farm life income simply couldn’t support the cost of local government, he knew 75 years ago.

After his teenage employment in mills, Tindall didn’t have much direct contact with the timber industry, but his sensitivity for the habitats he hunted and fished in made him very aware of the degradation poor logging  practices committed on the Valley forests, streams and river.  In several articles he briefly describes some of these practices which he ties to the appearance of the caterpillar tractor.  His prophetic tablet in an article about logging and parkland states, “We now find that we logged in twenty years what should have taken sixty years to do.”  More prosaic observations include “modern logging with big Cats and lots of road building seem to have caused more destruction than the old way with donkey engines and less skid roads.  Then too the acreage covered in the older days was less per year than in the last few years.”

Tindall describes in several articles steelhead fishing expeditions in the Garcia, Elk, Greenwood creeks and the Navarro and Big River watersheds and his discouragement with the erosion and sedimentation he finds.  D-8 crawlers are a favorite target, as he decries the skidding and road-building he finds right in the streams along with the landslides caused by control burning steep hillsides that then collapse with heavy winter rains.  As a regular visitor to several pieces of the Navarro watershed I know exactly what he is describing; it is painful to see.

Here's an example of Maurice Tindall at his most global and philosophical.  In an article on ranching he digresses into stock stealing as part of the County’s heritage from the beginning of settlement.  Right away he reminds us that in Covelo for example “the invading drove the resident Indians out of their tribal grounds and in so doing killed a few.  The Indians figured they would replace the game lost with beef…one of the unpleasant parts of our county history, mostly unpublished.”  

In a later article exclusively devoted to Indian culture in Mendocino County he puts his thoughts ecosystematically and ethically.  “We have been here [the American continent] less than five hundred years and look at what we have done to the people and their environment.  Not all bad, of course, but high time for improvement…the white race seem to have been trying to since history began convert other peoples to our habits and beliefs.  We have been sending missionaries to islands for a long time and except for hospitals and medical care, the benefits are open to some speculation.  Trying to change in a few short years customs and ideas formed over a great many generations, and many of them of merit during the times they were used.”

Or at a less grand social level here’s Maurice’s article headed “Father and Son Philosophy”:  “One particularly nauseous picture during the feeble fifties was of a pipe-smoking father at a table working at his stamp collection; with a freckle-faced boy (can’t the illustrators ever get a new idea?) sitting there… It  has been my idea for a long time that father and mother are parents, not ‘Pal.’  Even on a hunting jaunt the father and mother are parents, taking out a son or daughter whom they hope to give a good trip and possibly arouse their interest in the ‘possibilities.’  My father took me with him a great deal, but I had to mind what he said and I had a respect for his ability.  My mother being a teacher always listened to what I had to say and encouraged me in boyhood plans and projects, so long, of course they were Hoyle.”

And travel and hunt this County they did.  Tindall tells numerous stories about family hunting and fishing explorations around Anderson Valley, the coast, Cow Mountain east of Ukiah, Lake Pillsbury and even Hull Mountain east of Covelo.  He reports travelling all the way to Crescent City, maybe in the 1920s, simply to secure fishing waders for his family. 

Moreover, the two jobs he reports  taking outside The Valley themselves required county-wide travel.  The one in the 1930s as a representative of the Valley Livestock coop arranging the sale and delivery of cows and sheep directly to feedlots and slaughterhouses in Stockton and San Francisco required he travel all over the County to negotiate the deals with the ranchers.  Another was after World War II working for the USDA Soil Conservation Service encouraging farmers to do better job cultivating annual crops like wheat or apple and pear orchards to minimize soil erosion, also a job requiring field visits to these farms- from Manchester to Round Valley.

Then in 1962 to cap his life Tindall became the Anderson Judicial District Justice of The Peace replacing Harwood June.  This now-forgotten piece of California’s constitution created elected judges to preside in unincorporated parts of the state.  The position included issuing warrant and arrest papers delivered by the court’s constable, adjudicating petty crime, and small damage claims up to $5,000, later $10,000.  His only article on this part of his career is very brief and non-celebratory.  In it he describes the social climate during the post-war logging boom:  “the mills were getting well started and many families moved into the Valley.  Some of these people were often a problem.”  Meaning the Okie and Arkie communities, lots of unstable employment, alcohol, family stress and abuse, incidents in The Lodge, the Last Resort, Hotel Pardini in Navarro, and elsewhere.  He remarks “Many of those [I] sent to jail for a short time didn’t seem to mind, it meant a rest and free meals and they didn’t have to go any place.” And with typical compassion for his fellow humans:  “I often thought it bothered me more than it did them.  I surely hated too shut a man up for a few days.”

Thus journalistically reminisced Maurice Tindall, 1893-1986(?), a monumental figure in the history of Anderson Valley.  To finish my review I offer his own elegy to this place I am grateful and lucky to live in:  “It is to be hoped that a detailed personal history of The Valley and its people [gets written] before it is too late.”  

Thank you, Maurice Tindall for your contribution to our history.

(Next Story: Notable Anderson Valley dumpsite attendants, 1971-2021.)

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