By DONNA McCrohan Rosenthal

RIDGE WRITERS ON BOOKS: ’A State of Change’Laura Cunningham, a skilled artist and naturalist trained in biology and paleontology, spent over two decades researching and illustrating California before European contact. The resulting oversized volume presents vast inland seas, shallow lakes created by flooded valleys before the construction of dams and levees and great riparian jungles of vines and shrubs along rivers.

Saying that she had always been fascinated by the floras and faunas of earlier epochs, evolving landforms, and what the gathered fossils of a place might reveal, Cunning-ham shares her discoveries with us, in a combination of careful prose, plenty of field sketches and oils in the tradition of Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and the other American painters who headed into the wilderness to capture the wonders they saw.

She bases her work on journals, archival records and personal observation of our few spots that remain largely unspoiled.

She explores panoramas where great herds of elk and bison roamed, abundant bear prowled the earth, whales migrated just off the shoreline and birds filled the skies, and she traces the impact that fire, big and small cycles of time and climate from El Nino to the Little Ice Age, Native Americans, livestock and more have had in the intervening centuries.

She does not advocate returning to lost eras so much as recognizing them as a “prehistory that has helped shape the California myth: rolling, bright yellow hills, sun-drenched poppy fields, sapphire blue skies, great forests that awed the world, glacial valleys, and of course, the golden bear.”

At the same time, she believes we can learn from all this in our efforts to keep our surroundings habitable.

Cunningham provides interesting and informative text accompanied by magnificent full-color re-creations, for instance a huge southern California bear wandering through the foothills above the San Fernando Valley 500 years ago, the slopes covered with giant needlegrass, one-sided bluegrass, prickly pear, California buckwheat, black sage and lemonadeberry, juxtaposed with a picture of the same area today.

Another page shows the present city of San Ber-nardino along I-15 next to San Bernardino 500 years ago — a scene of marshes and running water lined with Fremont cottonwoods, willows and sycamores.

“A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California” succeeds admirably in taking us into the past right under our feet, a glorious hidden world beyond living memory.

This weekly column is written by members of the Ridge Writers, the East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. Meetings are held the first Wednesday evening of each month at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church, and free programs are offered throughout the year. Ridge Writers’ book “Planet Mojave: Visions From a World Apart” is available at Carriage Inn, Jawbone Station, the Historic USO Building, the Maturango Museum, Red Rock Books and online from the official website, www.planetmojave.com.

Story First Published: 2013-03-20