11 July 2023

Visiting Tuyshtak

The road to the Visitor Center at Tuyshtak is long. I wasn’t used to driving a vehicle, especially without the driver assistance features, but these windy ways still required human attention. You never knew when a coyote, bobcat, or mountain lion might stray near the road, especially now that vehicles are so quiet. I thought back to my grandparents, driving this road in an unassisted gas-powered vehicle, and I chuckled to the empty air around me. You sure would have heard one of those coming.

I tried for the millionth time to put myself in their place. For my family, even then, the top of the mountain was an important place. My grandparents had chosen to be married there—I’d heard that story over and over. My grandmother loved all the new transit technology and redesigned city centers that made driving unnecessary; after all, she had been involved in the simulations and models that had been key to redesigning our own hometown. She told those stories often, too. But she still said to me, many times, “There is a joy to driving a vehicle unassisted. A wild, unfettered feeling.”

She had been so pleased when I had told her about this trip. Even in her nineties, she had recounted to me what the landscape had looked like, forgetting how much time I spent using historical images in my work. But still I cherished every word. One thing I was hoping to come away with after this trip was new inspiration for how to combine her verbal accounts with the beautiful data the Coalition ecologists had collected over the years. I had already put a lot of time into merging my treatments of the historical images with the quantified data, but as I planned for the new installation at my studio, I could feel something was missing. My gut feeling, which I’ve been learning to trust more and more, was that the key lay in my own personal experience with the mountain, and in my family’s history of the place.

And that was just another reason I was so glad to be doing this with Ellen. After all, her family’s history with the mountain goes back to time immemorial. More recently, her mother had been heavily involved in the formation of the Tuyshtak Coalition—a collaboration between local land trusts, the California state parks, and the Muwekma Tribe—and when the Tribe finally regained their federal recognition and the land surrounding the mountain was rematriated to them, Ellen’s mother had led the data collection and analysis that went into the Tribe’s initial assessments and stewardship plans. She had facilitated the connections with ranchers to institute some grazing in the short term, and she had also laid out the longer-term plans for the prescribed fire that would restore much of the then-overgrown slopes of the mountain.

As I wound my way upwards, I admired the way the vegetation was patchy, and how there were bright flowers in the places there had once been burns back during the wet days of winter. “Fire followers,” I remember my grandmother telling me. They hadn’t been seen in many decades, she said, when she was young, but now we could see them most years after there was a burn.

I slowed down as I took a curve past a particularly bright patch full of red-orange fire poppies and soft-purple red maids, admiring the profusion of beautiful color. I made a mental note to collect some images of these landscapes for my installation. Maybe I could even do a repeat photography project as part of it; access at this level of the mountain was unrestricted, and I could return any time . . . but as my thoughts drifted to logistics and aesthetics, my smartwatch vibrated.

I found a turnout and pulled carefully off the road. People still rode bicycles, electric or otherwise, up here, and it wouldn’t do to surprise someone laboring up the steep roads. Safely out of the way, I tapped the watch and it displayed Ellen’s message on the interior screen in the vehicle: “Running late at work, leaving soon.”

I sighed. Ellen was following in her mother’s footsteps, both the hard-working part and the “enthusiastic adoption of technology” part. She’d often teased me for not getting an e-link, but I was old-fashioned in more ways than just knowing how to drive. I still preferred to read information or listen to it without it being implanted in my brain. The technology was already twenty-five years old—only a little older than Ellen and I, in fact, so it was far from untested. But still I felt it interfered with my experience of the world. “Artist’s prerogative,” I always told her when she teased me. And she’d laugh and point behind her ear, near the e-link implant, and say, “Data scientist’s prerogative.”

Somehow it never infuriated me. And neither did her running late, because I knew the projects she was working on were time sensitive. The Cultural Officer also knew what kinds of projects Ellen worked on for the Tribe, so he would not be troubled by her delay. I certainly wanted to be on time to speak with him, though. I had initial approval to proceed higher than the Visitor Center, but he would be letting me know the Council’s decision on how high, exactly, I could go.

At any rate, I decided I’d just continue to the Visitor Center and wait inside. It was cold out, and I knew it would be quite blustery up high on the mountain. When we went out for our trip, I would wear my warm clothes, but I didn’t want to put those on just yet. I closed the message display and pulled carefully back onto the road.

When I arrived at the Visitor Center, I took a moment to walk around the grounds. There were still remnants of when it had been a campground, before the Coalition and the Tribe had begun to implement the changes they’d been planning during the long battle for federal recognition. Checking my smartwatch, I went inside to speak with the Cultural Officer in the back office.

I’d already had to sign a number of different forms and handwrite a statement about my reasons for wanting access higher up the mountain than the Visitor Center. I was open to being restricted to locations below the summit, though I was still hoping to visit the top of the peak itself, so I was a little nervous as I knocked on the Cultural Officer’s door.

“Come in,” he said. I walked in, admiring the Bay Miwok art on the shelves and some prints of historical images I recognized from working with them in my own projects.

He smiled at me and gestured for me to sit. I did so, barely able to contain my excitement and anxiety. I was thankful when he got straight to the point: “Thank you for your written statements. The Council respects your desire to visit a place that is important to your family. We recognize that there are many different ways to relate to this place. We grant your request to ascend to the summit, as you feel appropriate.”

I nodded eagerly. “Thank you!” I said, relieved. “I will send my regards to the rest of the Council, as well.”

He nodded, smiling. Then he grew serious again. “Two conditions, however. Though we recognize that all have different ways of relating to the place, they must not interfere with other ways of relating. You may not take anything, even photographs.” I nodded, a little disappointed, but there were plenty of other ways to represent the place to myself and others.

He went on: “And I see that you plan to ascend with a companion. You are not to ask them about their experience, and not to discuss yours, during the time you are on the mountain. This respects the sacredness of the experience.”

I nodded. “Would it be acceptable for me to write about the experience afterwards and incorporate it into my art installation?”

He smiled again. “Of course. The Council also approved that portion of your proposal. And I personally commend you in the pursuit of a holistic depiction of this place.” I smiled back. This approval added to my sense that a family connection would be the missing element in my narrative about change on the mountain.

I thanked him, and he gave me leave to depart. I wandered back to the exhibit hall and checked the time again, estimating that Ellen would still be a while. So, I found a quiet spot to sit and rest a bit. Driving was tiring business, I’d found—and I had been more worried about the meeting than I’d realized. It didn’t take long for me to doze off, reassured by the murmur of various visitors coming and going and commenting on exhibits new and old.

“Come along, everyone!”

The teacher’s voice startled my eyes open. A moment later, I heard the sounds of the children pouring into the Visitor Center. I sighed. I’d been hoping for some peace while I waited for Ellen, but there was no use in getting irritated. I agreed that it was important to bring the kids to this place and teach them about it, after all. They were just so . . . loud.

I listened idly as a ranger tried to get the kids’ attention. “Now, everyone! Can you tell me the name of this mountain?”

A chorus of young voices (fifth grade, I guessed?) shouted out cacophonously, “Tuyshtak!”

“Very good! Now, raise your hand if you know another name for it.” A few obedient hands shot up. I raised my eyebrows. The name change had happened decades before I’d been born, as one of the first acts of the Coalition. I was surprised that any kids this young would know it.

The ranger called on one little girl near the front, her dark eyes very serious. “Mount Diablo,” she said quietly.

The ranger smiled at her. “That’s right. Back when the mountain was called Diablo, this building was at the very top! That’s 1,173 meters above sea level! Here, we’re at 914 meters above sea level.” The ranger crouched down and said conspiratorially to the kids, “Do you know that they moved this whole building, rock by rock?”

“Whoa,” some of the kids breathed. One hand shot up. It was the serious little girl again.

“Yes?” asked the ranger. She pushed her kinky black hair back. “Well . . .” she said, “why did they move a whole building?”

The ranger smiled at her. “That’s a very good question. Who knows who was here on the mountain before us?” More hands. I smiled. I remembered when a ranger had asked my fifth grade class questions just like this. Of course, I’d been there with Ellen. I knew the answer was her ancestors, and that had made me feel very special, to be her friend. I still felt special to be her friend, though the reasons ran deeper now than they had when we were eleven. At the time, our fifth grade class had visited a temporary building here at the Juniper Campground, because the Tribe had just taken over management and hadn’t rebuilt the Visitor Center yet.

I watched as answers emerged like “Ohlone,” “Explorers,” “Muwekma,” “Miwok,” and so on. There were a few more creative answers, like “Aliens!”, and the serious little girl said, “Bears.”

The ranger laughed and said, “That’s right. This place has a long history. The Muwekma Tribe view the summit, the very top of the mountain, as a very special place. When the explorers came, they put a marker at the top so they could measure things from that point.”

The ranger had conflated explorers and surveyors, but that was fine for little kids. In fact, that survey marker was still there. The Coalition had determined they would leave it when they moved the building so that there was some physical recognition of what had been done to the mountain. It wasn’t used for surveying anymore, of course; all global positioning was done with satellites nowadays.

The ranger went on: “And then they built this building on the summit so that people could go up to the top of the mountain to learn all about it. But then it was decided that the summit should be returned to the Tribe to take care of, and that’s how we came up with the idea to move the whole building down here.”

The kids were getting a little antsy, but fortunately that was when Ellen came in the door. I straightened unconsciously, feeling the usual flood of warmth I got whenever I saw her. I watched as she reached up and tapped behind her ear to switch off her e-link. Today, she would have to stay unplugged all day; I wondered how she’d do.

She came over and hugged me. I pointed and said, “The Cultural Officer is in there. I’ll wait outside?” Because she was Muwekma, it would be faster than it had been for me. She only had to show her Tribal identification to verify her access. And it didn’t hurt that she worked for the Tribe.

She nodded. “Sure. See you out there!” I watched her go to the back office, then walked around the boisterous fifth graders. They were just starting to do coyote imitations as I shoved the front door to head outside.

As I emerged, I felt a huge gust of wind and looked up at the ridge above me. I was about to go up there, to the summit. I still didn’t know what exactly Ellen was seeking for herself, but when I’d told her I wanted to do the trip, she’d said she wanted to go too. When we’d been little, she used to love to be part of her father’s group when he made traditional Tule canoes, but since then she’d gotten more and more involved with data and management. I wondered what she might be expecting of the next several hours. I guessed she wouldn’t ascend fully to the summit; I trusted that she knew from her Elders how high it was appropriate to go. But for my history, for my family, I knew I wanted to go to the top. I needed to see the place for myself.

Waiting for her outside, I felt a strange sense that something was watching me. Or . . . not watching—more like something could see my soul. A comforting-strange supernatural feeling settled over me as I went to my vehicle and changed into my warm clothes.

Ellen walked out of the Visitor Center. I noticed her surreptitiously tap her e-link, get distracted for a moment, and then tap it again to turn it off. Constantly connected Ellen . . . would she be able to let go into this experience? Would she miss the opportunity to connect with this place? I wasn’t even Native, myself, and I already knew not to ask about what she was seeking. But as she walked up to me, I was reminded of how much I loved her, how long we’d known each other. Maybe I could still help her in some way.

Together, we set off.

Author’s notes:

I have a deep personal interest in storytelling in many forms, with narrative speculative fiction high among them. I think of speculative fiction as a kind of qualitative model for exploring alternative ways of being. If we can’t imagine worlds differently than what we have now, how will we build and work towards something different from the status quo? Otherwise, like many predictive statistical models, we will be restricted to the range of realities expressed in our input data.

This piece was first written for Joan Haran’s “Imaginactivism” event at the Science and Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz in 2017. The prompt was “900 words about a place that is particularly meaningful to you… Who and what have (had) attachments to that place, and how are those attachments bound up in larger networks of interrelationship? Do those attachments open up ways of imagining flourishing cohabitation (however you conceive of that), or do those attachments need to be disconnected and / or reconnected to create spaces of possibility?” Joan suggested alternate pasts, presents, or futures, and I chose to imagine a future only about 50 years from now. I am deeply grateful to Data Science by Design for enabling me to revisit and expand my vision. I very much enjoyed incorporating my recent and current work on reimagining data science and data synthesis into my thoughts about how a very special place could also be transformed, and the people and its relationships along with it.

I grew up in Walnut Creek, with Mount Diablo as a central point in my life. When we were given the prompt to re-imagine the past, present, or future of a place that is particularly meaningful to us, I thought immediately of the peak I’ve looked at my whole life and visited at important times. I wanted to imagine a future for it in which equity and reverence are better integrated in how we as a collective culture relate to it. I struggled with how exactly I wanted to voice this short piece, and settled on a first-person strategy to allow at least some readers to directly inhabit the narrator’s point of view. I also tried to capture my own feelings of conflict regarding how to be an ally to native peoples when I am not myself native, and the tension between technology and authenticity in the contemporary world and in my work — where I strive to support Indigenous and local peoples’ knowledge but also make use of technological tools to do so.

At the time I write this, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is still seeking Federal recognition after having lost it through a criminally negligent clerical error in 1906. I also want to acknowledge that the future timeline I imagined for the mountain is grounded in the actual long-term consistent work of Tribes and allies in Northern California and Oregon to remove four dams from the Klamath River, soon to begin in 2023. Finally, the role of the narrator as a data artist is something I based directly on many of my wonderful collaborators at Data Science by Design. Thank you for all your lovely and insightful work!


M.V. Eitzel is a researcher at the Center for Community and Citizen Science at the University of California, Davis, focused on participatory data science. M.V. creates community-based models of messy natural resources data on topics like forestry, marine protected areas, agro-pastoral management, and dam removal and is also focused on understanding how and why collaboration with communities creates better modeling results for everyone.