The Land Below Sacramento

Sacramento’s notoriously flat terrain actually hides a complex landscape of high and dry land, interwoven with low and wet land. Although “City of the Plain” appears featureless at first glance, a volatile alluvial fan dominates Sacramento’s perch on the banks of its namesake river. A restless smaller branch, presently called the American, jumped its banks most winters and found entirely new channels during the greatest floods. Its meanderings built up layers of mud, gravel and hardpan from below the modern sea level.

My expertise is not where any particular species lived. I’m not sure exactly what sort of ecological niches existed in which spots, although I do know where a lot of vernal pools and salt flats, creeks and sloughs used to be. I can’t tell you how many sycamores or tule elk used to live here. I’m just here to tell you that a vast legion of creatures was lost in the process of building this city.

Whatever you believe about who or what created the world, the land on which we are walking is a desecrated work of art. Don’t get me wrong: The whole earth is holy, but the Sacramento landscape is really sublime.

The shifting rivers created a complex web of wet and dry land, where plants adjusted to varying annual moisture. A given spot might sit under water for weeks in one year, then experience only light rainfall the next. A few dozen feet away would be an entirely different situation. Everything depended on overflow – how often and how strongly the rivers jumped their banks.

The land under Sacramento was once home to hordes of wildlife that are difficult for us moderns to imagine. The closest thing is probably the morning departure at one of the valley’s wildlife refuges, when huge swarms of migrating birds take to the air. If you haven’t ever made the pilgrimage to glimpse these restored remnants of the primordial valley, please do.

Sacramento’s dynamic confluence provided an abundant and challenging place for humans to live, prompting creative approaches to raising the terrain – by the Nisenan people as well as the Settlers who displaced them. The Nisenan built earthworks to gain precious elevation. They lived in a string of villages, including Pujune, Sekumne, Yalesumne and Kadema. The Settlers carelessly traced streets across the wetlands, later forcing the physical raising of the city core. Even so, Sacramento City was an extraordinarily bad place for a settlement, and frequent floods made its survival an ongoing matter of debate. This city was built on a bad gamble and could not tolerate competition. And so even Settler communities were wiped off the map: Sutterville, Boston, Brighton, Norristown and Hoboken had to go, along with the Russian Embarcadero, Calle de los Americanos and the original confluence waterfront –now a strip of forlorn and forgotten ruins north of Old Sacramento.

Sacramento City itself was plagued by frequent severe flooding, title issues and unrest that peaked with the August 1850 Squatters Riot and continued for at least two decades. It was quickly clear that this was no place to put a city. Nevertheless, sunk costs demanded the continuation of this foolish enterprise, and forgetting that there were other ways to live here. Relics of these alternate arrangements hint at a more intelligent relationship with a dynamic landscape, and a more resilient future.

This interactive map peels away the last two centuries of change, and seeks to unveil this place called Sacramento – a complex interplay of land and water that has been largely obliterated. It is a work in progress, and attempts to represent imprecise things with crisp lines. Please take it with a grain of salt, but recognize that the features depicted are real. You can see the land below Sacramento, in person, in a variety of places – such as the river channel that is hidden in plain sight at 39th St. Light Rail Stop, 40th & H, or Folsom & 52nd. Future maps will explore the placement of early settlements – mostly forgotten – and hopefully help spur conversation about how Sacramento looks, and how it could exist in a more sensitive and resilient way.

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