No consensus for Point Reyes history book

David Briggs
John Hart, an environmental writer and lifelong Marin County resident, has released a new history of the Point Reyes Peninsula, once slated for development as a major recreational destination complete with golf courses and cabanas.
10/04/2012

It has been a long road to publication for a book on the history of the Point Reyes Peninsula that is slated to arrive in bookstores later this month.

An Island In Time: 50 Years of Point Reyes National Seashore has been making a local stir for its coverage of agriculture and Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Activists on both sides of these hot-button issues have complained about draft versions of the book, which allegedly lost its original publisher—the University of California Press—as a result of critical reviews.

“Only about five percent of the book is actually controversial,” John Hart, who has written about the environment for over 40 years and has authored 15 books, said.

The sleek volume features local photographers and describes the geologic, natural and human history of the peninsula from prehistoric to present times. Yet it is the coverage of the highly politicized presence of agriculture in the seashore that has colored the project so far.

The book

Imagine if Limantour Estero had been dredged, gated and turned into a massive pool for bathers and motorboats. This was part of the vision for a heavily developed park that dominated the early days of the newborn Point Reyes National Seashore. A coastal road would have connected Limantour to Bolinas. Early planners foresaw expanded roads connecting golf courses, cabanas and sun-bathing beaches. One wonders what they made of the fog.

This forestalled vision for the park—and the ways in which the seashore developed into what it is today—are among the many nuggets of little-known information in An Island In Time. The scope of the book is ambitious, ranging from the peninsula’s geologic underpinnings to the windswept biota of the cliffs to the Christianization of Coast Miwoks in the missions of San Rafael. Local legends are retold, such as the tale of silver pirate Sir Francis Drake, and how a lawyer named Oscar Shafter came to own most of the peninsula. The stories are necessarily abbreviated to fit them all in, and many times a reader may be left wanting to know more.

Photos and illustrations are scattered liberally throughout the pages of the pristinely printed, coffee table book. Historic pictures as well as modern images by Marty Knapp, Richard Blair, Kathleen Goodwin and Art Rogers capture the drama and beauty of the peninsula.

A long road

The idea to publish a book on the history of Point Reyes in celebration of the park’s 50th anniversary originated with Phyllis Faber, co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, back in 2008 when she served on the board of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. Mr. Hart was an obvious candidate for the project, Ms. Faber said, because he had written numerous well-received books on the area, including Farming on the Edge: Saving Family Farms in Marin County, and San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary. Mr. Hart agreed, and while Ms. Faber sought funding for the idea he developed a proposal that was accepted by the UC Press.

Leads for support from Chevron and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association didn’t pan out, and the project was nearly scrapped, Mr. Hart said. Eventually local philanthropists Peggy Rathmann and John Wick stepped in. Although Ms. Faber and the funders are known supporters of the continuation of the oyster farm, Mr. Hart said that did not affect the book.

When the original publisher decided not to continue with the book last autumn, Mr. Hart approached Berkeley’s Heyday Press with the project. That publisher gave it serious consideration, but eventually declined—largely because of concerns about how well an art book combining local history and photography would sell, Mr. Hart said, though other concerns included the short timeline before publication and the potential for community polarization.

The final product was published by Lighthouse Press, a branch of Ms. Faber’s publishing operation, Pickleweed Press. She raised private funds to pay for the initial printing of 1,000 copies. The bulk of these are currently being shipped to California by boat. A supply of advance copies was made available last weekend at a talk and book signing given by Mr. Hart at Toby’s Feed Barn, and sold out the same day.

Both critics and supporters attended the event, but most fell into the pro-agriculture camp. Point Reyes National Seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso said nobody at the seashore had heard anything about it, and indicated that he would have liked to attend.

The controversy

Peer review is an important part of the proposal process for any book under consideration by the UC Press. Once a book that has been contracted reaches a draft phase, the publisher sends it to a number of peer reviewers for evaluation.

For those asked to read An Island In Time, the verdict was split down the middle—and that was enough to kill the project, Mr. Hart said.

“I didn’t realize it, but I guess you need to have a pretty unanimous positive verdict,” he said. “But I think that a university press should publish a book that touches on controversy if the author has done his or her level best to take criticism on board and to keep the boat on even keel. And I tried to do that, very hard.”

The reviewers’ critiques fell into two main categories, according to Mr. Hart: technical details, which he was grateful to correct; and fundamental problems with the book’s approach, which he wasn’t comfortable changing.

“I think the only thing that would have satisfied the pro-wilderness reviewers would be to play the oyster thing way down, if not to remove it entirely,” he said. “That would be a bit like describing recent American history without talking about Afghanistan. You just can’t do it.”

There were a number of substantial changes to the text as a result of the comments, he noted. For example, an early draft stated that native oysters once were probably abundant in Drakes Estero. Mr. Hart later reviewed the research more deeply, and revised his opinion.

Because the reviewers are anonymous, they could not be reached for a response. The UC Press declined to comment on the book or on the review process in
general. 

The draft version of the book was informally circulated throughout the community, at about the same time it was being peer reviewed. And the comments came streaming in—with ample criticism from all factions.

“I’ve never had as much pressure brought on anything I’ve ever written as I have on this project,” said Mr. Hart, whose other projects have delved into highly political subjects such as Californian water rights. “At one time it seemed that everyone in West Marin had a copy. It was a very efficient way of getting input.”

One of these unofficial reviewers was Mr. Hart’s long-time colleague, Amy Meyer, who said she generally respects Mr. Hart’s work but was not happy with the draft. “It was off base; it placed too much value on agriculture,” said Ms. Meyer, who is the chair of the nonprofit People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “The seashore, the Wilderness Act and the seashore wilderness act all need to be accurately reflected in the book.”

While some readers objected that too much emphasis was placed on the oyster farm controversy, others complained there was not enough. Oyster farm advocate and former United States Representative Pete McCloskey, who helped acquire the original federal funding to purchase the seashore, turned down a request to write a forward because he felt the book was biased in favor of
wilderness.

For his part, Mr. Hart felt he struck a difficult balance. “I find that each side has its own favorite facts, and they are facts—but there are others that each side prefers to ignore,” Mr. Hart said. “My ambition is that even people who don’t like this book will acknowledge that it is fair. Maybe that is naïve.”