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New book chronicles the making of San Francisco

June 11, 2009 -- Professor Philip Dreyfus was surprised by how divorced his students felt from nature, sparking the idea for his new book "Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco."

Book jacket for "Our Better Nature" which shows sketches of trees and birds.

Even in a city such as San Francisco, with its dramatic hills blanketed by fog, Dreyfus has found that its residents think of their city as separate from the natural environment on which it depends. His book chronicles how successive waves of inhabitants have interacted with nature to produce the city seen today.

"Today, visitors and locals comment on the striking beauty of the city," said Dreyfus, who teaches American environmental history. "But I think readers will be surprised to find out that for most of the 19th century people thought San Francisco was ugly and uncomfortable. In its natural state it was sandy, windswept and bereft of trees which was why so much effort was put into improving the unsavory city."

The area's earliest inhabitants, the Yelamu Indians, found sustenance on the sheltered bay side of the peninsula, hunting shellfish and acorns and leaving a small environmental footprint. Their relationship with nature was interrupted by the arrival of Spanish missionaries who introduced livestock and crop production. Under Mexican rule, the town of Yerba Buena was founded, which was renamed San Francisco a few years later and grew rapidly after the Gold Rush in 1849.

With San Francisco's environmental history as a backdrop, Dreyfus raises questions about how the public thinks about cities and nature, and how the future might look if humans redefine their relationship with the natural world.

 -- Philip Dreyfus will speak about his book at several events this summer. For a full schedule, visit: http://bss.sfsu.edu/dreyfus/dreyfusbooktalks.htm

-- Elaine Bible

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