The Middle Mountain (Article from 1992)

I vividly remember seeing them for the first time. Mysterious crags of gnarled earth that rose abruptly from the surrounding flat landscape. I was driving north on Interstate 5 just past the small town of Williams and looked east. There they were. I couldn’t take me eyes away and that made it difficult to drive. What were they? Not the Sierra, not the foothills, not Mt. Lassen, not the Coast Range. I pulled over and checked the map: Aha! There they were, a perfectly round, tiny clump of mountains called the Sutter Buttes.

On that winter day I was just the most recent human to be captivated by the energy of the Buttes. They pulled me off the busy freeway world of my culture, made me stop and take a breath. Most of the time I am a spiritual skeptic, rarely indulging in feelings that can’t be explained scientifically or measured or quantified. But at that moment I recognized the Sutter Buttes as one of those special places in the world, a place of concentrated power. Maybe this power is because of the volcanic activity, maybe it’s because it is the only mountain around for miles, maybe it is because the native peoples held the area sacred. I don’t know, but the reason doesn’t really matter. The feeling is real.

In 1820 there were 55,000 people living.. around the Buttes; this was the densest concentration of humans north of the great Mayan cities of Mexico. The reason was the abundance of natural resources. Great valley oaks, tules, cattails, wildflowers, elk, grizzlies, pronghorns, beavers, mule deer and millions of waterbirds thrived in the area. This cornucopia easily supported a large number of humans.

There were three tribes that lived along the flanks of the Buttes, and they considered the mountain so sacred that no single tribe was allowed to possess it. To these people, the Buttes were the center of the Earth. They believed that the very first humans had originated in this spot; it was their Garden of Eden. But it was also a boundary, a boundary between the underworld of death and chaos and the upper world of order and reason. It was a dangerous place, and they did not travel through it lightly. There were many restrictions, rituals and taboos. The natives called the Buttes “the Middle Mountain.”

The sad history of these peaceful peoples is a common theme throughout the New World. By 1855 the flourishing population had been reduced to 2,000 ragged survivors. When the Americans and Europeans arrived in California seeking furs and gold, they took the lands from the natives. In return they gave them malaria, smallpox and death. The few remaining survivors were then enslaved by John Sutter to work on his immense land holdings. But even today there are a few remaining descendants of the Middle Mountain people that still live and work in the shadow of Eden.

In the early 1970s a commission formed by the state that identified lands which had potential for park status. They examined areas throughout Northern California, and the Sutter Buttes were number one on the list. The ranchers mobilized the community and political apparatus and successfully resisted acquisition by the state. So the entire area still remains in private hands. This is not necessarily bad: Most of the ranchers are descendants of the first homesteaders in the area, arid the natural features have been well protected, at least within the context of cattle and sheep ranching.

Right now there is a battle brewing in Sutter County over a proposed Golf course and housing project on the southern slope of the Middle Mountain. The idea of “power” lunches on this sacred power spot is repugnant. We must preserve this natural cathedral.

Post Script:

The citizens of Sutter voted overwhelmingly against the golf couse homes!

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August 4, 2009