A Negotiable Utopia: The Humboldt Bay Project (Overview)
Humboldt Bay's origins can be traced back to when several river valleys became inundated by the sea level rise that followed the end of the last glacial maximum—about
20,000 years ago. About 6,000 years ago, the rate of sea level rise began to decrease, allowing the mouths of these rivers to fill with sediment (and for coastal dunes
to form and enclose them) thus eventually creating the bay. Humboldt Bay has three distinct sections: the large and orb-shaped North (or Arcata) Bay, where millions
of shellfish are farmed, the narrow and attenuated Entrance Bay, where most of the industry remains, and the shallow and eel grass-blanketed South Bay, now
dominated by a national wildlife refuge. The bay has two small cities (Eureka and Arcata) and a scattering of much smaller towns. There are four major tributaries,
numerous streams, and about one hundred miles of shoreline. Its geographical footprint varies between about 25 square miles at high tide to about 10 square
miles at low tide, and includes subtidal marine habitats, intertidal mudflats, eel grass beds, marshes, dunes, and riparian woodland.
Humboldt Bay's indigenous people—the Wiyot—have lived here for thousands of years. Non-native populations swept into the region from 1850
onward—swiftly and dramatically transforming the bay with implacable profiteering and bravado. Natural resource exploitation—including
timber and fishing—was foundational to the bay's economy for well over a century, and remains important (though diminished) to this day.
The region's economy is also supported by tourism, education, healthcare, and agricultural activities of various types—including the
notorious cannabis for which the county is known. This once largely agrarian and working-class culture has over time melded with the
mindsets of more recent and mostly ex-urban arrivals, but friction still obviously happens. As a community, though, there is much that
is shared—including an abiding respect for the natural world, a particular brand of practical utopianism, as well as an assortment
of uniquely regional rituals and tastes. This community also shares (as forever have the Wiyots) an intuitive awareness of
Humboldt Bay's status as the center of its world—an article of faith that is powerfully binding.
Outsiders embrace this region's familiar tropes—Humboldt as a pristine and majestic vacation destination, for example, or
as a mystical countercultural mecca. Many locals also endorse this comforting perspective, and it's admittedly useful
for economic development. This place and its bay house many complicating cultural identities, however—including ones
that are overlooked or infrequently acknowledged. These identities can be found within working-class communities
struggling in an often unpredictable economy, or in the varied civic development projects that continually refashion
the bay's built environment. Local researchers and activists also create compelling cultural narratives with their
tactical responses to shifting social and environmental predicaments. These types of place-based scenarios (and
the stakeholders who make them) are a foundational source of inspiration for this project, as is the undeniable
power of ordinary landscapes to capably chronicle a community's most meaningful issues and values.