Sonoma Mountain author to appear in Petaluma

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What: “A Treasure in Time,” a book reading and signing with the author of “Where the World Begins.”

When: Wednesday, March 20, 7 p.m.

Where: The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, 20 Fourth St.

Admission: Free

What rises in the middle of southern Sonoma County, serves as the headwaters of three major watersheds and is surrounded by a quarter million people?

The answer is Sonoma Mountain — a treasure in plain sight that resembles more of a soft, rambling ridge than a sharp peak at its apex. The mountain provides habitat for wildlife, volcanic soil for growing grapes and natural inspiration for artists and writers who have lived in the shadow of its mighty shoulders through the years.

At roughly 2,463 feet in elevation, it is the highest peak in the Sonoma Mountains, a short, 23-mile-long range that stretches from Sears Point to Bennett Peak (1,880 feet high) and Taylor Mountain (1,404 feet high) in Santa Rosa.

“It’s this mountain that’s surrounded by development and vineyards and the human world,” said Arthur Dawson, author of a new book devoted specifically to this peak. “But the mountain itself is still a semi-wild place … some is regional park, some is open space district, some is private preserve and some folks just have their trophy home up there.”

Glen Ellen-based Dawson, a regional historian and ecologist who has served on the board of the nonprofit Sonoma Mountain Preservation (SMP) for several years, coordinated and wrote the central text for “Where the World Begins: Sonoma Mountain Stories and Images,” which was self-published with help from other nonprofits and donors.

For the book, Dawson interviewed a wide range of people who had close ties to the mountain, either growing up roaming free across its forests, designing its trails, providing education at its nature preserves or doing research on its history and geology.

“All these people had a personal connection with the mountain,” he said. “It wasn’t abstract.”

The recently released book celebrates Sonoma Mountain Preservation’s 25th anniversary this month. The nonprofit, which has advocated for open space and scenic preservation of Sonoma Mountain since 1993, received a generous, unexpected donation three years ago that served as seed money for the project.

“After we spent time vetting different ideas, the book rose to the surface,” Dawson said. “The Sonoma Land Trust was very interested in the project, so they sponsored it early on.”

The coffee-table book features 140 photographs, a dozen maps and a raft of stories about the mountain from people ranging from the Coast Miwok to Jack London, plus chapters written by geologist Rebecca Lawton and guidebook author Tracy Salcedo. All of the contributors have deep roots in the mountain, living either on its slopes or in its shadow.

One of the main missions of the book is to educate Sonoma County residents about the mountain and its storied history.

“It’s not an obvious peak, and a lot of people who live around it could not even point to it,” Dawson said. “It’s a mountain without an ego.”

Meg Beeler, chair of the Sonoma Mountain Preservation board, said the goal of the book is also to connect and expand awareness about all the life that thrives on the mountain.

“We know many, many people have no awareness that they have this mountain in their backyard,” she said. “So we wanted to show them how amazing this mountain is and to deepen their connection to a sense of place.”

Environmental writer Kenneth Brower of Berkeley, son of the pioneering environmentalist David Brower, wrote the foreword to the book.


What: “A Treasure in Time,” a book reading and signing with the author of “Where the World Begins.”

When: Wednesday, March 20, 7 p.m.

Where: The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, 20 Fourth St.

Admission: Free

“The world is a collection of back yards,” Brower wrote. “It could be that hope for the planet, as for Sonoma Mountain, is in a more acute sense of where we are. Maybe the future lies in all of us becoming indigenous to the places we live.”

Soon after he moved to Glen Ellen in 1989, Dawson came across a collection of Coast Miwok stories called “The Dawn of the World: Myths and Tales of the Miwok Indians of California.” One of the stories described how the world and its people began on top of Sonoma Mountain.

“The first part of the book is called ‘Beginnings,’ ” Dawson said. “The very first chapter is ‘Why Sonoma Mountain?’ Why write a book about a mountain that many people may not recognize is there?”

Beginnings also includes a chapter by Beeler on how to foster a mindful, reciprocal relationship with the mountain and a chapter by Lawton on its complicated geology, from the “basement” rocks that were once part of an ancient seabed to younger, volcanic rocks created by various eruptions.

“Sonoma Mountain is no stranger to earthquakes, with relatives of the San Andreas Fault bounding it on either side,” she wrote. “The 37-mile-long Rodgers Creek Fault clips the mountain’s west flank.”

Through tectonic uplift, the mountain rises about a millimeter a year, Lawton wrote, although erosion and water also wears some of it away, sometimes in dramatic fashion during slumps and slides.

In the second section of the book — “House of Life,” the literal translation of the word ecology — Dawson writes about the natural forces of nature at play on the mountain, from water and plants to wildlife, plus seasonal forces such as rain and fire.

Dawson, who lost his Glen Ellen home in the Nuns fire, said the mountain offered him spiritual respite after the trauma of evacuation, loss and relocation. He and his wife have applied for permits to rebuild.

“The mountain was touched by the fire but just barely. So for me, it was a place where you could go after the fires, and it still felt familiar,” he said. “That was important for healing for a lot of people.”

The third section of the book, “A Human Place,“ explores the human history of the mountain up until about the middle of the 20th century, from early loggers and vintners to environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts.

“One of the first powered sawmills was built on the east side of Sonoma Mountain by Gen. Mariano Vallejo in 1839,” he said. “They harvested redwood and probably Douglas Fir.”

Meanwhile, the west side of the mountain was historically dedicated to grazing cattle and sheep on its open grassland.

“About 10 percent of the mountain is vineyard,” Dawson said. “There have been vineyards up there since the 1850s and 1860s.”

The fourth section of the book, “More than One Lifetime,” explores the efforts to preserve and protect the mountain, starting with the indigenous people and including homesteader William Thompson, who may have saved the Grandmother Redwood, which measures 14 or 15 feet across.

In 1905, Jack London bought the first parcel of his Beauty Ranch, which was later established as a state historic park in 1959.

“You can hike to Sonoma Mountain from Jack London Park, or along the North Slope Sonoma Mountain Trail,” Dawson said. “We did the overnight trek last year, and it was great. This year, we’ll be camping in a redwood grove adjacent to Jack London State Park.”

“Where the World Begins” ($40) can be ordered from or purchased at Readers’ Books in Sonoma or Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol or Petaluma.

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