Jan 022023

Arthur Dawson: Author, Historical Ecologist, and SMP’s New Board Chair

This is the fifth of a series of monthly interviews we are conducting with the Sonoma Mountain Preservation board members. 

Arthur Dawson, SMP’s new board chair in January 2023, is a writer and historical ecologist. He was a Poet-Teacher with California Poets in the Schools for thirty years. He has also worked with the Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Land Trust, Pepperwood, and a myriad of other regional ecological and educational organizations. As a historical ecologist, he’s collected oral histories from local elders and contributed research to local and regional restoration efforts. He has written three local bestsellers, and was the primary writer for SMP’s, Where the World Begins: Sonoma Mountain Stories and Images. His work is regularly published in regional and national magazines, papers, and anthologies on topics such as Sonoma County’s natural and cultural history. Arthur lives with his wife, Jill, in Glen Ellen.

What drew you to join the board of SMP? 

I first became aware of Sonoma Mountain Preservation when they were involved in getting the SDC orchard transferred to Jack London State Park, which happened between 2000 and 2002. A few years later I remember sitting in on some meetings at the Sonoma Ecology Center, where I was working. I can’t remember exactly how I joined the board, but I remember I was impressed with the people who were involved. 

What’s your favorite part of being on the board

The people are wonderful! Dedicated, determined, passionate and joyful about the mountain.

What do you do for SMP? 

I’ve served as Vice Chair for several years and I am now in the process of transitioning into the Chair position. I’ve been putting out the Journal for about the last 10 years—as the main editor and writer. I’ve led some outings, including the two-day Sonoma Mountain treks we did for a couple years just before the pandemic. I had the privilege of being the primary author for our award-winning, bestselling book, Where the World Begins: Sonoma Mountain Stories and Images. I’ve also been serving as the main distributor—doing mailings and deliveries to stores.

How did the book come together? What’s the story? 

For quite a while I had the idea of a book on Sonoma Mountain in the back of my mind. At some level I was waiting for the write moment to begin. Then we got a surprise donation from Suzie Schroll to spend on “whatever will most benefit the mountain.” The board held several meetings over several months, weighing different possibilities before settling on a book about the mountain. I was chosen as primary author in the Spring of 2017 and started working on it. Then in October, I lost my house to the wildfires and was scrambling around trying to get settled enough to start working on it again. I credit the book project with helping me keep a sense of purpose and balance when everything else in my life was very chaotic. Two months after the fire I spent a long weekend on writers retreat at the cottage headquarters of Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation (no relation to us) near the summit. The views and the solitude were wonderful and allowed me to get back my head fully back into the book. I did that several times over the next couple years. 

One of the best parts of the book process was sitting with Meg, Nancy, Mickey and Jack Nisson (apologies if I forgot anyone) and choosing from among the 2500 photos we got from so many community members and professional photographers. That’s what the book really taught me—was how many people really care about the mountain and how big that community is. And the book really came out of the contributions of so many people.

The book launches were exciting, gathering 250 or more people each in Santa Rosa and Sonoma, and less in Petaluma where the venue was smaller. So glad that was in 2019—it wouldn’t have worked a year later with the pandemic!

How did you “meet” Sonoma Mountain?

When I first visited Jack London State Park in 1985 and had a picnic with my grandparents. Chapter three in the book describes my early impressions of the mountain.

In the beginning, I was only casually aware of Sonoma Mountain. That first winter I noticed dusk falling early, saw the December sun setting behind the mountain, and realized I was standing in its shadow. I saw storms blow in over the ridge and in summer, fingers of fog spilling over from the Petaluma side. On rare occasions over the following years, I’d awaken to discover the upper slopes blanketed with snow. Arising before dawn to get my kids off to school, I often caught a glimpse of the ridgetop turning pink as the first light flooded the mountain’s eastern slopes, marking the start of the day.

Where the World Begins, page 25

Do you have a favorite personal story of Sonoma Mountain? 

Getting charged by a mountain lion! See chapter seven.

The lion and I locked gazes again. We stared at each other long enough for me to begin wondering if I might be making it angry. I knew grizzly bears interpret a stare as a direct challenge – something they respond to aggressively. But lions? I couldn’t remember what I’d heard. Turning my gaze sideways again, I watched the lion with my peripheral vision. No change. When I shifted back to a direct look, we again locked eyes. 

Where the World Begins, page 61

Interview conducted by Soneile Hymn. This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

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