A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California

Gold Medal Winner of the 2011 California Book Award

Vernal pools, protected lagoons, grassy hills rich in bunchgrasses and, where the San Francisco Bay is today, ancient bison and mammoths roaming a vast grassland. Through the use of historical ecology, Laura Cunningham walks through these forgotten landscapes to uncover secrets about the past, explore what our future will hold, and experience the ever-changing landscape of California.

Combining the skill of an accomplished artist with passion for landscapes and training as a naturalist, Cunningham has spent more than two decades poring over historical accounts, paleontology findings, and archaeological data. Traveling with paintbox in hand, she tracked the remaining vestiges of semipristine landscape like a detective, seeking clues that revealed the California of past centuries. She traveled to other regions as well, to sketch grizzly bears, wolves, and other magnificent creatures that are gone from California landscapes. In her studio, Cunningham created paintings of vast landscapes and wildlife from the raw data she had collected, her own observations in the wild, and her knowledge of ecological laws and processes.

Through A State of Change, readers are given the pure pleasure of wandering through these wondrous and seemingly exotic scenes of Old California and understanding the possibilities for both change and conservation in our present-day landscape. A State of Change is as vital as it is visionary.


“A California classic.”

—Steve Heilig, San Francisco Chronicle


“A natural history masterpiece.”

—Matt Kettmann, Santa Barbara Independent


“Laura Cunningham's imaginative tour de force provides a time machine where pre-settlement California can be savored in all her splendor and magnificence. A remarkable vision of the Golden State!”

—Graham Chisholm, Executive Director, Audubon California


“Cunningham's remarkable work reminds me of the multitalented naturalists of old. This book encompasses extensive historical research, biological fieldwork throughout the state, and, of course, amazing paintings. We are lucky to have her here today, giving us this tantalizing, informative, inspiring glimpse into something we all try to imagine: California before us.”

—Robin Grossinger, environmental scientist, San Francisco Estuary Institute


“Hundreds of Cunningham's detailed, realistic paintings fill this huge coffee-table delight, whose text traces the evolution of a diverse region, once home to half-striped ancient horses and Pleistocene-era cheetahs.”

—Anneli Rufus, "Envisioners, Explainers and Iconoclasts: The best books of 2010," East Bay Express

About the Author

Laura CunninghamLaura Cunningham, an artist and naturalist, studied paleontology and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked at various field biology jobs for the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other organizations, getting to know such species as the Owens Valley pupfish, the southern California steelhead trout, the Yosemite toad, and the Panamint alligator lizard. Simultaneously, she has been studying and painting California’s historic and living wildlife, flora, and unique landscapes. She lives near Death Valley National Park, where she cofounded the group Basin and Range Watch to explore the historical ecology of the desert ecosystems of California and Nevada, and to protect them. Visit her blog at https://laura-cunningham-art-nature.blogspot.com/.

Photo by Kevin Emmerich