Diary of a Golden State

Legacy Project recounts California’s past, and its future

Editor's note: Becoming California won an Emmy Award for Best Cultural/Historical Documentary and Best Editing in June 2015. Visit the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences--San Francisco/Northern California website for list of winners and video clips.

videographer at mono lake

It’s a tale 1.7 billion years—and 163,696 square miles—in the making.

And the story of California’s environment—how it came to be, how it has changed and what lies ahead for its future—is coming to a television or state park near you.

“We came up with a multi-platform story of California’s environmental history,” says Sac State Biological Sciences Professor Jim Baxter. Baxter, along with Jeffrey White of Humboldt State University, spearheaded the California Environmental Legacy Project, a National Science Foundation-funded multimedia blitz to help Californians, and beyond, get to know the vastness and variety of the Golden State through a series of films, podcasts, online content and K-12 lesson plans.

The cornerstone of the project is the documentary “Becoming California,” narrated by Jane Fonda and scored by Pat Metheny, which will air on public television in the fall. Using animation and stunning video, the film demonstrates what the state looked like before humans arrived, and what’s happened since.

“It’s powerful storytelling about California’s environment,” Baxter says. “It shows how things came to be and how things might change.”

But, Baxter stresses, it’s not “gloom and doom” on the fate of the environment. “It’s about reconciliation. Humans are not going away,” he says. “How can we balance a clean environment against a vibrant economy? We love California and we want to take care of it, but not at the expense of quality of life.”

The project also created five regional films that will be shown in visitors’ centers at state and national parks representing the breadth of the state: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National and State Parks, Point Reyes National Seashore, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near the Salton Sea, and Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook urban state park in the center of the Los Angeles basin. They are supplemented by podcasts, which are more narrowly focused geographically.

Baxter sees the parks as “classrooms” for regional stories. “Who will be the next environmental stewards? We want to inspire people to think deeply about their relationship with the environment, to connect people with the natural world so they will go out and get involved.”

The next step is to get the films to more Californians. The project is seeking funding to produce DVDs that can be sold at the parks and distributed to schools. They are also looking at a second series of films, which could include a focus on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 

Watch Baxter and his flim crew capture dramatic aerial footage for "Becoming California."