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Place Names: Sonoma Mountain’s other name

Monday, March 4th, 2013 | Posted by

Oona-pa’is is another name for Sonoma Mountain. Pa’is means “mountain” in the Coast Miwok language.

Tamalpais in Marin County has the same ending. Tamal means “bay,” so tamalpais translates as “bay mountain,” or “mountain by the bay,” a good description of that peak.

Oona does not appear in Miwok dictionaries, but the sound is close to oo’-noo, the word for “buckeye nut.” So oona-pa-is may translate as “Buckeye Mountain.” There are still groves of California buckeyes high on the mountain, in pure stands reminiscent of orchards.

One of our smallest native trees, buckeyes begin leafing out in February. By late spring they bloom with tall spikes of fragrant white flowers. Then, as the dry season progresses, buckeyes respond to the lack of water by pulling in. During Buckeye Autumn, usually in August, their leaves turn yellow and fall, leaving behind only bare, grey branches.

Slightly smaller than a tennis ball, the fruit of a buckeye is deep brown, like the eye of a male deer. They appear in the fall and look almost comical, dangling in pairs from the branches like dice from a rearview mirror.

Though poisonous when raw, buckeye fruit can be made edible by roasting and leeching with water. It has been described as similar to, but better than, potatoes.

A Miwok story tells how kulupi, the hummingbird, stole fire from the sun. Holding a red-hot coal under his chin, he flew away. When the sun got angry and chased after him, kulupi stashed the ember in a buckeye tree.

The Anna’s hummingbird still carries a mark from that day in its brilliant red throat feathers. If you make a rustic fire drill and hearth out of buckeye wood, and know how to use them, you can still find the sun’s spark, hidden inside.

You can reach historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at baseline@vom.com.

Writer Spotlight

Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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