About 700 or 800 years ago—more detailed times and accounts of them are in a book called The Great Warming, by Brian Fagan—California shriveled in drought, and much of it died. Half the live oak trees and half the people who depended on them as a major food source died. One can imagine fire accompanied the years, decades, of drought.
I can’t help thinking about this as I read reports and see pictures and video coverage of the fires in southern and northern California. Beyond today and California, I think about how vulnerable we make ourselves by where we live, and how far we reach for water and food. When my son, who lives in Phoenix, calls to report a temperature of 117 degrees, I think that he and his city could not live without air conditioning and electricity. And I think of how far some people have to reach for electricity—to the shale fields of North Dakota and Canada, to the wind turbines in the Columbia River Gorge, to the stored water behind the Columbia River dams.
But fire, it seems to me, is like a burning truth kernel in this story of interdependence that we humans have created over centuries. Today in California fire and electricity are crossing paths—electrical sparks causing fire; electrical shutoffs trying to stay ahead of the fires.
Fire has always been with us—In World Fire, Stephen J. Pyne argues that we became human when we learned to start and stop—sometimes—fires. Fire was one of the first elements in early cosmologies; it has changed landscapes and scarred and killed life—and generated new life—forever; it has even been, as Pyne points out, used as a weapon.
A recent piece in the New York Times, “A Forecast for a Warming World: Learn to Live With Fire,” centers on the fires in California this week, but talks broadly about fires, and notes that we humans’ current favored building places are at the edge of “wild lands,” in fires’ natural paths. Almost in an aside, the writers, Thomas Fuller and Kendra Pierre-Louis, say that the Forest Service “notes that Native Americans used prescribed burns to help with food production.”
In pre-colonial times, the tribes of what is now the Northeastern United States used low-intensity burning of their fields to sequester carbon and enhance the growing of corn, beans, squash and the myriad of medicinal and food plants colonial newcomers saw as weeds. In the west of the continent, the Plateau peoples of what are now parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, relied on naturally caused fires and started some of their own to clear underbrush and condition the lands that grew the roots and berries and fed the deer, elk, antelope and birds that sustained them.
Without crediting American Natives, the authors say that
“Before the era of fire suppression, north Georgia around Brawley Mountain used to burn roughly every three to five years…. Those blazes allowed species that could withstand some fire, like the longleaf pine, to proliferate and flourish, shaping local ecosystems… Some of those fires were caused by natural events like lightning; others were caused by human activity… These smaller fires act as a kind of incendiary rake, clearing out grasses, shrubs and other plant matter before they can overgrow to become fuel for bigger, more extreme fires.”
Which is a pretty good description of native use of fire, of “living with fire.” When we get to the crux of things, our hubris in building and living at the edge of wild lands, in fires’ natural paths, and in thinking that we can always suppress fire, can manage and master nature to our human needs, only exacerbates the dangerous conditions brought on by regular cycles of hot and cold, wet and dry. Add climate change…
I’d argue that indigenous peoples who live close to those regular cycles learn how to deal with them, learn to listen to the changes in weather, the needs of plants and animals and the earth itself in their hunting, gathering, farming, and everyday lives.
But that could not help the Indians of California a thousand years ago, or the residents of Chaco Canyon, or the Mayan cities and civilization. They did not have the tools to deal with massive climate change. Do we?
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