Fire–and Climate Change

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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Living inside “the warming”

In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.
“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.
Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.
In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.
So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.
Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.
Within the “warming,” there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!
 (As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)
The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”
Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things?  And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?
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