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Fire, Part 8: Native Americans and Wildfire

Wednesday, April 14th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Americans and Wildfire

Both Sides of the Tracks

My ancestors were poor Gaelic farmers in the Scottish highlands and border country who were driven from their homelands and forced to emigrate to North America. Here, we didn’t become part of the power structure that founded the United States. We remained ethnic underdogs, independent and self-reliant, no friends of government.

I grew up in small rural communities within which Blacks had their own tiny enclaves, enduring racism but studying with us in school and becoming our sports heroes. Thanks to my parents’ cosmopolitan aspirations, I was raised not to look down on other races and ethnic groups, but to admire them – my dad idolized Black musicians like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, and my childhood soundtrack ranged from Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte to African superstars Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and started college at the peak of the Black Power movement. Native Americans and their legacy had been thoroughly erased from my Midwestern county, but in high school, I supported the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, and hung a poster of Apache leader Geronimo over my bed.

The University of Chicago was an island of whiteness surrounded by one of the world’s largest and most nightmarish Black ghettos. Its Eurocentric curriculum was designed to impress students with the towering achievements of the white race, but in a gesture to accommodate the Counterculture, the U of C had scrambled to hire a few token radicals like Bill Zimmerman, co-founder of Science for the People. He taught me how racism and imperialism are justified using myths about cultural evolution and the superiority of European culture.

Zimmerman introduced me to the anthropology of indigenous cultures and the work of Thomas Kuhn, often considered the most influential philosopher of science in the 20th century. Kuhn showed that far from the objective search for truth it claims to be, science is a competitive political activity. Scientists routinely form prejudiced hypotheses, resist new ideas, and reject data which challenge their preconceived notions.

Forced to switch from the arts to science and technology, my social circle expanded to include Asians, who were accepted as “honorary white people” because they adapted easily to European values and institutions. But nowhere in those elite programs did I see a Black, Latino, or indigenous face. Those races remained in the background, working in inferior roles, safely segregated in impoverished enclaves.

After grad school at Stanford, I’d had enough of that white European bullshit. Needing cheap studio space for my art and music, I lived for decades in poor Black and mixed ethnic neighborhoods, while working day jobs with whites and Asians. I had a Mexican-American girlfriend with indigenous ancestry who became the love of my life. I had Black and Native American bandmates, roommates, and landlords, and even went to jail with them, where we all encountered racism and injustice.

I studied West African music and culture and the Native American cultures of the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, and those became the main inspirations for my art and music. I studied aboriginal survival skills to understand how indigenous people had thrived in the arid Southwest. I spent time with the desert tribe’s most celebrated traditional craftsperson and their leading environmental activist, and got involved with a coalition of tribespeople preserving natural habitats as sacred cultural spaces – something our secular society can’t do.

All that firsthand experience led me to respect and admire traditional cultures and oppressed races more than the European civilization that had conquered, enslaved, and oppressed them.

Meanwhile, my brother and father – the rocket scientist who had once worshiped Black musicians – were being turned into racists by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the neo-conservative movement. And while I was living and working in poor neighborhoods and learning about other cultures firsthand, most of my friends in science and academia were gravitating more and more toward safe, clean all-white enclaves where they only encountered people of color in inferior roles, as gardeners, custodians, dishwashers in restaurants, and the like. They voted for liberal politicians, and praised diversity, while tacitly accepting inequality and segregation.

The Myth of the Noble Scientist

In 2004, two years into my research for Pictures of Knowledge, I was visiting an old friend, a professor at a large state university who conducts research and conservation on endangered species. When I tried to share what I’d learned about indigenous conservation practices, he interrupted me impatiently, citing a recent study in the popular scientific literature about a prehistoric tribe somewhere in the South Pacific that had over-exploited their resources, driven species to extinction, and experienced a population crash. “Indigenous people are NOT conservationists!” he shouted.

Later that year I joined some even older friends involved with ecological research and conservation at an elite university. Again on the topic of conservation, when I offered “In some traditional societies…” they began shouting in unison, “NOBLE SAVAGE, NOBLE SAVAGE, NOBLE SAVAGE!” I was never allowed to finish.

For more than a decade after that, whenever I raised the subject of traditional societies and indigenous practices with biologists, they were quick to interrupt, ridiculing me for “romanticizing the noble savage” and dismissing my observations before I even had a chance to articulate them. Most recently, when I tried to share anthropologists’ observations about indigenous conservation practices in an email exchange with friends in science and academia, a senior wildlife biologist immediately dismissed them: “For North America the evidence is the opposite. The myth was the noble savage.”

As mentioned above, I studied science at the University of Chicago and Stanford. I’ve helped my biologist friends collect data in the field and process it in the lab. I respect and praise their work and treasure our friendships. Why have they responded with ridicule and contempt to the very mention of the traditional cultures I’ve spent much of my life studying and experiencing firsthand? Why do they reject evidence of indigenous conservation without even examining it? And what do they mean by the “noble savage”?

This myth has had a murky history. To the extent scientists or academics are even aware of it, they attribute it to the Enlightenment-era Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But recently, in his book The Myth of the Noble Savage (University of California Press), Ter Ellingson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, has shown it to be the creation of a faction of racist anthropologists in the mid-19th century – the intellectual ancestors of today’s right-wing think tanks and reactionary academics like Harvard’s Steven Pinker.

It turns out the noble savage was actually never a popular fantasy in historical European culture. The racist academics presented the fake myth as a “straw man” which they could easily demolish – relying partly on Darwin’s new theory of natural selection – in order to condemn indigenous cultures and defend European imperialism and white superiority.

The mere repetition of the words Noble Savage sufficed to serve as a devastating weapon against any opposition to the racist agenda. The myth of the Noble Savage became a weapon in the Ethnological Society’s scientific-racist project of helping to naturalise a genocidal stance towards the “inferior” races. (Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage)

In this fabricated myth, indigenous people were falsely idealized as representing an original, wild, unspoiled state of humanity, living in peaceful harmony with nature. One of the worst mistakes a white European could make was to romanticize the noble savage – succumbing to irrational fantasies, idealizing nonindustrial societies and cultures, ignoring their negative traits and failings, fabricating valse virtues and successes.

In science and academia, the noble savage became a supremely effective insult, slander, and put-down for which there was no defense. If you said anything positive about indigenous people, you were immediately accused of romanticizing the noble savage, and you automatically lost all credibility. The slur was likely to cling to you forever, branding you as “too trusting” of anything that didn’t conform to institutional orthodoxy. Evidence of indigenous failures was welcomed, while evidence of indigenous achievements was dismissed.

Of course, none of my scientist friends had ever studied this cultural history. None of them knew what the original “noble savage” meant, let alone how it was manipulated by 19th century racists. My friends had simply copied the insult from elders and peers in academia – and sadly, I’ve even found them teaching it to their children.

Nor had any of my friends ever studied the conservation practices of indigenous cultures. From the way they heard the “noble savage” slur used in their milieu, they assumed there was conclusive evidence, somewhere, that all indigenous people had abused nature. When pressed, the best evidence they could cite against indigenous conservation was a widely publicized hypothesis that Pleistocene megafauna – mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, etc. – went extinct 8,000 years ago due to over-hunting by prehistoric humans.

As one of my friends noted, there are other isolated reports of indigenous over-harvesting. But scientists don’t cite these reports out of concern for objectivity – they cite them to discredit all indigenous people and those who seek to learn from them, and to dismiss evidence which challenges institutional racism and white superiority.

When it supports their claims, Western scientists value what Traditional Knowledge has to offer. If not, they dismiss it…when Traditional Knowledge is seen to challenge scientific “truths —then its utility is questioned or dismissed as myth. Science is promoted as objective, quantifiable, and the foundation for “real” knowledge creation or evaluation while Traditional Knowledge may be seen as anecdotal, imprecise and unfamiliar in form. (George Nicholas, Professor of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, Smithsonian Magazine)

The racist slander of the Noble Savage has ensured that seven generations of biologists have willfully ignored indigenous knowledge about the natural systems and habitats they presume to study, knowledge they’re only now beginning to catch up with.

The Ascent of White Men

The very things I admire about my scientist friends – their love of nature and commitment to field work and conservation – have given them a limited, inaccurate view of science. They’re lucky to make a living exploring beautiful natural areas, restoring habitat and collecting data to help preserve endangered species.

But growing up amid industrial farms, coal mines, oil and gas fields, and chemical factories, with a research chemist and rocket scientist for a Dad, studying the physical sciences and engineering and working in the electronics, communications, nuclear, entertainment, and internet industries – all that has taught me firsthand how the discoveries of physicists, chemists, earth scientists, geneticists, roboticists, and computer scientists damage natural habitats, pollute our environments, and endanger humans and wildlife.

It’s ironic that, while attacking me for “romanticizing the noble savage”, my friends have consistently romanticized science.

Scientists tend to judge non-whites by European standards, reserving their respect for “civilized” high-achieving Asians, and the few Blacks, Latinos, or Native Americans who’ve become scientific researchers, college professors, published authors, or national leaders. One of the most insidious prejudices in science, and our society as a whole, is the conflation of wealth, power, and technological progress with cultural evolution. In the 19th century, Europeans saw the increasing wealth and power they were gaining, through imperial conquest and advances in science and technology, as evidence they were progressing away from primitive savagery toward civilized Enlightenment. The defenders of European imperialism who introduced the noble savage as a racist insult also helped frame the theory of the “Ascent of Man”.

To white people, human progress is proved by our ancestors’ assumed progression from Stone Age hunter-gatherers – the Noble Savage – to the metal-workers of the Bronze Age and Iron Age, to the Discovery of Agriculture in the Middle East, the Rise of Civilization, the Anthropocene, the European Enlightenment, and the rise of science. Despite our contemporary rhetoric praising diversity and tolerance, white people of European ancestry, including our most celebrated scientists, share a tacit belief in the evolution of culture from primitive to civilized, and the superiority of civilized people.

But the Ascent of Man is proving to be just another myth. There was no time when ancestral humans wandered carefree in a Garden of Eden, all their needs provided without having to work. Human culture did not take a quantum leap forward through a “Discovery of Agriculture” in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, launching a new geological era, the Anthropocene. Some societies – our own, and the historical examples we admire (Ancient Egypt and Greece, the Roman Republic and Empire, the Inca and Classical Maya) – are simply unable to manage their aggression. They expand, conquer, dominate, and ultimately collapse.

But many others take the path of peace and thrive by reining in aggression. Like other animal species, nonindustrial humans have always studied their habitats closely and worked with plant and animal populations in complex and sophisticated ways.

Indigenous peoples have been pigeonholed by social scientists into one of two categories, “hunter-gatherer” or “agriculturalist,” obscuring the ancient role of many indigenous peoples as wildland managers and limiting their use of and impacts on nature to the two extremes of human intervention…and it has led to a focus on domestication as the only way in which humans can influence plants and animals and shape natural environments.

Anthropology has changed significantly in the past one hundred years…but the basic elements of the nineteenth-century view of California Indians is still with us. The term “hunter-gatherer” is still used and still implies an evolutionary sequence of progress. The notion of the evolution of human cultures remains implicit in the layout of many current human ecology and anthropology textbooks and is explicit in recent anthropological journal articles that refer to this progression as “the ascent of man.” (M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources)

Rediscovering Native Tending

At the same time those white scientists and conservationists were ridiculing and bullying me on the topic of indigenous conservation and the noble savage, University of California botanist M. Kat Anderson mustered the courage to stand up to anti-indigenous racism in the male scientific establishment. Her book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, published in 2013, was a meticulous, comprehensively researched study of the ecological practices of dozens of tribes across dozens of widely varying natural habitats, from coasts to river valleys and interior basins, from deserts to alpine forests, from thousands of years ago into the present.

By virtue of their daily use of plants, California Indians acquired extensive and special knowledge of the life histories of plant species, and they understood how different harvesting strategies affected natural regeneration…These [indigenous] harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries, possibly thousands of years…During the course of their long history in California, Indians so exhaustively explored the plant kingdom for its uses and so thoroughly tested nature’s responses to human harvesting and tending that they discovered how to use nature in a way that provided them with a relatively secure existence while allowing for the maximum diversity of other species…When historical indigenous interactions–both harvesting strategies and resource management practices–are investigated in depth, we find that by keeping ecosystems in a modest or intermediate level of disturbance, in many senses Indians lived in ecological harmony with nature. (Anderson, Tending the Wild)

As I’ve found while researching Pictures of Knowledge, abundant evidence of indigenous conservation and sustainable resource management has long been embedded in the ethnographic literature, hidden from lay audiences and ignored by the broader scientific community. But in the wake of Anderson’s book, many similar reports on indigenous ecology have surfaced from around the world – North and South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa – confirming my insights and Anderson’s findings.

For instance, in the past two decades, archaeologists and environmental scientists working in coastal British Columbia have come to recognize evidence of mariculture—the intentional management of marine resources—that pre-dates European settlement. Over the course of thousands of years, the ancestors of the Kwakwaka’wakw and other Indigenous groups there created and maintained what have become known as “clam gardens”—rock-walled, terrace-like constructions that provide ideal habitat for butter clams and other edible shellfish…This resource management strategy reflects a sophisticated body of ecological understanding and practice that predates modern management systems by millennia.

These published research studies now prove that Indigenous communities knew about mariculture for generations—but Western scientists never asked them about it before. Once tangible remains were detected, it was clear mariculture management was in use for thousands of years. (Nicholas, Smithsonian)

These reports continued to accumulate until finally, long after the Black Lives Matter movement made racism a hot topic in white society, the predominantly white scientific, academic, and conservation establishments were forced to respond. In September 2020, Scientific American published a formal apology for its long-standing role in institutional racism. And The Conversation, a fact-based online news source supported by Boston University, the University of California, Penn State, Rutgers, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and many others, formally acknowledged the racism inherent in the environmental movement since its origins in the work of icons like John Muir.

American environmentalism’s racist roots have influenced global conservation practices. Most notably, they are embedded in longstanding prejudices against local communities and a focus on protecting pristine wildernesses. (Prakash Kashwan, editor, The Conversation)

Riches Squandered

I’ve described how I grew up amid the impressive earthworks of the prehistoric Hopewell culture. European culture is obsessed with monumental architecture – even the Black astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson used drone footage of skyscrapers to illustrate the highest achievements of mankind in a pro-science TV commercial.

But I also described how, 30 years later, I was even more impressed at finding stone tools, potsherds, petroglyphs and pictographs in my beloved Mojave Desert. My long, privileged education had revealed exactly how white Europeans built cities, skyscrapers, computers, and rocket ships. And my adventurous life had exposed the cost – global, catastrophic damage to natural ecosystems and traditional human societies. But the discovery that people had thrived in the desert, making everything they needed from scratch using local natural materials, with no lasting damage to their environment – that I found truly inspiring.

When the European ancestors of modern white Americans invaded North America, they encountered indigenous societies and natural habitats which had co-existed in dynamic equilibrium for thousands of years. Native cultures spanned a diverse ecological spectrum. Some – like the tribes Kat Anderson studied in California – were able to occupy the same habitat for countless generations, practicing a resilient blend of wild harvesting and agriculture that adjusted to changes in climate and other disturbances.

Unlike European colonists and modern Americans, these ecologically-adapted indigenous societies didn’t construct “permanent” homes, cities, infrastructure, or political boundaries in habitats where fire, flood, and other cyclical disturbances could be expected. When they encountered disturbances rendering local habitats unusable – like prolonged droughts – they adapted by migrating, carrying their resilient practices to other habitats where they could put down new roots.

A few native cultures, like the Cahokians of the Mississippi Valley and the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest, did come to rely more exclusively on agriculture, expanding and developing social hierarchies, seeking to dominate their neighbors and develop empires. Like empires in the Old World, these native empires rose and fell and faded away in a cycle of generations. None of these North American native empires survived at the time of European invasion.

Countless historical documents show that when they first arrived, and as they invaded westward, European colonists found natural habitats of almost unfathomable productivity which were the result of thousands of years of indigenous tending.

Every day of every year for millenia, the indigenous people of California interacted with the native plants and animals that surrounded them. They…achieved an intimacy with nature unmatched by the modern-day wilderness guide, trained field botanist, or applied ecologist…In the process, they maintained, enhanced, and in part created a fertility that was eventually to be exploited by European and Asian farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs, who imagined themselves to have built civilization out of an unpeopled wilderness.

Coastal salt marshes were at one time much more extensive than today, forming important habitat rich in plant and animal life…Pure grasslands, including coastal prairies, valley grasslands, vernal pools, and montaine meadows, covered one-fifth of the state before 1850…Before dams and man-made levees, river boundaries surged and retreated with the seasons…Riparian woodlands, which before 1850 covered 900,000 acres in the Central Valley, teemed with animal life. (Anderson, Tending the Wild)

Artisans of Wildfire

There wasn’t much of that richness left for me to see, generations later, as I made my own way westward into valleys trampled and overgrazed by cattle, deserts and coastal hills blanketed by invasive plants, mountains ravaged by mining and clear-cutting of timber. But as mentioned in previous parts of this series, I did occasionally stumble upon beautiful “parklike” stands of native Southwestern forest which can result either from “natural” fire regimes or from indigenous burning to clear undergrowth and excess fuel. And in remote, hidden corners of the desert, I was sometimes surprised by lush stands of honey mesquite, which my Indian friends told me had been planted and maintained by their ancestors – like the native water sources which their people maintain today.

The California landscapes that early explorers, settlers, and missionaries found so remarkably rich were in part shaped, and regularly renewed, by the land management practices employed by native peoples. Many of the biologically richest of California’s habitats were not climax communities at the time Euro-Americans arrived but instead were mosaics of various stages of ecological succession, or fire subclimaxes, intensified and perpetuated by seasonally scheduled burning. In a very real sense, some of the most productive and carefully managed habitats were in fact Indian artifacts. In many cases these landscapes experienced far greater degrees of managerial care and ecologically sophisticated manipulation than are found today.

It is likely that over centuries or perhaps millenia of indigenous management, certain plant communities came to require human tending and use for their continued fertility and renewal and for the maintenance of the abundance and diversity patterns needed to support human populations.

Countless studies have shown that fire has always been a primary tool in indigenous conservation, worldwide. In the forests of eastern North America, before the European invasion:

Over thousands of years, the American Indian became expert in using fire for various purposes, e.g., for hunting, to concentrate prey species in convenient areas, to encourage fruit and berry production, to keep the woods open along major corridors of travel, to fire-proof their villages, and other uses…Because of their farming and burning activities, Indians ensured that much of the eastern forests was in early successional habitats.

Indians often burned as frequently as twice a year, complementing lightning as an ignition source. Their burning extended the fire season beyond the “natural” lightning-fire season of summer. These frequent and often extensive fires, along with the wildlife foraging that fire encouraged, created and maintained open woodlands, savannahs, and prairies throughout the eastern United States.

In fact, much of the eastern forests at the time of Columbus could be regarded as a cultural artifact of Indian activities…The eastern forest at that time was a shifting mosaic of woodlands, savannahs, forests, and prairies, all in varying stages of succession. (D. H. Van Lear and R. F. Harlow, U.S. Forest Service)

In California:

Fire was the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation management tool of the California Indian tribes. The slow match gave them the technological capability to burn both small patches and extensive tracts of vegetation in a systematic fashion…In addition, most tribes had the ability to fell trees and large shrubs with fire for meeting cultural needs. They used this tool to create village sites and to convert riparian habitat and floodplain into farming areas in southeastern California.

Deliberate burning increased the abundance and density of edible tubers, greens, fruits, seeds, and mushrooms…enhanced feed for wildlife; controlled the insects and diseases that could damage wild foods and basketry material; increased the quantity and quality of material used for basketry and cordage; and encouraged the sprouts used for making household items, granaries, fish weirs, clothing, games, hunting and fishing traps, and weapons. It also removed dead material and promoted growth through the recycling of nutrients, decreased plant competition, and maintained specific plant community types such as coastal prairies and montane meadows.

Many wild plant populations accumulate aging parts (dead branches and shoots, leaves, cones, and seed pods) that may reduce plant vigor and productivity over time. Fires set by California Indians consumed this biomass and released some of the plant nutrients it contained.

Scientific studies have recently shown that nutrient movement can take a long time, relative to human life spans…In some ecosystems the nutrient storage compartment (e.g. the litter on the forest floor) can become a vault, locked against internal cycling…Like soil arthropods, bacteria, and fungi, fire is a mineralizing agent in forests and other vegetation types, but it works much faster than decay organisms and thus speeds up nutrient recycling and the return of sites to high productivity.

Freshwater marshes in the Central Valley of California were burned by the Wukchumni Yokuts, and in the Panamint Valley by the Timbisha Shoshone, to clear out old reeds, recycle nutrients, stimulate new plant growth, and provide open water for waterfowl…Deergrass, an important native bunchgrass for coiled basketry in central and southern California, was burned in chaparral, lower montane forests, and oak woodland plant communities by the Cahuilla, Foothill Yokuts, Kumeyaay (Diegueno), Luiseno, Sierra Miwok, and Western Mono tribes to clear away accumulated dead material and increase flower stalk yields.

Fire helped to control the pathogens and insects that would otherwise compete for the same resources used by native people…Ruby Cordero (Chukchansi Yokuts/Sierra Miwok)…recalls burning to eliminate insects that attacked shrubs that were important for basketry…Many Indian tribes in California burned in oak…woodlands and tan oak…stands to reduce insect pests that inhabit acorns and overwinter in oak leaf duff…According to Kathy Heffner…all of the tribes she interviewed in northern California (Hupa, Wailaki, Tolowa, Yurok, and Karuk) burned under the California black oaks and other oak species to destroy the insect pests…Fungi and bacteria also have the potential to decrease substantially the mast crop of oaks…Fire may have helped to curb these pathogens as well…The Luiseno in southern California burned regularly as well to destroy insect pests and diseases that damaged native food crops…

An extremely important reason for setting fires was to increase forage for wildlife…It has been shown that pruning or burning vegetation increases the forage value for certain wildlife and that the number of larger game animals increases after fire…Today elders from a number of tribes substantiate that the practice of burning is highly beneficial to wildlife. The Sierra Miwok elder Bill Franklin learned about burning from his father and grandfather: “They said the Indians used to burn in the fall–October and November. They set the fires from the bottom of the slope to decrease the snowpack, get rid of the debris so there’s no fire danger and they burned in the hunting areas so there was more food for the deer…”

Fire was also used in hunting many kinds of animals…Fire was a tool used often for driving rabbits…Many tribes captured ground squirrels, a reliable food source, by smoking them out of their burrows with the aid of a fire fan or burning them out…The larvae of wasps and yellowjackets were a delicacy eaten by many tribes, and fire was sometimes used to find them…Similarly, tribes throughout California used fire to capture grasshoppers.

In forests and woodlands, thickets of shrubs and small trees tended to accumulate over time, creating a potential wildfire hazard. Aware of the danger uncontrolled fires would pose to villages and collecting sites, California Indians regularly fired the understory in forests and woodlands “to keep the brush down” and promote the growth of wildflowers and grasses. After repeated burning, the fires were of low intensity and crown fires uncommon in many areas.

Heightened species diversity, abundance, and density have been associated with regular, intermediate-density, spatially heterogenous disturbance. Based on this relationship, it can be hypothesized that the disturbance caused by California Indians’ use of fire in a variety of ecosystems, occuring at intermediate intensities and frequencies, promoted a maximally heterogenous mosaic of vegetation types and increased species diversity. (Anderson, Tending the Wild)

In the ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest, the scene of my recent “burn scar” hikes:

In the last few decades, investigations of tribal traditions and research by historians, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and ecologists have revealed a wealth of evidence implying that fires ignited by Native peoples have influenced landscape vegetation for hundreds and probably thousands of years…Intervals between fires in these forests mostly ranged from an average of only about two years in parts of northern Arizona to twenty-five or thirty years at higher elevations and moist sites, with many areas averaging between seven and fifteen years. This pattern of frequent fires was instrumental in producing and maintaining parklike ponderosa forests with big trees and open, grassy understories. Fires thinned out saplings and shrubs and killed some of the overstory trees, particularly those with a scar exposing heart rot. (Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree)

Next: Restoring Wildfire

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Close But No Cigar

Monday, April 12th, 2021: Big Dry, Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Spring had sprung – this would be my first warm-weather hike of the year, so I’d have to start carrying more water. My goal was to try a minor, apparently long-abandoned branch trail into the big canyon system in between two of my regular hikes, in hopes of exploring some spectacular rock formations.

The branch trail starts at a saddle, 4 miles and 2,000′ above the main trailhead. I’d hiked the main trail half a dozen times during the past 2 years, and seen the start of the branch trail, but avoided it because it was listed as impassable. But since then, I’d gotten used to climbing over deadfall and bushwhacking through thickets. And I’d found a website that claimed to have used it three years ago to reach some waterfalls. It was one of only two ways into that big, obviously spectacular canyon system, so it seemed worth trying.

The stream was running briskly on the approach – there was still a little snow on higher slopes – but this would probably be peak flow until the monsoon. Drought has been pretty severe, but in the canyon bottom, flowers were starting and butterflies were abundant. I distinguished at least 4 species.

About midway up the canyon I surprised a young man with a dog. He was in his early-to-mid 20s and was carrying a pack smaller than mine, but he said he’d backpacked over from the opposite side of the mountains – a journey of close to 40 miles. I wanted to ask him how he’d made it so far, carrying supplies for himself and the dog in such a small pack. But he was anxious to discourage me from going farther – he’d had to climb over the deadfall I’ve encountered in the past up on the crest. I think he assumed I was backpacking and I didn’t get a chance to correct him. We wished each other well and parted ways.

At the saddle, I crossed over into the big canyon system – a whole new unexplored world with abundant outcrops of volcanic conglomerate, ranging from white to black. I was immediately surprised to find the old trail abundantly “flagged” with pink ribbon every 50 feet or so. There was good tread, and somebody bigger than me had hiked it recently. But it hadn’t really been cleared – there was still plenty of deadfall and brush growing up in the trail itself.

Still, it was a pretty trail, crossing steep talus slopes, passing in and out of patches of forest that had survived the 2012 wildfire, yielding dramatic views of hoodoos and prominent outcrops.

After more than a mile, the pink ribbons suddenly stopped. I reached a point where deadfall obscured the tread, and the steep ground had been chewed up by elk going both up and down. I consulted the topo map I’d printed off the internet, but it wasn’t detailed enough to help.

I spent a half hour exploring in different directions until I finally found a cairn at the foot of a “needle” rock, 50 feet below the last ribbon. From there, what looked more like a game trail proceeded up canyon. But halfway to the next saddle I saw one more of the big bootprints, so I must be on the right track.

I followed switchbacks down and across the slope until I reached the next saddle, where I found another cairn. Past the cairn, what appeared to be a trail led steeply down to the left, along an outlying ridge. Slipping and sliding down that trail and climbing over a lot of deadfall, I had a view into the head of the canyon system, but the topography was complex and I couldn’t figure it out.

A couple hundred feet below the saddle, the trail was again obscured by deadfall. I spent another half hour exploring in all directions but couldn’t find a way to proceed. I checked the map again but couldn’t figure out where I was. I climbed back to the saddle, but couldn’t see anything better there. My time was up and I had to turn back.

Hindsight is wonderful. By the time I reached the main trail, I’d figured out the topography in the head of the big canyon. At that farthest saddle, where I couldn’t find a way forward, I’d been really close to my destination. If I hadn’t lost so much time scouting for tread, and if I’d done a better job of map-reading, I could’ve easily bushwhacked into the canyon bottom, where two creeks branch off into spectacular slot canyons with numerous waterfalls.

So at least I know what to do next time!

Somewhere in that trail-scouting I managed to strain my left Achilles tendon, so on the 5-plus-miles back to the truck, every uphill stretch had to be done one-legged. And all the loose rock in the trail had be negotiated very, very carefully. And if I forgot, there was severe pain.

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Signs of Spring

Monday, April 5th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

Finally! For the past four months of winter, I’d been waiting for snow to melt so I could return to a hike I’d first done in early December. One of my new favorites, it climbs past the 400′ waterfall, through the narrow “hanging” canyon that stays cold and holds deep snow longer than anyplace else, and finally ascends one of the highest peaks in the range, gaining over 4,000′ of elevation in a round trip of more than 14 miles. From now on, after months of frustration, I’d be able to return to the longer trails with more elevation gain.

Temperatures at the base of the mountains were forecast to reach 90 degrees, and it was close to 80 when I reached the trailhead. But I could still see a lot of snow on the high north slopes of peaks and ridges above.

I was so motivated that I walked too fast up the steep grades of the first three miles, and wore myself out. As expected, I ran into foot-deep snow involving precarious traverses in stretches of the hanging canyon. There were also deep patches on the peak. But the ladybugs were already out en masse.

On the way down through the hanging canyon, I came upon the fresh track of a full-grown black bear. It had walked down the canyon some time after I’d started up.

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Fire, Part 7: Americans and Wildfire

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021: Fire, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Society, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Government and Wildfire

Go West, Young Man!

Why is it so hard for our government to walk the talk, to do what it says it’s doing – to work with fire instead of against it? Why are wildfires getting bigger, and more destructive, reducing suburban neighborhoods and sometimes entire towns to ash, killing dozens of rural citizens, choking millions of city dwellers with dense clouds of smoke, requiring more and more massive paramilitary efforts to control?

It might help to take a fresh look at our history.

In school, I learned about the European Age of Discovery, in which brave explorers like Columbus and Magellan set out in wooden ships to cross oceans and discover new lands. I learned about the first settlement of North America by Pilgrims, English refugees fleeing religious persecution. I learned about the gradual colonization of eastern North America by the English, as part of the growing British Empire. The American Revolution, in which the colonists rejected British rule and established a democratic nation, the United States, based on the sanctity of individual freedom.

I learned that the United States began a new era of democratic nations, an era of freedom and democracy that gradually replaced the old European empires, all over the world. We were no longer English – from now on, we were Americans, a free people who had left the Old World behind. We went on to develop our own culture, with our own heroes and institutions.

I was born and started school in the upper Ohio River valley, in the foothills of the western Appalachians, surrounded by deciduous hardwood forest, where I spent most of my free time outdoors exploring nature. Our town was the first U.S. settlement west of the Appalachians, founded by George Washington’s senior officers in the wake of the American Revolution, capital of the new “Northwest Territory”.

But they’d built the town around prehistoric Indian mounds, an extensive ceremonial complex of the vanished “Hopewell” culture. My dad gave me his collection of arrowheads found by our farming ancestors, and even before I started school I was pulling fossils out of the banks of the creek behind our house. So from earliest childhood I was not only steeped in American history, I had abundant exposure to deep time, and a passionate curiosity that came from direct personal experience, not from books or classrooms.

One of our family vacations took me to North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, deep in the Appalachian spruce-fir forest, where I met Cherokee Indians and toured the mammoth Fontana Dam and hydroelectric generating station, which destroyed a vast area of natural riparian habitat as part of liberal President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Another trip took me farther east to the nation’s capital, colonial landmarks like Williamsburg, and the decisive Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg.

As described in Part 1 of this series, we moved west to Indiana after I turned 8. Away from the dark, forested eastern mountains, to the flat, open cropfields of the Midwest. I learned about the Indian Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after which this region was settled by my ancestors, and the forests cleared for farms and towns. I looked for Indian mounds in remnants of forest that survived beside the small, serpentine rivers, but the indigenous presence had been completely erased here.

Nevertheless everything seemed old. Many of our buildings, even new ones, copied the East Coast Colonial style, with brick walls and white columns. Government buildings echoed the neo-Classical styles from ancient Greece and Rome that were popular throughout the eastern U.S. My new hometown’s heyday had been the Victorian period of the late 19th century, so our downtown, and many of our biggest homes, consisted of brick and stone buildings in the English Victorian style.

We’d been taught that we were Americans, and our country represented a dramatic break from the Old World and a fresh start in the New, but actually I was living in a European Colonial town, surrounded by a landscape that had been tranformed to look like the English Midlands.

My formal education in ecology began under Mr. Carrigan, my high school biology teacher. He cultivated a special relationship with me, introducing me to soils, soil fauna, and pollination, encouraging my fascination with snakes, intermediaries between the surface world and the hidden, mysterious underground. I spent my last summer in that place living on an ancestral farm, falling in love with the wild forest and river that bordered it.

I started college at the University of Chicago, which was modelled on Oxford University in England. The U of C’s undergraduate curriculum was based on the Great Books of Western Civilization, so I became even more mired in our European cultural legacy. The U of C was not that unique – all of what we call higher education is European in origin, structure, and practice.

But from there I was catapulted far west, to northern California, echoing the 19th century mass migration that settled our West Coast. That move west was seminal for me – it began my cultural awakening, my growth away from the European legacy, the baggage burdening the eastern U.S., which always looks eastward to the Old World for its history and validation. Despite my thorough indoctrination in European culture, the mentors of my youth had rebelled against the system, encouraging me to question authority and think critically, and I was more than ready to unlearn the propaganda from those many years of school and replace it with accurate knowledge about the world.

I’d known since early childhood that there was a deep, rich, non-European past underlying this entire continent, but in the West it was closer to the surface. Colonists had not transformed the landscape the way they had back east, and large populations of Native Americans survived here and there, in places like the Southwest that were exotic, beautiful, and deeply intriguing to me.

The California desert was the place that quickly captured my heart. As I described in Parts 2 and 3, I encountered natural desert habitats that at first seemed to be pristine wilderness, but turned out to be littered with ancient potsherds, fragments of stone tools, petroglyphs and pictographs that tapped into my childhood curiosity about deep time and fired my artist’s imagination. I met desert rats and field scientists and learned about prehistoric tribes, desert ecology, the history of mining and ranching, the damage to desert habitats caused by cattle grazing, military operations and motorized recreation, the spread of invasive plants, and wildfire.

I spent a lot of time in and around Las Vegas, assisting a friend with wildlife research and conservation, experiencing firsthand the uncontrolled development, growth, and consumption resulting from our society’s founding belief in personal freedom and free enterprise. The rapid destruction of natural habitat by urban and industrial sprawl, the massive solar plants consuming multiple square miles of nature every year.

I met Native Americans and heard their stories, which contradicted much of what I’d learned from Anglo archaeologists. I studied aboriginal survival skills to get a firsthand sense of how indigenous people had lived in the arid Southwest. I lived and worked on ecological preserves, learning about regional ecology and the ecosystem services provided by native habitats and wildlife. I started my Pictures of Knowledge project – titled by biologist friends – to develop a more accurate understanding of humans in nature.

I revisited Mr. Carrigan – my old high school biology teacher, now retired – and saw his eyes light up with enthusiasm as he described how he had directed an engineering effort that dredged and channelized the river bordering our old family farm, to reduce flooding of crop fields. Dozens of miles of precious riparian habitat had escaped destruction throughout seven generations of European culture, only to be wiped out virtually overnight, in the interest of commercial efficiency and profit.

I listened to a radio interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker staff writer and author of The Sixth Extinction. She was emerging as a national authority on climate change and species extinction, but when asked why we should care about these things, she was stumped. She couldn’t explain why humans need wild habitats and ecosystems. After an awkward silence, all she could offer was “well, um, nature is beautiful, it has spiritual value, to lose it would be a tragic loss”.

And in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, after a decade of catastrophic wildfires all over the West, I encountered well-educated, liberal city dwellers from California and other affluent states, driving Priuses up 4wd roads, deep into our fire-adapted local forests, looking for remote cabins, rural properties where they could “get away from it all”.

They’d watched forested suburbs going up in flames on TV, they’d read magazine articles about why forests need to burn, and they’d listened to Forest Service authorities explaining why fire suppression had to end. But they were still moving into fire-adapted forests, and they still expected the government to protect them.

As cognitive scientists have pointed out, people can think critically, exercise reason and logic, share and compare observations and ideas with their peers in the public discourse – but in the long run, it may make little difference what we think and say, because most of our behavior is involuntary. We imitate family, friends, teachers, and celebrity heroes, we act on unconscious urges, we fall prey to habits and addictions we know are bad for us.

Fouling Their Nest

As I described above, for me, moving west was also moving away from our European Colonial legacy. Not to forget or deny it, but to peel back the layer of “American” colonial culture superimposed on this continent, to expose the rich legacy of indigenous cultures underlying ours. To put the imported colonial culture in a broader context, to compare it to cultures that are truly native to this land.

What kind of ecological culture did Europeans bring with them to this continent – how had they treated their habitats back home?

Much of Europe had already been ecologically degraded centuries before, its wildlands deforested, mined, and overgrazed by goats, sheep, and cattle. (M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources)

According to Josh Davis at London’s Natural History Museum:

Centuries of farming, building and industry have made the UK one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe. Extensive agricultural lands and road networks, in combination with other factors, have reduced the wildlife in the UK to a point hardly seen elsewhere.

A new analysis looking into how much biodiversity is left in different countries around the world has shown that the UK has some of the lowest amounts of biodiversity remaining.

Before the Industrial Revolution, forests covered much more of the UK than they do now. Large areas of wilderness were home to animals and plants which are now a rare sight, or gone completely. Red squirrels, beavers, wolves and bears were once common in the British Isles.

The advent of mass farming, factories, roads, trainlines and urban sprawl has been a death knell for wild places, and it was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.

This was our ancestors’ cultural legacy. What did they find waiting for them in the “New World”?

Discovering a Virgin Land

Around the arrival of Columbus, “it’s said that squirrels could travel from tree to tree from the Northeast to the Mississippi without ever having to touch the ground,” said Chris Roddick, chief arborist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. “In the old growth forests in the Northeast, you had hemlock that were six or seven feet in diameter, chestnut trees 200 feet tall.”

But we all know North America wasn’t an empty wilderness. Like Europe, it was filled with people, hundreds of local and regional indigenous tribes that had interacted with nature for thousands of years. The Eastern Seaboard of what’s now the U.S. was dotted with native villages surrounded by cropfields. Centuries later, records are poor and data is sparse, but it stands to reason that instead of continuous forest, eastern North America was a mosaic of habitats cultivated in part by Native Americans. And we’re now rediscovering that one of their tools was fire.

The early European settlers found that much of the East was already being fired on a frequent basis by Indians…These settlers gradually displaced the Indians, but continued their use of fire for many of the same reasons, i.e., to clear the woods of underbrush, to expose nuts, to clear agricultural fields, etc. Frequent fires occurred over large areas of the eastern landscape into the early decades of the 20th century. (D. H. Van Lear and R. F. Harlow, Fire in the Eastern United States: Influence on Wildlife Habitat, U.S. Forest Service)

Developing a Healthy Economy

Lear and Harlow say settlers “displaced” the Indians, suggesting they were just gently nudged aside. That’s a fine euphemism for the genocide we know occurred, and it hints at the unconscious anti-indigenous racism inherent to our culture, including science and academia. North American wasn’t settled, it was violently conquered and colonized. Native Americans were either decimated by the diseases we imported, cheated out of their habitat in unfair trade, slaughtered for their land and resources, or violently driven westward ahead of our invasion.

European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down, new research has found…This “large-scale depopulation” resulted in vast tracts of agricultural land being left untended, researchers say, allowing the land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation…“The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution,” wrote the UCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis. (Oliver Milman, The Guardian)

Reviewing the Forest Service maps I included in Part 2, comparing pre-conquest forest cover to that in the early 20th century, we can see far beyond Lear and Harlow’s observations. The European colonists didn’t just use fire to clear a few fields, so they could feed their families. They were part of a global empire with a capitalist consumer economy that would transform much of the world into corporate plantations, producing highly profitable addictive substances like tobacco, coffee, tea, sugar, rum, whiskey, and opium, alongside emerging consumer staples like cotton and palm oil.

To establish these commodity crops and plantations, European colonists employed advanced technology developed by their scientists and engineers to broadly eliminate natural habitat which had been tended by indigenous societies for millenia, across most of the U.S. east of the Mississippi.

Using steel axes, saws, shovels, chains, winches, mule teams, and eventually steam-powered and gas-powered tractors, bulldozers, excavators, and other heavy equipment, European colonists cleared forests, drained and filled wetlands, dammed rivers, and dug canals. Most of the eastern indigenous subsistence mosaic was replaced by plowed fields planted with commercial crops – imported from Europe or appropriated from natives – including pastures for European livestock. Hidden in soil clinging to these imported crops, invasive Eurasian earthworms reached North America, where like human colonists, they’ve conquered and displaced natives, spreading westward, reducing biodiversity in native soils, ultimately transforming and impoverishing native habitats.

Colonial exploitation of North America’s natural resources began the accumulation of wealth that would eventually enable the U.S. to build a global political, military, economic, industrial, and cultural empire. But the indigenous practices that colonists replaced – controlled burning and many other forms of tending documented in recent studies – had provided ecosystem services in cooperation with nature – nutrient cycling, soil renewal, water purification, fuel reduction, etc. Under the new regime, white elites gained wealth and power, but in the long term, everyone – colonists, surviving natives, and wildlife – suffered unforseen consequences, losing many of the ecosystem services provided by the original mosaic. Including climate regulation.

The very essence of the frontier experience lies in the extent of its resources, and when resources are boundless, why conserve them or even utilise them efficiently? The principal goal is to exploit them as quickly as possible, then move on. It is this frontier attitude to resource utilisation that lies at the heart of much capitalism, and which presents such a challenge to conservationists today. (Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples)

Land of Liberty

The first European ventures in the Western Hemisphere were combined military, commercial, and religious expeditions – from Spain and Portugal – to dominate native populations, claim their land for the empire, exploit their labor and natural resources for profit, and convert them to Christianity.

But with colonial settlement, religious oppression, and commercial exploitation, European diseases and brutality began to depopulate the New World, and accounts of the richness of indigenous habitats gradually reached the “common people” back in Europe. Many Europeans, like the English Pilgrims and my Scottish ancestors, suffered from the oppression of empire at home, and the first European colonists in eastern North America were refugees seeking the freedom to practice religions unpopular or illegal in Europe.

This freedom from religious persecution became one of the founding values of colonial society. But the land-owning and business-owning classes in the colonies – minor aristocracy and the urban middle class that was becoming known in Europe as the bourgeoisie – had more secular concerns. They wanted freedom from taxes and other forms of imperial control imposed from Europe. They romanticized and sanctified this broader, more secular form of freedom in the term “liberty”.

The European culture they inherited was intensely individualistic and competitive, and their Judeo-Christian religious tradition had granted them dominion over nature. They eventually formed a nation – the United States – based on individual freedom, private property, and free enterprise.

As white Europeans pushed westward, replacing indigenous communal subsistence ecologies and habitat with capitalist consumer economies, cropfields and pastures, they corralled surviving native communities into less economically desirable fragments called reservations. Eventually, in the late 19th century, with most of the continent transformed, romantic activists like the Scotsman John Muir warned white citizens that surviving fragments of native habitat with “scenic” value to Europeans were in danger of being lost to settlement and commercial development.

In the words of Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society in the early twentieth century, ‘nowhere is Nature being destroyed so rapidly as in the United States…an earthly paradise is being turned into an earthly Hades; and it is not savages or primitive men who are doing this, but men and women who boast of their civilization’. This is the sad story of the economic machine that ate the life of a continent, and it was not just animals that were fed into its maw, but people and cultures too. (Flannery, The Eternal Frontier)

These fragments of surviving habitat had provided final refuge for indigenous communities which had so far escaped European conquest; in response to white concern over the loss of “wild nature,” these indigenous refuges were confiscated and native people were driven off. This became a model for European colonial “conservation” worldwide. Indigenous people were driven off, their land was now called “public” – meaning it was for the use of white colonists – and the former indigenous refuges were now “preserved for future generations” of white colonists as National (and State) Parks and Preserves. This racist policy has been acclaimed in our own time as “America’s Best Idea”.

Managing Resources

Gifford Pinchot and a handful of his contemporaries…went to Europe to study the relatively new profession of forestry…In Europe, forestry practices were developed to reforest lands that had long ago been denuded by the large rural population to provide timber, charcoal, firewood, and pasture…Under Pinchot’s leadership, the Forest Service claimed fire control as its compelling mission…The Forest Service used zealous promotion and propaganda to build an aggressive national program for suppressing forest fires in all forests…People who suggested that fire be used or sometimes be allowed to burn were ignored or put down. (Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree)

Not until the early 1900s were there serious efforts to exclude fire as an ecological process in eastern North America. In 1910, an outbreak of wildfires in the western United States–concentrated in Idaho and Montana, burned millions of acres, much of which was on national forests, and killed 78 firefighters…These events occurred just after the Forest Service had made fire control a top priority on the nation’s national forests and caused the public to become concerned about the sustainability of the nation’s natural resources. (Lear and Harlow, USFS)

Led by the Forest Service and the state forestry commissions, the public began to see fire as an enemy to be suppressed at all costs. An era of fire suppression began that created different environments from those that had existed for millennia, often to the detriment of many wildlife species. (Lear and Harlow, USFS)

Thus federal agencies’ policy of fire suppression emerged in collaboration with media and public opinion – just as now, sensational media stories of wildfire trigger emotional reactions and demands for political action on climate change – actions which will have unforseen consequences far in the future, beyond our leaders’ brief terms of office, beyond our own lifetimes.

Government fire suppression didn’t just apply to the parks and preserves set aside for white people. Government fire suppression furthered our founding values of free enterprise and private property, enabling private individuals and businesses to expand further into fire-adapted natural habitat.

In the 1930s, liberal President Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a program which dammed hundreds of rivers, damaging or destroying aquatic and riparian ecosystems and habitats nationwide. This program is celebrated today by liberals as the inspiration for the proposed Green New Deal, their weapon in the War on Climate Change.

The destruction of North America’s waterways is arguably the greatest blow ever struck by the European Americans at the continent’s biodiversity, for it blasted the oldest and most distinctive biological element on the continent. (Flannery, The Eternal Frontier)

Roosevelt’s program accelerated the development of the massive infrastructure our modern civilization depends on, which we now take for granted and expect government and industry to maintain for us in perpetuity. Dams – which are still promoted as clean energy – mines, factories, refineries, railroads, highways, pipelines, solar plants, wind farms, powerlines, and aquaducts all destroy natural habitat and endanger wild plant and animal populations.

By the 1950’s North Americans had eliminated about four-fifths of the continent’s wildlife, cut more than half its timber, all but destroyed its native cultures, dammed most of its rivers, destroyed its most productive freshwater fisheries and depleted a good proportion of its soils. (Flannery, The Eternal Frontier)

As the innovations of science and technology enabled population growth, cities, farms, and factories continued to expand and consume natural habitat, until, in the Postwar Boom of the mid-20th century, prosperity and advances in transportation technology gave us a global trade empire, introducing new waves of invasive plants and animals, which domestic air travel and conservative President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System rapidly dispersed from coast to coast – including the invasive plants which are now fueling high-intensity wildfire in the desert.

At the same time, our science achieved a quantum leap in environmental destruction through the “miracle products” of chemistry like plastics, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals, and the nuclear radiation unleashed by physicists in weapons development, medicine, and electric power generation. Whereas before, urban and industrial development had consumed and replaced discrete patches of rural habitat, these new toxins spread continuously through air, water, soil, and living populations, both urban and rural, resulting in more unforseen consequences far into the future.

We’re all familiar with the revelations of these dangers in the early 1960s and the subsequent Environmental Movement, the establishment of the EPA, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species act. But despite these brief flurries of public opinion and legislation, the chemical industry continued to churn out plastics and other pollutants, and fire suppression and individual freedom ensured that natural habitat continued to be consumed as cities, homes, and businesses moved deeper into rural land.

Getting Away From It All

Eventually, in recent decades, just as science was beginning to discover the role of fire in ecosystems and government agencies were struggling to overhaul fire management policy, both scientists and agencies identified a fly in the ointment, another unforseen consequence of our culture – the newly-christened wildland-urban interface, the physical boundary between nature and human dwellings and businesses.

Just as we belatedly recognized the need for wildfire to maintain natural habitat and ecosystem services, we discovered that our policy of fire suppression had made wildfire nearly impossible to restore to the system – because there were people, buildings, pets, and equipment already established there, throughout fire-adapted habitats. Private property and free enterprise are fundamental to our culture, but ecological sustainability appears nowhere in the Constitution or other founding documents, because it was not part of our European legacy.

At the same time the environmental movement was burgeoning and timber sales were being appealed, people were moving into homes and developments located in forests beyond the traditional suburbs. It became feasible to extend power and phone lines into the woods and maybe even to obtain a conventional mortgage loan. Comfortable four-wheel-drive vehicles and pickup-mounted snowplows were now available, allowing year-round access…

By the late 1980s a few million people had moved into the western forests…The new residents often resisted suggestions to thin their own forest, yet most had fire insurance and expected the rural fire department to come to their aid if a fire came near…

Television news and movies feature heroic images of brave firefighters and their impressive technology battling destructive fires…These superheroes had a record of defeated wildfires, and most forest residents felt confident that the fire department could protect them…Exurban housing in ponderosa pine forests threatens wildlands like national forests, national parks, and other preserves, because it prevents managers from using prescribed burning or allowing natural fires to burn to maintain the ecosystem. (Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree)

Climate Change

We’ve seen how, during the early 20th century, public opinion in our ecologically ignorant and environmentally destructive culture was manipulated by science, government, and media to demand wildfire suppression. Government propaganda promoting this policy – the Smokey Bear campaign – continued through my childhood and youth. And the unforseen consequences of this cultural manipulation, misguided public opinion, and political action accumulated for more than a century, resulting in our current wildfire crisis.

Now science and liberal media are urging us to demand political action on climate change, which is presented as the cause of all our pressing environmental problems, including destructive wildfire.

Yes, average temperatures are rising globally. Average precipitation is decreasing in many areas, and natural habitats are drying out, increasing fuel loads for wildfire. Climate change can make wildfire worse, but it’s not the root cause. Wildfire is a problem for us because our culture denies its value and its necessity. Wildfire is a natural creative force – our culture is what’s destructive.

Wildfires are getting bigger and more damaging because from the very beginning, European colonists unleashed a plague of livestock, invasive plants and animals, and Eurasian diseases to disrupt and replace native ecosystems. European colonists deforested the Eastern U.S., dammed rivers, drained and filled wetlands, replacing natural habitat with cities, factories, and industrial commodity farms, eliminating natural ecosystem services, enabling an unsustainable population explosion and causing damage that has yet to be repaired.

Wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive because in the early 20th century, white Americans reacted to sensational news stories and urgent warnings from science and media, building a groundswell of public opinion that forced government and industry to take major short-term actions – fire suppression – with unforseen consequences unfolding far into the future. We suppressed the wildfires the forest needed, and the longer we suppressed fires, the more desperately they were needed.

Wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive because our industrial civilization denies nature and her cycles. Clinging to the hallowed principles of liberty, private property, and free enterprise that our colonial founders lived and died for, we fight to maintain homes, businesses, and infrastructure in fire-starved habitats. But worst of all, wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive because we slaughtered and drove off the natives who sustainably tended fire-adapted habitats.

Climate change isn’t causing destructive wildfires – we should’ve been having frequent wildfire all along, and our culture, our entire civilized way of life, is responsible for making it worse now. Climate change is only one of many unforseen consequences of industrial civilization. And the actions we take now, in a desperate effort to save that civilization, will have more far-reaching unforseen consequences, just like the fire suppression we demanded over a century ago.

I mentioned above that Native Americans lived with wildfire, using it as a tool to increase productivity of natural habitats. Is there anything we can learn from them?

Next: Native Americans and Wildfire

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Cave Climbing

Monday, March 29th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sacaton, Southwest New Mexico.

I’d had my first COVID shot on Friday, suffering only a sore arm. Online research suggested a hike on Sunday would be fine. We’d had snow, sleet, and rain in the past few days, so I was anxious to check out the 300′ waterfall I’d read about, up the canyon with the cave and arch I’d seen from a distance on my first bushwhack. I was afraid if I waited much longer, the last snow would melt and the waterfall would dry up.

It was supposed to be a six mile one-way with 2,000′ of elevation gain, which normally wouldn’t be enough to challenge me, but with my immune system off balance I should probably take it easy anyway. And I had no idea what I’d find in that canyon. There had originally been a trail, but after the 2012 wildfire it hadn’t been cleared. If it turned out to be an easy hike, I might be able to bushwhack up to the 10,000′ ridge above. It the canyon turned out to be blocked with debris and deadfall, I might not even reach the waterfall. In any event, there was the cave and the arch, halfway up. I was sure I could reach those at minimum.

The turnoff from the highway is at a ranch gate – the biggest and fanciest ranch gate in this area, with an expensive sign advertising their rodeo wins. The ranch itself is one of the biggest private properties in the state – 40,000 acres or 62.5 square miles. The road cuts straight up through the middle of it toward the mountains where they get their water, still rimmed with snow. Along the way you pass the sprawling ranch headquarters, big corrals and an auction yard, and a series of large stock ponds at different levels of the vast plateau.

Toward the head of the plateau, the gravel road joins a narrow irrigation ditch, made of four-foot pre-cast concrete sections, and enters the pinyon-juniper-oak forest. Water was flowing briskly down the ditch. The gravel road ends at the mouth of the canyon, where a dam feeds the ditch. A 4wd road leads onward into the riparian forest, but I could tell it wasn’t likely to be drivable so I parked in the clearing outside.

This riparian forest was pretty impressive – it’d mostly escaped the wildfire, and tall old-growth ponderosas shaded the floodplain. The 4wd road had been cleared in places, but was blocked by deadfall or erosion at intervals. As it crossed back and forth across the creek, I could sometimes see all-terrain tire tracks but couldn’t tell how old they were.

The creek was flowing strong, and the rocks were covered with brilliant green algae. I reached a cattle gate, beyond which the road had been completely washed out. But it continued on the other side, until eventually it became a single track trail, still in the shaded floodplain. It crossed the creek again and I came to the cabin. Unlike the other cabins I’ve encountered in these canyons, this one used absolutely no milled lumber – it was made entirely out of rough-cut native timber, with shake siding. It looks like it could fall down any minute, but from experience I know it could keep standing for decades.

Past the cabin, the trail disappears in thorny thickets with lots of deadfall. I saw the cave rock looming ahead through the trees and crossed the creek, traversing a little ways up the north slope to avoid the floodplain thickets. From where I’d first seen the cave, it looked like the best approach would be from the left side, where I might be able to skirt the bottom of the cliff all the way to the cave. But that way might just as likely be blocked by boulders. The base of the cliff was almost 400′ above me, and there were intervening gullies that might slow me down a lot. So I kept going until I was almost directly under the cave. Then I started climbing the slope, which was at least 30 degrees, alternating between grass, bare rock, and thickets.

It was slow going – I had to zigzag back and forth to avoid obstacles and maintain traction. I could see pines above and hoped for more open ground, but it was a struggle all the way up.

The cave itself was protected by a lower skirt of vertical cliffs, but I eventually saw a narrow crack through the cliffs, directly below the cave, that appeared to have trees growing out of it. I was hoping that would be my way up, but I would need a lot of luck.

Finally, forcing my way past thickets that choked the base of the cliffs, I reached the crack. It was narrow and lined with oaks, but I couldn’t see the end of it, so I just started climbing.

That crack was really an amazing formation. It got narrower toward the top, but the ground was firm so it was fairly easy climbing. Then it curved to the left and the way was blocked with boulders, with only a tiny space between them.

I found that the gap between the boulders was big enough for my body, but I had to take my pack off and push it through first. Then I was able to lever myself up through the gap, using a small branch below as a foothold.

I emerged in a small patch of gravel at the base of the final cliff that led to the cave. There was a vertical crack leading up the cliff, and on its left was a near-vertical rock surface uneven enough to provide holds. I liked the look of the cliff better than the crack, so I tried to climb it, but found the rock too crumbly.

I discovered that these rocks, which look like sandstone from a distance, are the “Gila conglomerate” – the same rock that formed the cliff dwellings north of town. After the ancient volcanism that created these mountains, this rock formed when clasts of harder country rock became embedded in the relatively soft white tuff from the eruptions – kind of like “rocky road” ice cream.

Unlike most conglomerate, it fractures along spherical planes, forming the vaulted arches and caves prehistoric people used as shelter. But it’s really unstable rock, not good for climbing.

I stood there, my spine tingling as I realized I would have to find a way up. I couldn’t get this far and turn back. But I hadn’t done a climb this dangerous in 20 years, my skills were super rusty, and all the recent disabilities had sapped my confidence and made me feel vulnerable. And I knew the climb down would be MUCH harder and scarier.

I took a deep breath and started up the crack, using it for footholds and exploring the rough rock of the cliff on my left for handholds. About half the ones I tried immediately broke off, but I kept breathing and stayed calm until I could find one that seemed solid.

Eventually the convex surface of the cliff ensured that the slope became less vertical, and I emerged onto a surface I could stand on. The cave arched above me, and at its back, the dark, raised alcove I’d seen from a distance.

I looked down and immediately saw a prehistoric corn cob! I couldn’t see any evidence of stone construction inside the arch, but the ancient Mimbrenos must’ve had a secret granary up here.

My spine was still tingling – where the rock was bare, it sloped downwards, and the inside of the arch was littered with slabs fallen from above. It was an exposed place I didn’t feel comfortable spending much time in. I saw that the raised alcove was actually open to the sky on the other side of the giant formation. I shouted and a clear echo came back.

I looked around and realized the way I’d come, through that steep, narrow crack in the cliff, was the only way up here. I’d been very lucky with my routefinding and guessing. If I’d tried to climb earlier and traverse the base of the cliffs I’d have had to backtrack a long distance on very rough ground to reach this point.

I found a relatively level spot in the sun and sat down on the bare rock for a snack and a drink of water. Then, of course, a canyon wren began calling from somewhere above. The arch returned sound so effectively it was impossible to tell where the bird was, but another responded immediately.

Facing me across the canyon and a little farther upstream was the other arch. I could see a natural stone bridge at its right, with forest underneath. I figured that could be explored another day – the scary climb to this cave was enough for now.

I was starting to feel a little queasy, probably from the strenuous climb and lingering effects of the vaccine. I was frankly not sure about the climb back down the crack, and wanted to get it over with. A fall would either kill me or injure me severely. The longer I put it off, the more likely I would just succumb to panic and freeze up.

The only option was to back down, reversing the moves I’d made coming up. I just kept breathing and took it slow, and it turned out to be not as hard as I’d expected. All the same holds worked going down, and it was over before I knew it.

I was hoping to keep hiking up the canyon, so I looked for ways to traverse that direction on the descent. But that slope was too steep and choked with scrub, so I had to go straight down, forcing my way through to the more open ponderosa forest of the floodplain.

The canyon bottom was still choked with thorns and deadfall, and there was no sign of a trail, but I found abundant elk scat and cattle sign and began following segments of game trails that led upward along the north slope. I wasn’t sure I should be climbing, but the canyon bottom just didn’t look like a viable path.

I was also starting to feel sick. I’d felt a sore throat starting, up in the cave, and now I just felt unwell – a little dizzy, a little queasy. But I kept going.

Ahead, the canyon was blocked by boulders the size of apartment buildings. It was obvious why the game trails were climbing – they had to get around the boulders. In places I came upon remnants of the original hiking trail, but these were short and scarce.

Using the game trails – one time I was grateful for the presence of cattle – I got around the boulder blockage, and the trails led back into the canyon bottom. I was now below the opposing arch.

I kept following game trails, and again they led up the slope. It was really hard going with a lot of loose ground, thickets, and deadfall. And after another mile or so, I suddenly found myself at the edge of a cliff. It was like a big bite had been taken out of the canyon side. Above the bite was dense undergrowth – to get around it I’d have to climb down into the canyon. I was feeling pretty bad, so I decided to turn back. Farther ahead I could see the canyon narrowing and curving out of sight to the north. Above in the distance was the high snowy ridge, lined with aspens, banded with talus. I could see a huge outcrop of cliffs where I figured the waterfall might be.

Working my way back down the canyon, I began to notice tall alders standing up from the floodplain. But I’d seen no sycamores – I wondered why?

Despite the many obstacles, due to my landscape memory I was able to nearly retrace my steps. When I reached the canyon bottom, below the opposing arch, I was feeling a little better. I looked up, and thought I could see a direct path up the steep slope, between boulders and deadfall. I decided to try it.

It turned out to be much steeper than the climb to the cave, in loose dirt still wet from yesterday’s rain. But I took it slow, and eventually discovered it was a much longer climb than expected. About halfway I found game trails that switchbacked, making it an easier climb. Then I reached a dense forest of oak below the arch that was tough going.

Finally I emerged from the oak thicket at the base of the arch.

This arch was shallower, longer, and deeper than the other, and north-facing so it was almost entirely in shade. I found nothing prehistoric, but because this arch was much easier to climb to, there was plenty of historical graffiti.

I climbed down the same way I’d climbed up, and resumed my retreat down the canyon.

I was feeling really good by the time I reached the vehicle. It’d turned into a warm spring day, but I’d had the sound of rushing water around me all through it, and the frequent sight of snow high above. I’d done a couple of serious climbs, one of them that I’d never forget. And on the way out, I noticed this enigmatic old adobe standing off to the side of the irrigation ditch.

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