Over the past couple of months I’ve been immersed in researching and writing a piece on indigenous burning practices, particularly in California. My mind is blown! I’ve long kept tabs on the Northern California Prescribed Fire council, which is a very interesting consortium of fire ecologists, state and federal agencies, tribal members and all sorts of people who are trying to get “controlled burning” back on the landscape here. Right now, because of the drought, every day is a wildfire alert day, so no burning allowed anywhere. At the same time, not burning the buildup of duff and debris in our forests is adding tinder to any eventual spark, and the resulting inevitable fire is going to be big. We have a fire problem here.
But under the guidance of Jon Christiansen, my editor at BOOM!: A Journal of California, I’ve been going farther into the flames. In sum, California is fire-adapted, meaning the special plants and animals we have here co-adapted with fire on the landscape. Solid archaeological research conducted by tribal members and researchers from UC Berkeley (the categories overlap) is showing that Native Americans burned the landscape here for at least 1000 years and probably much longer than that. When you look at a map of Native American presence in the state before European contact, you will see a multitudinous jigsaw of hundreds of small polities or “tribelets.” If you look at a map of microclimates in the state, it looks like a similar mosaic. Native Americans in California burned small landscapes to promote a succession of growth and habitat for the plants and animals they gathered and consumed. They maximized the microclimates to cultivate an incredible cornucopia of varied foodstuffs. In the title of Kat Anderson’s landmark book, they were Tending the Wild, and in many places still do.
Here’s one mind-blower. California Native Americans don’t fit into the traditional “hunter gatherer” category nor do they fit into the “farmer” category. Kent Lightfoot (Berkeley prof.) and Otis Parrish put it this way in their encyclopedic drill down on the subject, California Indians and Their Environment: “They Are Not Farmers.” Since anthropology traditionally puts hunter gathers on the primitive-ish scale and then posits the emergence of agriculture as the first step towards modern culture, this step-out by California Natives is of profound import. Let’s just fast-forward to the Anthropocene, our dubious moment in time characterized by our over-use of natural resources, which we are using up faster than they can be renewed. In general surmise the birth of agriculture led us down this path. There are many dimensions to the story (I turned in about 6000 words when Christiansen only asked for 3000. Oops. Get out the red pencil). But one important part of it is that California Natives did not subsist on domesticated plants and animals. They kept the wild wild. One thing that means is that historical ecological relationships between species – like between pollinators and plants – were not disrupted. Diversity of species was not reduced under their stewardship; contemporary agriculture has by contrast reduced diversity to the point of extinction for many species.
So I press “send” on my tome-in-progress and pick up a book: Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth, published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in conjunction with Island Press. It’s a collection of essays mostly targeting the pernicious and cynical arguments of what some of its authors call, tongue in cheek, “the new environmentalists.” These are a handful of people who have gotten a lot of press with their swaggering claims that degraded nature is A-Okay. Eileen Crist’s solid essay, “Ptolemaic Environmentalism” takes on the practically unconscious consensus that seems to be going on here that puts Homo sapiens in a special place above other life forms. She says this started with the Greek concept of oecumene, “one of the first human imperialist concepts,” which describes the inhabited world. The world inhabited by people has become the “real” world to many; this anthropomorphism “constructs an existential apartheid between humans…and…all other life forms regarded, more or less, as the usable or displaceable ‘merely living.’” This fateful separation provides justification for increasing human numbers at the expense of most other life forms.
Harvey Locke, one of the founders of Yellowstone to Yukon, did me a big favor by writing “Green Postmodernisms and the Attempted Highjacking of Conservation.” I struggle with ‘what on Earth is post modernism anyway?’ and Locke explains that after the paroxysm of the world wars and all the “isms” that had fed the maw of mass destruction, intellectuals decided that any codified body of thinking calling itself special knowledge was suspect. So, baby out with the bathwater. All is relative. Locke reviews the infiltration of postmodern thinking into conservation and puts a marker at William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land. The way Locke puts it Cronon’s book “suggested that aboriginal people were farming everywhere and that there was no wilderness when the pilgrims arrived in New England.” Therefore, Locke implies, Cronon was calling wilderness a relative concept.
Locke’s essay is well worth reading and makes much clear. He’s a warrior of conservation and has been a participant in its major conversations for decades. But on the Cronon front and on the Native American front he needs to look a bit deeper. In documenting Native American land use practices, Cronon is not de facto arguing that every piece of landscape from sea to shining sea was thus cultivated, and certainly not arguing that this kind of historic precedent provides some sort of justification for “domesticating” every inch of land today. Cronon’s 1982 book opened academia’s eyes to the fact that humans don’t have a history separate from that of nature. He practically invented the discipline of “environmental history.” Locke falls into the trap of eliding reference and asserting partially-sourced generalizations here – the very faults of the “new environmentalists” he is avowedly countering.
Additionally, there’s this little old thing called “colonialism” that Locke steps up to in the postmodern definition but then steps away from too quickly. Back to Crist’s thesis, humans in general have taken up the colonial modus operandi, and we are all the colonists now. The deconstructing tools developed by postmodernism are still useful for assailing the original enemy. Colonial expansion was predicated on the assumption that one race was better than other races. Now we’re on a different page; we know all races are equal. But the problem has mushroomed onto the species level.
It is at the species level that the Native Californians had it right and still have it right. Frank Lake, of tribal descent, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, shared with me a perspective about tribal world view. “Every tribe has a creation account, the premise of which is that people came to this world, and they learned the First Teaching,” Lake said. “They learned that the natural laws are learned from animals and from place. And people have a reciprocal obligation to conduct themselves in a particular way with place, with how they use fire, water and other resources and the way they interact with their relations with nature. And nature is everything out there: rocks, trees, insects, plants and animals. They have this deep cultural stewardship responsibility to the environment, and that comes first. And only then are you responsible to your culture and your people.” This philosophy is much older than the Greek “oecumene.” Why don’t any of the authors in Keeping the Wildinvestigate or even acknowledge it?
To the “wilderness” concept or idea – the point is not that humans have no place in part of the biosphere. We are agents of creation and destruction in the biological hurly burly no less than other species. We are not specially more than other species, nor are we specially less. It is not that we are here or have been here, it is how we are here.