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Monday, April 19th, 2021

Signs of Spring

Monday, April 5th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Greenhouse, 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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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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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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A Year’s Weather in a Day

Monday, April 19th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Rain, Southwest New Mexico.

Another tough choice over where to hike! Last Sunday I’d experienced an extremely painful strain of my Achilles tendon. I couldn’t use my left foot if the angle between the foot and the leg was less than 90 degrees. But in order to keep the foot at a 90 degree angle while climbing, I had to use my calf muscle and push off with the ball of my foot, which is the vulnerable part of my foot. I can do that at the beginning of a hike, but as the day wears on, the bones get inflamed and can no longer bear my weight.

I’d taken the intervening week off, resting my heel and doing gentle stretches 4 times a day. My second COVID shot was coming up – I expected to miss a hike or two afterward, and wanted to maintain my conditioning with a longer hike before. But we don’t have any long hikes that don’t involve climbing.

So in the end, I picked a hike I’d never done before – one that had been recommended to me by someone I’d hiked with in the past, someone who knew what I liked. It was a 14-mile round-trip that crossed two divides between three creeks, so it had some climbs, but I didn’t know how steep they were. It was definitely the wrong hike to pick for my heel problem, but I figured if it was too hard, I could just skip the climbs and explore at creek level.

We’d had unseasonably warm weather for a couple of weeks, but now there was an area-wide warning of a cold front that could bring thunderstorms. It was mostly focused to the east, but I always hope for weather.

The trailhead is harder to reach than most – it requires a 20-mile drive across a rolling plateau on dirt ranch roads. I’d avoided this trail in the past because it traverses a lower part of the mountains between 6,300′ and 7,300′, so I didn’t expect it to give me the elevation gain I normally seek, and I didn’t expect any spectacular views. But from a distance the terrain looked fairly rugged. Maybe it would surprise me.

The approach was fairly typical for trails on the western front: dropping from the plateau at the foot of the mountains into a deep canyon, through pinyon, juniper, and oak. It started with a “Trail Unmaintained” sign, but I’d heard that it had been mostly cleared in recent years, and the tread was good, besides consisting mostly of loose rock. Traversing farther up the canyon, I began to see cliffs and rock outcrops ahead. It was mostly sunny but cool. The cold front had cleared the air and I was feeling good and optimistic.

Past the creek, the trail began switchbacking up a very steep slope. I was conscientiously pushing off with my left foot, keeping the foot at 90 degrees, and the vulnerable ball of my foot felt fine. Taking a week off had seemingly helped. The view up the canyon kept getting better and better. This was definitely an area worth checking out – despite starting out lower, it was the most spectacular canyon I’d ever seen in these mountains!

About a thousand feet above the creek, I reached the first summit of the divide between the first and second creeks. This rolling divide is about three miles wide, and is split into several sections, each of which requires short ascents and descents. Most of it burned in the 2012 wildfire, so there are a lot of exposed, brushy sections. It looked like a long trudge, and it was. But as I moved across it, my view of the higher and more distant peaks kept changing, as did the cloud cover.

After the morning cool, the climb to the divide had been hot, and it was warm up there. I could see clouds touching the far peaks, above 10,000′, but it didn’t look like I was going to get any weather.

Straight ahead of me, in the east, was a spectacular wall of cliffs with a top like a straightedge. I knew that had to be the east wall of the canyon of the second creek. My plan was to drop into that canyon and climb the other side to the top of the divide facing the third canyon. That would give me at least 7 miles one-way, and a view into the third canyon.

I lost the trail a couple of times crossing that rolling divide, wasting up to a half hour. It meandered continually back and forth through the dense scrub, marked only by frequent cairns. Climbing over the final hump, I encountered a stretch where the “trail” consisted only of deeply eroded gullies and steep slopes of loose dirt, blocked occasionally by deadfall, and there were no cairns for a hundred yards or more. But taking my time, I figured out the route.

Finally I reached the rim of the second canyon. It was still mostly sunny and warm, and I was really stoked because of that spectacular wall of cliffs in front of me. It looked like another thousand-foot descent to the creek, and it started out so steep, it was one of those descents where once you start, you can’t stop. But my foot and heel were still feeling fine, so I started sliding down.

What seemed like hundreds of super-steep, rocky switchbacks later, I emerged in intact, parklike, fairly level ponderosa pine forest on the bank of the creek, with the cliffs dimly visible high above on the opposite slope. Screens of willows lined both sides of the creek. After pushing through the first, I stood on rocks mid-creek and looked upstream. This was an amazing canyon that stretched all the way up to the crest of the range.

This location, deep in the wilderness area, was completely hidden from the outside world. The trail I’d taken was the only route in. Another trail started here and followed the canyon all the way to the crest, but the Forest Service claimed it had been destroyed in the wildfire. I was so excited – it really felt like I’d finally penetrated into the mystery of the range. There were spectacular cliffs and rock outcrops all over this area. I was in heaven.

The trail up the east slope of this canyon was in worse shape, and I’d lost time scouting for trail across the first divide. Partway up I began finding old sun-bleached ribbons on branches, and I used those as well as sporadic cairns to find my way. Still there were sections where I had to spend time scouting, so when I had a clear trail, I moved fast.

Finally, after a mile and a half and nearly 500 vertical feet of climbing, I reached the saddle between the two creeks. It felt super remote, but as a destination it was a letdown. I’d reached my goal, but the next canyon didn’t look nearly as spectacular as the previous, and further shoulders of the outlying ridge blocked my view into it.

I was running late, so I sped back toward the second creek. Nearing the bottom of the east slope, I came upon fairly fresh mountain lion scat that I didn’t remember from the ascent. Then, after crossing the creek, I found a lion track superimposed on my own tracks, so I started looking over my shoulder.

Cloud cover had been increasing. When I got a view up the canyon, I could see precipitation veiling the crest of the range, several miles away.

The climb out of this canyon was brutal! Surprisingly, my foot and heel were still holding up, but I knew that even after reaching the top, I still had at least a thousand feet of climbing left crossing the rolling divide and climbing out of the original canyon.

About 300′ below the top there’s a little shelf with intact forest, and there I lost the trail yet again. I knew it eventually crossed a small drainage, so I just dropped into the drainage and fought my way up it, eventually reconnecting with the trail. But that lost me more time.

Cloud cover was now complete, it was raining lightly and getting cold. When I reached the top it turned to snow, so I packed away my shade hat and pulled on both my sweater and my hooded shell jacket.

After the steep, rough descent into the first depression of this long divide, the snow turned to sleet, and when I reached the next rise, it turned to heavy rain, so I had to break out my poncho. My hands were freezing – I’d put on wool glove liners, but once my hands get cold, it takes up to an hour for them to warm up again, so I was flexing them constantly to maintain feeling. I could hear thunder over the crest of the range. A year’s weather in a day!

Precipitation stopped by the time I reached the opposite end of the divide, but clouds still obscured many of the high peaks. The down climb seemed to take forever, and by the time I crossed the first creek and began the final ascent to the trailhead, my foot, heel, and calf were exhausted. That final climb, which is only a little over a mile and less than 500′ of elevation, seemed endless. I was literally cursing after about halfway. And then it began to rain again.

All in all, that was one of the hardest hikes I’ve done in this area, but also one of the most rewarding. I hope to return and explore up the second canyon, and maybe turn it into a backpacking trip. You could do a loop up this canyon, across the crest, and back down the first canyon, although much of it would probably be bushwhacking.

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