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Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Fire Place"

The last post about the ecology of fires out west reminded me of a chapter I recently read in a book mentioned in the post "Why We'll Never Run Out of Energy". In the book 1491, author Charles C. Mann tells an insightful story of how our perception of Native Americans and their use of the land is distorted by modern idealistic tendencies. Especially interesting to students of ecosystem science and management in North America is this section from his chapter, "Fire Place."
"Adriaen van der Donck was a lawyer who in 1641 transplanted himself to the Hudson River Valley...[and] spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee, whose insistence on personal liberty fascinated him. They were, he wrote, 'all free by nature, and will not bear any domineering or lording over them.'
... "Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to 'the woods, plains, and meadows,' to 'thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.' At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. 'Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks,' he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists' boats passed through a channel of fire, their passengers as goggled-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. 'Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides...a delightful scene to look on from afar.'
"Van der Donck believed that North America was only 'several hundred miles' across, and apparently assumed that all its inhabitants were exactly like the Haudenosaunee. He was wrong about the first belief, but in a sense correct about the second: from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Hudson's Bay to the Rio Grande, the Haudenosaunee and almost every other Indian group shaped their environment, at least in part, by fire.
"Early in the last century, ecologists discovered the phenomenon of 'succession', the more or less well-defined sequence by which ecosystems fill in open land. A textbook example occurred after the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens, in southern Washington State, which inundated more than two hundred square miles with magma, volcanic ash, and mud. Surviving plants sprang quickly to life, sometimes resprouting within weeks. Then colonizing species like lupine appeared, preparing the ground for the return of the grasses. Fifteen years after the eruption, the ravaged slopes were dotted with trees and woody shrubs: red alder, lodgepole pine, willow bush. Here and there gleamed the waxy red boles of madrone. Forest giants like hemlock, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce waited in the wings. In the classic successional course, each suite of plants replaces its predecessor, until the arrival of the final, 'climax' ecosystem, usually tall forest.
... "Set off by lightning, wildfires reset the ecological clock, dialing the array of plants and animals back a few successional stages. Fire benefits plants that need sunlight, while inhibiting those that love the cool gloaming of the forest floor; it encourages the animals that need those plants even as it discourages others; in turn, predator populations rise and fall. In this way fire regulates ecological character.
"Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it - at least until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used 'to set fire of the country in all places where they come.' The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska; all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.'  Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles.
"Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the number of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry brambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first Europeans in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks - they could drive carriages through the trees. Fifteen miles from shore in Rhode Island, Giovanni de Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that the forest 'could be penetrated even by a large army.' John Smith claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.
"Incredible to imagine today, bison occurred from New York to Georgia. A creature of the prairie, Bison bison was imported to the East by Native Americans along a path of indigenous fire, as they changed enough forest into fallows for it to survive far outside its original range...
... "Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm. Most of Indiana and part of Illinois, for instance, was prairie of 'barrens' when it was first surveyed in 1818-20; a 2009 study of surviving trees from the pre-European era showed that even in thickly forested areas fires intense enough to scar trunks occurred, on average, every 2.82 years. Because 'lightning strikes in [this area] are usually accompanied by rain that would quickly extinguish any lightning fires,' researchers from Southern Illinois University and Principia College wrote in 2010, 'nearly all these early fires' were likely due to human activity. Further west, the same burning occurred, but on even grander scale. Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by the cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first. 'When Lewis and Clark headed west from [St. Louis],' wrote ethologist Dale Lott, ' they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.'
... "Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature - but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if 'stable' is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash. And it was a system that Indians were abandoning in ever-rising numbers at the time when Europeans came."
We've seen in a previous post how the wisdom of the Natives performed far better in maintaining a balance in nature than our progressive preservationist land management policies. This excerpt from 1491 reminds us in even more poignant detail that what we might call "common sense", that kind of wisdom derived from generations of living on and with the land, may seem harsh by today's standards, but not as harsh as the gigantic conflagrations, forest-consuming pest populations, and shrinking species diversity brought about by our short-sighted attempts to "save" our forests and environment through bureaucratic regulation.

The lesson that stewardship requires active involvement of man with the land, learned by our early pioneers and environmental leaders from The People, has been forgotten and replaced with a religion of excluding man from productively interacting with the forest. To the great detriment of man, beast, fowl, and fish, and the land that supports them all.

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