Above: before; below after (almost) from:
At this point you may be wondering, “Why is this Connecticut boy (as if some silver haired grandpa could use the word “boy” to describe himself) going on and on about California on a blog that was really started with field observations about a site in his Connecticut neighborhood?”
Alyssa Alexandria photoI guess it’s just because of the familiar feeling I get looking at photos of what’s described as “settler’s rock walls” and the broader landscape that they occur on – much different from Connecticut as locales but familiar in construction. I think I see what could be effigies and patterns in the artistic stacking of stones, linking outcrops and boulders – boulders that could be effigies and “stone baskets.” I think I see how some of these “rock walls” could be fuel breaks around different resource zones, just as I see them around here, maybe game drives and yet some are so perplexing, sometimes spirals and other non-rectangular shapes that make you think of them as Ceremonial, which really means you can’t think of anything else to call that shape or guess a function.
Alyssa Alexandria photo
And I guess that it’s a “California Re-Charge” that I’m experiencing after a week-long visit, a couple drives out of the suburban and urban congestion of LA, passing through the Laguna Canyon and driving up above Irvine and seeing some signs of the older Cultural Landscape, finding they are places that First People are saying are Sacred Sites and are actively fighting to preserve.
…..Or sacrifice one to save four others.
I really do enjoy diving into the literature, surprising myself with what I find about “donation piles,” described almost word for word as the ones in this corner of Turtle Island. I like being surprised about named boulders, seeing a one hundred year old photo of one of them that has stones placed on top of her that were there for as long as the oldest living elder could remember, although they could be knocked off “with the sweep of a hand.”
I like to read about the burning off of the land, since I read about it so often in those old local histories from all those towns around mine (and beyond).
It’s no surprise that I liked the surprises I came across yesterday and in the early hours of this morning, thinking I could easily substitute the name “Connecticut” for the word “California” in this fourth chapter of “Tending the Wild.” There was a great bonus to this work that couldn’t happen here – First People remember the landscape being burned over and are actively working to be allowed to do so again, to be able to “take care” the plants and animals, to be able to “renew the world.” Take a look:
“Indigenous peoples have been pigeonholed by social scientists into one of two categories, “hunter-gatherer” or “agriculturist,” 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. The image evoked by the term hunter-gatherer is of a wanderer or nomad, plucking berries and pinching greens and living a hand-to-mouth existence; agriculturist, at the other extreme, refers to one who completely transforms wildland environments, saves and sows seed, and clears engulfing vegetation by means of fire and hand weeding. This dichotomous view of nature–human interactions has shut out the fact that Indian groups across California practiced many diverse approaches to land use, and it has led to a focus on domestication as the only way humans can influence plants and animals and shape natural environments.
Recently anthropologists have learned about the complexity of traditional ecological knowledge and the extent of indigenous peoples’ management of wildlands by going to other parts of the world to study more intact cultures (e.g., Darrell Posey’s work with the Kayapó Indians in the Brazilian Amazon and Henry Lewis’s fire management work with Australian Aborigines).But a reassessment of the record in California reveals that land management systems have been in place here for at least twelve thousand years—ample time to affect the evolutionary course of plant species and plant communities.
These systems extend beyond the manipulation of plant populations for food. Traditional management systems have influenced the size, extent, pattern, structure, and composition of the flora and fauna within a multitude of vegetation types throughout the state. When the first Europeans visited California, therefore, they did not find in many places a pristine, virtually uninhabited wilderness but rather a carefully tended “garden” that was the result of thousands of years of selective harvesting, tilling, burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and transplanting.
Much of the rich material disclosing the ancient management of wilderness lies in the dusty diaries and handwritten notes of anthropologists and the eyewitness accounts of early European settlers. For example, Kroeber’s 1939 field notes, housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, record that the Yurok of northwestern California practiced burning at a frequency that was appropriate for each cultural purpose: burning of hazelnut for basketry occurred every two years; burning under the tan oaks to keep the brush down took place every three years; burning for elk feed occurred every fourth or fifth year; burning in the redwoods for brush and downed fuel control occurred every three to five years. These observations did not change his thinking about “hunter-gatherers,” nor did he publish them. Other early anthropologists found examples of hunter-gatherers saving and sowing wild seeds, pruning wild crops, and managing wildlife and vegetation with fire (page 125)”
“… Burning is the application of fire to particular vegetation areas under specified conditions to achieve select cultural purposes. The use of fire entails a number of important considerations, such as seasonality, the frequency of burning in a particular area, and the aerial extent of the fire… 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. They burned every year and in the same areas” (pers. comm. 1990).
Fire was also used in hunting many kinds of animals. Often, burning carried out for the immediate purpose of securing food had secondary ecological effects noted above. The methods used for hunting were ingenious and numerous. Tribes employed fire to attract animals, to drive them in certain directions, to create smoke for killing rodents in their burrows, or, in the case of insects, to reveal their nests or disable or kill them so that they could be collected. Alfred Kroeber recorded among the Yokuts: “When the geese traveled, inflammable brush was piled up, and when the birds were heard approaching on dark, still nights these were suddenly lit. The birds swooped down to the flare, and in their bewilderment were easily killed.”
The Owens Valley Paiute stalked deer in disguise, used a surround with people and trained dogs, and sometimes fired brush. The Sierra Miwok set small fires in the hills around a meadow, into which deer went. These men then kept building new fires. As the deer descended to the meadow, they approached the fires out of curiosity and concealed hunters shot them with bows and arrows. A Hupa man described how fire was used to capture deer: “Two fires set in canyon so as to burn toward bottom. Some hunters drove with the fire; others awaited game at bottom.” Fire was a tool used often for driving rabbits. For example, brush was fired for driving rabbits on the floor of valleys by the Tubatulabal between July and the middle of August. Twenty or more men stood in a circle outside of the burning brush and as the rabbits fled, the men shot them with bows and arrows. The historian Thomas Fletcher said, “In late summer and early fall the Kuzedika [Mono Lake Paiute] held rabbit drives around the lake flats. The drives required the participation of many people, some to hold the long nets into which the rabbits were driven, others to light fires in the sagebrush and force the rabbits into the nets.”
Colonel Rice described game hunting in the forests by the Cosumnes Indians (Plains Miwok) in 1850: “A whole settlement would turn out and begin operations by starting a number of small fires at regular intervals in a circle through the woods, guiding the flame by raking up the pine needles, and stamping out the fire when it spread too far. When the fires burned out there was left a narrow strip of bare ground enclosing a circular area of several acres, within which the game was confined. A large fire was then kindled at a point inside of the circle, taking advantage of the direction of the wind, and allowed to spread unchecked. The men, armed with bows and arrows and accompanied by their dogs, kept to the windward in front of the fire and shot down the rabbits and other small animals as the heat drove them from cover, while the women, with their conical baskets on their backs, followed up the fire to gather up the grasshoppers, which merely had their wings singed by the fire, but were not killed.”
Many elders in the Sierra Nevada foothills recalled how their ancestors set fires to clear the brush. Several examples are included below.
Mother and Grandmother used to talk about burning the brush. The fires were set up around Cascadel [North Fork, California] in the ponderosa pines. The fire would creep along because it was late in the fall when the winds have stopped that they would set the fires. They’d burn coming out of the forest, usually late fall before the storms start, about September, October and November. The fires would just go out. It wasn’t covered like it is now with pine needles, old limbs and stuff that is all dry. Wherever the brush or trash was, they would set fires. But there wasn’t the brush like there is now. Every year fires were set and they never got hot enough to burn the big trees. In 1913 we could ride straight in the saddle and not knock the brush out of the way. It was open country. Then they came with their fire restrictions. (Nellie Lavell, North Fork Mono, pers. comm. 1991)
I’m going by what the elders told me happened in the 1800s. Burning was in the fall of the year when the plants were all dried up when it was going to rain. They’d burn areas when they would see it’s in need. If the brush was too high and too brushy it gets out of control. If the shrubs got two to four feet in height it would be time to burn. They’d burn every two years. Both men and women would set the fires. The flames wouldn’t get very high. It wouldn’t burn the trees, only the shrubs. They burned around the camping grounds where they lived and around where they gathered. They also cleared pathways between camps. Burning brush helped to save water. They burned in the valleys and foothills. I never heard of the Indians setting fires in the higher mountains, but don’t take my word for it. (Rosalie Bethel, North Fork Mono, pers. comm. 1989)
My parents talked about the old-time Indians burning. All the elders talked about the Indians burning as they came down the mountains in the fall to the lower elevations. It was common knowledge. They’d burn in October or the last of September. The fires didn’t burn out of control.
Nacomas Turner said they let Yosemite National Park go to heck because they let the trash stay on the ground for so many years.Walking in the forest is like walking on foam rubber. The litter must have been a foot deep. Everything our people did 50 years ago they don’t dare do today. My dad and mother used to burn on their properties. (Sylvena Mayer, North Fork Mono, pers. comm. 1991)
Taking Care of Nature
We have learned that native plants were tended with a variety of resource management techniques, including pruning diseased parts of favored plants, weeding around plants to decrease competition and aerate the soil, replanting the smaller bulblets of harvested plants, and scattering seed. Many different habitats were burned to heighten the amount of forage and its nutritional value for various species of wildlife. Today California Indians often refer to these practices as “caring about” the plant or animal. Traditionally, Indians did not consider their actions management per se; “management” is a Western term implying control. Rather, caring for plants and animals in the California Indian sense meant establishing a deeply experiential and
reciprocal relationship with them.
For millennia native people used the vast diversity of California’s flora and fauna as sources of food, medicine, basketry, weapons, tools, games, shelters, and ceremonial items. Numerous plant and animal species were integral to every facet of Indian culture—religious festivals and life events such as childbirth, puberty, and death. Plants and animals were talked to, prayed for, and thanked with offerings. When they gathered or hunted, Indians adhered to ancient rules and techniques that allowed for resource use while keeping the resource base intact. As a result, some traditional gathering and hunting sites are very, very old.
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.
Their concern about replacement and return means that their gathering may be called “judicious,” because the act is conducted with calculated temperance and restraint. Many of the gathering and management strategies are potentially sustainable, allowing for repeat harvests. Potentially sustainable harvesting strategies included harvesting plants for their tubers after seeding, cutting shrubs during the dormant period, sparing individual plants for future regeneration, granting plant populations rest periods, and using appropriate, nondestructive technologies.
As horticulturists, California Indians tilled the soil, pruned shrubs, sowed the seeds of wildflowers and grasses, and, in some cases, set the fires that nourished their food and basketry crops. These techniques had subtle yet important ecological impacts at the species, population, community, and landscape levels within a multitude of habitats in different parts of California.
In particular, the development of fire as a vegetation management tool enabled women and men to systematically alter the natural environment on a long-term basis and at a massive scale. What becomes clear is that California Indians had a profound knowledge of the plants, animals, and ecological processes around them. 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.
From Tending the Wild; Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources Chapter Four “Methods of Caring for the Land” by M. Kat Andersonhttp://permaculteur.free.fr/ecoanarchisme/tending_the_wild.pdf
And then there's all those turtles: