Burning Through the Roots
Dawn Adrian is founder of the Tapestry Institute on science and native wisdom. The following is from her opening plenary address at the 2009 Metanexus conference, “Cosmos, Nature, Culture,” held in Phoenix, AZ.
The vision of “Cosmos, Nature, and Culture” I share with you this evening is multidisciplinary, as suits the nature of this meeting and the organization that convened it. But, far more important, it is multi-knowing. That is to say, the vision I will share with you uses and integrates many different ways of knowing and learning. In Western culture the concepts of “multi-disciplinary” and “multi-knowing” are commonly conflated, but the difference between them is important.
An example of scholarship that is multi-disciplinary but not multi-knowing is a dialogue between science and religion that disallows information acquired through prayer unless it comes with substantiating empirical evidence that brings it into the logico-deductive epistemological system of contemporary academic culture. Such a process “legitimizes” one particular piece of information but simultaneously separates it from non-legitimizable information originally acquired the same way. Indigenous peoples refer to this process as the “decontextualization” of knowledge and find it extremely destructive. Another type of information legitimization is the common attempt to justify art or music classes in schools by analyzing their impact on students’ SAT scores. In both of these examples, the “legitimized” information is real and worthwhile, but so is the information that can’t be “legitimized”. Furthermore, the information winnowed out during the process is frequently crucial to fully understanding and successfully applying the incomplete bit of information that enters the community knowledge base as “legitimized”.
The vision I will share with you this evening is grounded in knowledge learned from Story, which Tapestry classifies as a “Mythic” way of knowing and learning. Other ways of knowing and learning in our typology are “Intellectual,” “Experiential,” and “Spiritual.” Our typology is based on the Sacred Circle, common to many Indigenous peoples, that describes “the way the world works”—from seasons to weather patterns to human lives. Tapestry applies the Circle to the ways that people know, learn about, and respond to the natural world. So although we’re going to start with Story, we’ll use and integrate all the ways of learning and knowing this evening. That being the case, I will briefly outline each of them as they appear on the Circle.
The Circle is laid out like a map, with the direction north at the top and the four arms of the central supports marking each of the cardinal directions. Each direction and its associated quadrant is represented by a color. Although the inherent richness of the Circle’s meaning leads to variation in its depiction by different native nations, I have chosen what is considered standard coloration for the directional quadrants: yellow, red, black, and white. The crosspieces of the Circle don’t just “mark” or “represent” the cardinal directions; they actually are the East, South, West, and North. When these crosspieces and the directions they embody come together, they create the Circle in the space around and between them. This Circle is the land itself. The dynamic, creative nature of the Center can be understood by noticing the verbs that describe it: it is the place where the crosspieces and directions come together to create the Circle. The Center is therefore the place where everything comes together or converges, and also—simultaneously—the place where new things emerge.
East is the place of new beginnings—birth and rebirth, spring, childhood. Any time you learn something new, begin a new project, or face life with renewed hope, you are in the East. The color is the yellow of the morning sun. Intellectual ways of knowing and learning are accomplished through thinking processes like reason, logic, analysis, pattern recognition, and generalization. What I am doing right now to explain the Circle and the different ways of knowing to you is “Intellectual.” And, as you can see, it’s the place you generally begin learning about something new. Learning and knowing that takes place at high cognitive levels, in the educational psychology sense, is also Intellectual. Western culture preferentially values information acquired through processes of Intellectual learning and knowing. The so-called “Scientific Method” is frequently considered the type methodology for collecting information through Intellectual ways of learning and knowing, although its format, relevance, and real applicability are hotly debated by scientists and philosophers alike.
The South is the direction from which summer rides up on warm winds during the months when the corn ripens 1. This is the time of fertility, maturity, and productivity, so South is the red color of life’s blood. Experiential ways of knowing and learning about the natural world include sensory information from our eyes, ears, skin, nose, and mouth, as well as the proprioceptive information we receive from our own bodies and the ways they move in space. Science, the poster-child discipline for Intellectual ways of knowing and learning, uses Experiential ways of knowing to acquire sense-data. Some studies of crime victims suggest that the sense of intuition we commonly call “feel” may also be Experiential (somatic).
West, in much of North America, is the direction of storms. It’s black because the thunderheads that tower blindingly white into skies blue as sapphire have bases flat and dark as slate. Lightning flickers restlessly in the stillness before the storm, followed by rain, hail, strong winds, and sometimes tornadoes. The violence of thunderstorms is dangerous and frightening, but the rain they bring fills the rivers and makes the land bloom. Without them life would literally not be possible. This is the key feature of the West: it is a place of double-edged power beyond imagining, a direction associated with awe and paradox. It reminds us that our lives depend utterly on things immeasurably larger than ourselves and far beyond our control. The West is therefore the place of Spiritual ways of learning and knowing.
Winter’s North winds bring snow and deep silence to many parts of the land in North America. Some creatures burrow down beneath the frost and sleep. Flowers and grasses die and wither, and hardwood trees drop their leaves and become dormant. Humans gather indoors around warm fires, sharing stories and dreaming dreams. These are times of deep quiet, of rest and renewal, of death in which new life stirs unseen—seeds in frozen ground beneath the snow. In this silence, stories grow like flames of a warming fire and are shared from person to person. Dreams fall like flakes of snow onto the shelter over a human heart. This is the direction of Mythic ways of knowing about the world—art, music, story, and dream. Its color is the white of snow itself.
Scholars of myth such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Carl Jung have pointed out that the most important myths are universal, expressing basic truths held in common by people around the world at various times. They explain this universality as resulting from our shared biology and consciousness2 as a single species, Homo sapiens. But to Indigenous peoples, the common ground that produces powerful universal symbols of myth and art is the Earth itself, the Land. So to Indigenous peoples, art and story are real rather than representative, and the components referred to as “symbols” or “metaphors” by Western culture are instead parts of an actual whole3. Please bear this in mind as I tell you the story, now, that was first told to me by the Land of Sowbelly Canyon.
I met Sowbelly Canyon when I was only 22 years old. The dirt road that unspooled across the high plains of northwest Nebraska to its rim gave me no hint of what was to come. Pine-studded white cliffs rose from a valley floor knee-deep in rich grass. Cottonwood and ash trees followed the creek meanders, trout at their feet and golden eagles overhead. The power of the place touched me so deeply that I could hardly bring myself to leave. Of course I finally did, but I was so certain I couldn’t leave it a second time without dying of grief that I vowed never to return. I named my only child, a son, Harrison after the nearest town to this Place, a village of fewer than 300 residents. I told him his name meant antelope and elk, mountain lions and eagles, and wild places that were still living the way the world was meant to always live. But I didn’t go back.
Nearly thirty years later, in the spring of 2001, I had a very important dream. In a worldview that recognizes and uses all the different ways of knowing and learning, dream is a source of information—”Mythic” in the typology I’ve just explained. In this dream, I saw three tornadoes in a specific configuration and at specific distances with respect to myself and one another. A fairly large group of people was discussing what to do to get away from them and held a vote during which they decided to stay where they were, which I thought was a bad idea. I saw a map overlaid across the scene, and on the map was a road that went almost straight north of where I lived then in Texas. When I woke up, I knew that the dream meant we were to go north—all of Tapestry—and that it had something to do with the tornadoes or whatever the tornadoes represented. I thought perhaps they indicated there was some sort of danger we needed to get away from by going north. So we began to look for the place we were to go and the means by which we could relocate. After three long years we found the place—and to my unspeakable surprise it was Sowbelly. We moved there the summer of 2004.
The Northern Great Plains has been experiencing serious drought for a number of years now, but the year after we moved, 2005, there was a temporary let-up. Heavy snow that spring followed by a wet summer created an oasis in the chain of dry years, one to which the trees responded with eager earnestness. By the following year, 2006, the ponderosa pines were heavy with fat, ripening cones dripping resin as the air temperature climbed to 113° F. It doesn’t usually get that hot where there are pine trees. When the heat boiled up thunderheads and the hot air grew still in the storm shadows, you’d swear you could hear the pine sap hissing away into vapor. The offgassing volatiles smelled like turpentine in the narrows where the road wound down through the canyon’s upper reaches. Harsh voices of crows cracked the silence. Thunder followed. Its echoes tumbled through the canyon like footsteps over the cellar of a vast empty house.
On July 23 I dreamed: I looked out my window and saw tall flames among the pine trees at the east end of the slope above the ranch buildings. I saw their branches on fire, all along the edge of the high fence bordering the horse pasture. I called the fire department for help to evacuate the horses so they wouldn’t burn up. But the person on the phone told me there was no one to help us, that everyone was out on the fire line. “There are three fires burning at once,” she said. “We are spread too thin to do anything but fight them.”
On July 25 it rained—a delicate, fitful, capricious shower that whirled through the canyon and wetted the ranch buildings while lightning struck elsewhere, far away. We thought maybe the worst would be over then, that the storms were maturing enough to make rain instead of just lightning, that the heat would blow its own self out at last.
July 27 we went to the post office in town. Halfway there, we looked east across the upper canyon and saw a thick column of black smoke boiling into the sky. I would not have thought it possible to drive my old truck on a dirt road at the speed I drove then. We slid into town on a run of gravel to find the bay doors of the volunteer fire department gaping open, the building empty. So we tore off east down the two-lane highway to find out if the fire was really as close to our buffalo pasture as it seemed to be. When the road crested a low rise, the breaks of the White River to our north came into view and, simultaneously, the distant hills of Chadron 60 miles away. There were fires in both places, in addition to the one we’d already seen. Here were “the three fires at once” of my dream, and I knew it meant we needed to get our horses out right away.
But a simultaneous realization, much stronger and more immediate, overwhelmed the one about our horses’ danger. It literally brought me screeching to a halt in the middle of the road. For the first thing I saw when we crested that rise was that the separate columns of new smoke were, absolutely and without doubt, the tornado funnels I’d seen in the pivotal dream that sent us north to begin with—exactly the same size, color, and spatial arrangement. I just hadn’t known that wildfire smoke could look like that, so I’d mistaken it for tornadoes. But the moment I recognized what I’d seen in the dream, I realized the consequence of my mistake: we hadn’t been called north to escape whatever the “tornadoes” represented in the dream, but to witness them—to witness the fires.
The wildfires burned for over a week and the one nearest the canyon consumed 50,000 acres before it was done. Sowbelly was in the middle of that burn and suffered severe damage. But we couldn’t rail against what had happened or even think of it as a tragedy. The mere fact of the dream’s existence and context told us that something sacred was taking place. So with that in mind, we came home from evacuation and journeyed into a landscape that was literally still smoldering.
Smoking fumaroles where the trunks of whole trees had once stood seethed in the burning landscape for weeks. The long, hollow holes that had housed their roots spiraled down into searing darkness farther than we could see. The earth of those places burned the soles of our shoes when we crept to their edges to peer in. Stephen Pyne, a well-known fire historian and wildfire-fighter, has written that “even a so-called stand-replacing fire, one that obliterates an existing forest and makes possible a wholesale replacement, incinerates only the needles and fine branches and merely scorches the trunks.”4 The difference between his words and what we saw turned out to be the pivotal clue to the nature and significance of that wildfire. For the more we looked, the more we realized how meaningful those holes really were.
In some places, two—even four—separate trees had burned completely to ash, leaving only holes in the ground. Sometimes these holes were in the middle of severely burned forest, dozens of them only twenty to thirty feet apart. But just as often they were surrounded by trees and brush that had simply been scorched to death by the heat of the consumed trees. The longer I looked at them, the more I wondered how the heat from the burning trees had not ignited the neighboring plants.
Then three people told us stories of their own experience with the fire. A rancher who’d lived in the area his whole life told us how unnerved he’d been about having a tree burst into flames extremely close to him after he’d left the Volunteer Fire Department fireline and gone about a half mile away to rest. And a couple who lived up the canyon from us—he the Superintendent of County Schools—reported that while sitting in their car at the top of the canyon well over a mile from the fireline, a pine tree had suddenly and completely burst into flames some tens of yards away. Both the rancher and the couple insisted the wind was not blowing toward them from the fire, and that there were neither sparks nor burning brands in the air at the time. They were mystified. I was intrigued. The only way I could imagine these isolated pines igniting so rapidly and thoroughly without the touch of a spark or firebrand was that their tissues had simply reached kindling point all at once from the fire-related combination of high air temperature and reduced humidity. But if that was the case, why had only one tree ignited each time? Why not several or even the whole group? What they’d seen seemed to match the burn pattern we were finding on the ground but it still didn’t tell me how it had happened that way.
Chickasaw author Linda Hogan is a friend as well as a member of Tapestry’s board of directors. She has a great store of Traditional Knowledge. When I told her about these odd events, her immediate response was, “The fire burned through the roots of the trees. That’s what it means when that happens, is that the fire traveled underground.” I knew fires could burn beneath the soil line, but I’d never thought of it being possible in a forest instead of a coal seam. Of course, a coal seam is essentially a layer of woody material underground—just exactly like the tangled, touching tree roots of a forest.
The major dreams that rode ahead of that wildfire like an honor guard told me the fire had meaning. The realization that the fire had burned through the roots of the trees, sometimes for over a mile underground, told me where to find that meaning. It told me to look for things that have been burning underground for a very long time, that are now coming to the surface in sudden and seemingly inexplicable ways. Because the wildfire itself had told a story, had been a Story, I knew that the things burning through the roots were stories, too—living stories, vital and profound.
The first story that smolders underground on Pine Ridge is about the people indigenous to this Land. I had thought about it the day the fire started, in fact, when we went to the ridge where the young fire was turning a sea of pine trees into a coal-oil refinery. As we watched the column of soot-black smoke twist around itself, rising on the hot air, lit within by flashes of scarlet flame hundreds of feet above the ground, the old man who owned that particular piece of land wept. “They’re just giant weeds, they’re just giant weeds,” he kept moaning. It was clear he was simultaneously mourning the pines and telling himself not to because they didn’t really matter.
That caught my attention because some of the trees going up in great sheets of red and black at that very moment were ones that had sheltered Northern Cheyenne women and children during the famous “Cheyenne Outbreak” of January 1879. The government had moved these people from the pine-studded ridges of the northern Great Plains to the hot and relatively low lands of Oklahoma against their will, then neglected them so seriously that a congressional investigation eventually ensued. Children and the elderly literally starved to death during that year in Oklahoma, and adults died of malaria. The reservation doctor closed his office because he had neither medicine nor supplies with which to treat the sick. Promises of food and medicine were broken repeatedly. The people began to speak wistfully of the sweet scent of pines in the homeland they longed for. It would be better to die there, they said, than in a strange place they didn’t know. Finally they told the army commander at Fort Reno they were going to go home. And then they did5.
On September 8, 1878 the Cheyenne started walking back north, starved and ragged as they were. Leading them were the chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife. Two-thirds of the 300 people were women, children, or the elderly, and many were sick. The people knew what they were risking. Most of them had been in lethal skirmishes with the Army more than once. One of the women, for instance, was the daughter of council chief Little Rock, killed when Custer attacked a sleeping village of Cheyenne along the banks of the Washita River ten years before. A teenaged girl then, Monahsetah had been taken prisoner during the battle and then carried off to Kansas with two other Cheyenne women by the victorious general6. It was well known among the Cheyenne that Yellow Swallow, the frail, light-haired child at her side now, was Custer’s son7. Custer was dead, of course, two years since. And the country was grinding its way into a modern age that had no room for the Indian way of life any more, priding itself on the spread of telephone communication, cable cars and gramophone, and the new Brooklyn Bridge growing over the East River. The country these people had to cross to get home wasn’t wild any more.
They traveled 1500 miles through the kinds of settlements later described by Willa Cather, with telegraph lines carrying news of their whereabouts and plans for their capture right over their heads. The Army loaded horses and men onto trains and freighted them to ambush sites at each of the three places the Cheyenne had to cross a major east-west rail line. A total of 10,000 soldiers and 3,000 civilians caught up—5 separate times!—with these 300 people, who always made a stand and then fled the moment they could. But the pressure mounted and the autumn weather worsened as they fled ever northward, and in Nebraska the group finally had to split up. The old chief Dull Knife took most of the old people, women, children, and wounded to Red Cloud’s agency near Fort Robinson to ask food and shelter from the old Lakota friend of these Cheyenne. A small number of warriors and Dog Soldiers went with them to protect the children. The younger chief Little Wolf led the rest of the people on north, hoping to reach their homeland on the Tongue River before spring.
On October 23 a blinding snowstorm swept across the weary, starving travelers trying to reach Red Cloud and brought them to a halt. Before they could move again troopers from Fort Robinson discovered their camp. The soldiers told them the Red Cloud agency had been shut down, so they would be taken to the fort instead. That night the wary Cheyenne dismantled their five good guns and hid the parts among their garments. When they reached the fort, the 150 people were locked in a log barracks that had been built to house half that many soldiers. They stayed there for over two months, refusing to return to Oklahoma and forbidden to go elsewhere.
On January 3, General Sheridan wired the post commander that “Unless they are sent back to where they came from the whole reservation system will receive a shock which will endanger its stability.” The post commander relayed Sheridan’s ultimatum but the Cheyenne still refused to go south. The commander gave them five days to change their minds and cut off their food, fuel, and water. On the 9th, three warriors accepted invitations to visit the post commander for talks. They were arrested and manacled, but one escaped to race outside long enough to call a warning to the others. Then the post blacksmith showed up to fasten heavy chains and iron bars over the barracks doors. The people feared they were to be burned to death. That night, they reassembled their five guns and escaped just before 10 pm, under a bright full moon on deep snow in below-zero temperatures. The five Dog Soldiers stood rear guard for the fleeing helpless ones, as has always been and forever remains the Dog Soldiers’ charge, until finally the last of them fell dead. Then the soldiers began to catch up with the running knots of black figures racing across the moonlit snow for the bluffs that could protect them.
By morning, 38 of the 150 escapees were still free, and 32 of them were together in one group heading west along Pine Ridge. They had gone straight up the 75-foot cliffs behind Fort Robinson, forcing the soldiers and their horses to go six miles around and giving the Cheyenne a small lead. For the next 13 days they ran, fought, ran, and fought with five companies of cavalry armed with cannon. The temperatures hit 28 degrees below zero at night. The Cheyennes’ steps took them straight through the place where a major wildfire would burn thousands of acres in 1984, then straight through the place where the 2006 wildfire would burn, and right through Sowbelly Canyon itself. The ranchers who were the ancestors of the ranchers of Pine Ridge today gathered in Sowbelly in fear, built a small fortified cabin in the northern end of the canyon and against the west wall for protection. The Indians left them alone. They just wanted to get home.
Nearly thirty miles west of Fort Robinson, the people made a break across the troop lines and out onto the short-grass prairie flats. There they were caught a final time and made a stand in a large old buffalo wallow. The soldiers fired into it until no one moved any more. A few wounded children were found alive in the bottom, beneath all the other people, in a pool of freezing blood. One of the children who survived the Hole healed from her wounds, grew up to be an old woman, and told Mari Sandoz what had happened in that place. And Sandoz, hearing it, understood what the soldiers had killed: “a rich and mystical perception of all life as a continuous, all-encompassing eventual flow, and of man’s complete oneness with all this diffused and eternal stream. It was a stream of many and complex dimensions, one in which man, the tree, the rock, the cloud, and all the other things that had ever been in a place were always in the present there, in the being and occurring.”
This is indeed the wisdom of Indigenous peoples, only I would change Sandoz’s statement to present tense. The Northern Cheyenne are not an extinct people for one thing. But also, the wisdom Sandoz describes has not died even though many of the Indigenous people around the world who hold it have been killed. They have been killed specifically to kill this wisdom, to obliterate it in a river of blood, but it has not died. It burns within the roots of the Land, and within the hearts of all those People represented here, in this place of the Heard Museum, dedicated to the cultures of Indigenous nations. It burns close to the surface of the Earth now, in these times—hot and bright as a flame.
The ranchers hiding in the little fort cabin under the lee of a creek bank in Sowbelly certainly did not see life as a continuous, all-encompassing stream. They divided life into compartments and the land into parcels. They put up fences to keep their cattle from being stolen or lost, and to keep them from wandering off to better pasture when their own range got overgrazed. And the pressure of too many cattle on not enough land grew until the land began to stagger under the load. This was the second thing that smoldered beneath the roots of Pine Ridge: the story of a strong land crippled by people enslaving it for personal profit.
Before about 1880, Ponderosa pine forests throughout the American west were open, park-like habitats. Between 1880 and 1920 the forests began to change. Saplings started crowding the open spaces that had previously separated mature pines. People expected most of them to die off, leaving only the most hearty young trees to live. But that’s not what happened. All the saplings grew, until the forest became a grove of tall spindly trees so tightly-packed that even foot passage between them was no longer possible. Such groups of trees are called “dog-hair” for obvious reasons. Even in the early years of the 20th century, naturalists were deducing that the dog-hair forest pattern was a consequence of suppressing the wildfires that had, in years past, regularly burned out the smallest and weakest seedlings so that only a few survived in any given area. People like John Muir pointed to the role of grazing in the process, too, noting that cows and sheep removed the tough grasses that kept seedlings from sprouting to begin with, and also compacted the soil so that grasses couldn’t easily grow back later on8.
Pine Ridge was already settled by ranchers when the Cheyenne fled across Sowbelly that January of 1879. Forty-five years later, in 1924, the geologist Jesse Earl Hyde came west from Case Western Reserve University and photographed the canyon and its rock outcroppings. We were fortunate enough to find these pictures in an online archive maintained by the Department of Geological Sciences at CWRU and were graciously given permission to use them9. They document the development of the dog-hair forest pattern in Sowbelly over the 80 years between Hyde’s visit and our move to Sowbelly in 2004, and show that it was correlated with grazing.
Early-stage dog-hair thickets are clearly visible in several of Hyde’s images, as are fence lines that prove grazing was taking place at the same time. There is no other reason people would invest the money for wire and the back-breaking labor for making posts, digging postholes, and stringing wire over miles of rough country. Over the next 80 years the cattle industry grew and so grazing continued. The damage got a lot worse. The degree of pine overgrowth visible in the photos we took of the same places in 2004 is nothing short of astounding.
What’s even more astonishing, however, is comparing after-the-fire photographs of the same areas to the ones from both 1924 and 2004. In every case, the places where the fire burned most severely were also the places where there had originally been very few trees. Furthermore, in places where the forest trees had been well-spaced but moderately dense, the fire killed a proportion and spacing of trees that essentially restored the earlier configuration. Of course, now there were burned trees between the healthy ones instead of the “clean” open grassy space of the 1920s, but the pattern of restoration to the original configuration was unmistakable.
We’d initially returned to Sowbelly after the fire thinking we needed to develop a plan to help restore and heal the land. But as summer turned into autumn, Sowbelly taught us that it was pushing a reset button for itself, clearing away the hopelessly fouled mass of overly-dense, spindly trees that had grown up due to grazing, and restoring a distribution pattern of pines and other plants that was healthy and sustainable. We laughed with glad recognition when we read ecologist Richard Hutto’s comment that, “We talk about forest restoration after a fire, but it just got restored. That’s what fire does.”10
As we studied more and more scientific literature about wildfire and forests, we learned that the hopscotch or mosaic burns in Sowbelly are a type that leave “sufficient local seed trees that survived the fire (including dying trees with abundant seed crops)” to naturally replace any excessive loss of trees. We wouldn’t need to replant11. Further, the biodiversity of the stands of young trees that would eventually regrow would “rival that of old-growth forests.”12 Numerous publications told us in no uncertain terms that as unsightly as the dead trees might sometimes look, they provided critical habitats for wildlife and thereby further increased the canyon’s biodiversity. Dominick DellaSala’s 2006 compilation of recommendations for “after a burn” included a phrase that struck a deep responsive chord in us because of everything we’d been seeing: “intervene only in ways that promote natural recovery (i.e. do no harm)”13.
We were careful where we walked because of that. We knew that soil was a critical factor in the forest’s resetting recovery, and all the soil sampling and measurements we made in the first days of a burn assessment study we carried out ourselves confirmed that. In some places the soil had been burned off entirely, laid bare to bedrock by the heat of the flames. But in most places it remained with varying levels of damage. The places where trees had survived, in the hopscotch pattern we were recognizing as a reset of original tree distribution, had the best-preserved soils; grass started coming up there the moment the fire was out and the ground had cooled. Within a month, many of the more severely burned areas had broad swaths of bright green grass despite the autumn season. Trees that were singed but still showed strong sap flow under their bark began to grow new needles even as the trees that could not survive their injuries dropped a protective carpet of needles over the black earth. Singed lower branches died, but a tree can’t survive if it has more crown than root mass. We knew each tree with dying branches had injured roots below the soil trying to heal. We tried not to walk on the severely burned soils where grass hadn’t grown in yet, or to step in places where injured roots lay inches below the surface. We were witnessing a miracle, and we knew it.
Then the salvage loggers came.
The local ranchers believed what the salvage loggers told them: that the forest cannot recover on its own but needs to have the dead trees removed and new trees planted for there to ever be forest again, and that a standing burned forest is a serious wildfire hazard. A lot of people believe both things14,15. On Pine Ridge, we saw people cry when they were told the trees would never grow back. Some signed a salvage logging contract because they didn’t want to face the risk of another and even worse fire in the acres of dead trees. Some gloated over the money they would make. Others simply accepted the growing community sentiment that the standing black tree skeletons were an ugly blight.
Overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that salvage logging kills trees that survive a wildfire, destroys fragile burned soils, buries sprouting seedlings, reduces regeneration, increases erosion, damages creeks and rivers, compacts the soil so that new plants can’t grow, introduces or spreads invasive species, increases the prevalence of destructive insect pests, and actually increases future fire risk by piling combustible materials at ground level. The negative impact can last for centuries13,14,15,16,17.
The soil on the steep slopes of Pine Ridge was slippery with ash, wet from early autumn rains. The salvage loggers put chains on the metal treads of their equipment. They skidded sideways across soil we wouldn’t have stepped on, over roots we’d not have walked over. They began their harvest.
The political and personal infighting that went on when the salvage loggers arrived is beyond my power to describe to you in this venue. But I can show you what they did for the sake of money, that they said was to help the land heal. We took photographs of places that were in the process of healing until the loggers came, and then photographs of what the same places looked like later on. See for yourself. Salvage logging is not about healing. It is an atrocity. In the very midst of rebirth, on the threshold of restored health to a whole ecosystem, these human beings turned what should have been the victory of new life into the sad and final whimper of a truly dying land. It was a loss as tragic as it was meaningless.
I spent much of my childhood here, in the Valley of the Sun. The name of this place—Phoenix—reflects the fact that the city’s founders knew they were building a new city upon the ruins of an ancient one. A people called the Hohokam left behind a network of canals here that the early white settlers cleaned out and put to use in their own agricultural fields. I am sure you know the story of the Phoenix, also called the Firebird, that those city founders had in mind. It is a mythic being that died in flames in order to give new life to the young Phoenix that rose from the ashes of its consumed parent.
Americans have been preventing wildfires in forests for the better part of sixty-five years. That’s equivalent to bustling about the Firebird’s nest with water hoses and extinguishers, dousing any sparks or hints of flame, deciding on our own that the Firebird’s nest really shouldn’t be permitted to burn. Fire is dangerous, after all, and it kills the Firebird! But the forests have finally managed to start burning anyway these last few years, and they’re not likely to stop any time soon. So now when the nest is burned to ashes and the Firebird with it, we let salvage loggers and tidiers and planters and terracers come in and sweep up the mess because it’s so unsightly—but can be sold, not incidentally, for a last profit. In the process, we lose any chance we ever had to have a Firebird—or a forest—ever grow there again.
It would be easy to say that what happened on Pine Ridge in the end was driven simply and solely by greed. But that wouldn’t be true. It was driven by arrogance, the same arrogance that is now causing community leaders and policy wonks across the West to grab a handful of statements about wildfire safety and start tearing down the trees in urban parks because they don’t remember, or maybe never knew, DellaSala’s version of the Hippocratic Oath for foresters: do no harm. Loggers wouldn’t salvage-log if they really understood that they don’t have the right or the wisdom to act on partial knowledge; they don’t want the forests to disappear, after all. They’d be out of a job. Ranchers wouldn’t graze too many cattle on their land if they knew it was going to mean their grandchildren had to watch their homes burn to the ground. They love the land, their children, and their way of life. The reason people can and do enslave strong land for personal profit and cripple it as a result is that they don’t have the wisdom of “a rich and mystical perception of all life as a continuous, all-encompassing eventual flow, and of humanity’s complete oneness with all this diffused and eternal stream.” Which brings us back to story of the Northern Cheyenne, burning deep in the bowels of Sowbelly. People today look at a story like that one and think, “We wouldn’t do that now.” But we would. And we do.
The call for papers for this very meeting on Cosmos, Nature, and Culture began with the following words:
“No one knows for sure, but it is estimated that there are something like 1024 stars in the universe. When talking about numbers so unimaginably large, our world seems cosmically insignificant. But as far as we know, we’re the only ones who count—in two senses of the word: We alone can count the stars, and it seems to count for something that we do.”
“We are the only ones who count,” the statement says, and it goes on to explain that “count” refers to possession and use of an abstract number system. So the “we” who count are clearly human beings, and human beings only—not just here on Earth, but in all of Creation, the whole Cosmos.
I am certain this passage was not intended to be either arrogant or insulting. But that it could slip into our lives so easily, without setting off alarms of outraged awareness, should terrify us all. For it is this view of humanity’s relationship to nature that permits people to overgraze the Land, salvage log it, and destroy its soils, waters, and air. More telling, this view of humanity is also the force that drove the Cheyennes’ story underground a hundred and thirty years ago. It is the weapon that killed them, for it provided the motive that issued the orders at every level of authority. And it is the weapon that today—this very moment as I speak to you—kills Indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. Because this culture is still trying to obliterate the wisdom of Indigenous peoples in a river of blood. As long as the view of humanity as “the only one that counts” exists in our conferences or business offices or the halls of our government, this culture’s hand remains upon the weapon that kills the Earth and everything that is a part of it.
Fortunately, we have the wisdom of the West to learn from here. You remember the West and Spiritual ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world. You remember, perhaps, my mentioning the awesome, terrifying paradox of the thunderstorm which destroys and also brings new life. The Firebird is, I think, a creature of the West. The field of Resilience Ecology, founded by Crawford S. Holling, describes what we might call the “Firebird model of nature” we’ve seen in forest fires in scientific terms. It even uses the term “resetting”.
Resetting is the “abrupt disintegration of an ecosystem to the immature stage. Such collapse can take the form of a massive canopy fire, as happened a few years ago in Yellowstone National Park . . . the eventual result is a catastrophic collapse or resetting of the system—what Holling calls ‘creative destruction.’ There follows in the final phase a release of nutrients from dead material, or the process of renewal.”18 At the time we still lived in Sowbelly, we had no idea the Land had taught C. S. Holling the same wisdom it was teaching us. We knew that we were seeing a creative destruction simply by virtue of the fact that it was followed by such an astonishing process of renewal. Little did we know that other ecologists had been listening to the Land, too. But of course, that’s what “sense-data” is about.
Lindenmayer wrote that “natural disturbances are key ecosystem processes rather than ecological disasters that require human repair. Recent ecological paradigms emphasize the dynamic, nonequilibrial nature of ecological systems in which disturbance is a normal feature”19. DellaSala went so far as to say “Natural disturbances are characterized by unique biological legacies essential to regenerative processes—they should not be treated as ecological ‘catastrophes’,” and “It is abundantly clear from study of natural disturbances such as the 1980 Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption, the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires, as well as hurricanes and floods that they create landscape diversity integral to biodiversity and regenerative processes.”13
This spring Lindenmayer and his colleagues published a letter in the journal Science saying, “More funding for scientific and management learning after major natural disturbances is crucial given that (i) evidence suggests the prevalence of large natural disturbances will increase, and (ii) we need to better understand how to respond to such disturbances, especially to ensure that post-disturbance management activities do not make recovering ecosystems even more risk-prone to subsequent disturbances.”20 The problem, he pointed out, is that “The media and general public often perceive major natural disturbances as catastrophies that destroy the environment. However, this view is derived from the perspective of human population and infrastructure.” To respond appropriately to such disturbances, he says, we must have an ecosystem perspective instead. Here are both the stories, burning together and coming to the surface in a single 200-word letter four months ago. The fires that have been burning through the roots aren’t staying down there any more.
We are as much a part of nature as a Ponderosa pine tree. There are times in each of our lives when we find ourselves standing in the West. Now, at this time in history, an entire culture stands in the West on the black quadrant of the Sacred Circle. If we are wise, we can face the grief and the tragedy of the burn—the words we used without understanding their meaning, the things we’ve done without realizing what the consequences would be—and we can let the old ways die. We can stop, reflect, and germinate the seeds of wisdom that lie dormant within us. Then in the fullness of time and the Circle, we can give birth to a culture as new and as beautiful as a bright-feathered young Firebird.
Or we can miss this chance for rebirth forever—for the forests, for the Land, for this culture, for ourselves. If we do, the story will come to an end for us all. For make no mistake: the Land is burning because it can no longer live as it is.
Firefighters put out the fire that burned Sowbelly in 2006. But the Land is still burning, underground—in Sowbelly Canyon and all over the world. The trees hold hands through their roots in the darkness of Earth that is deeper than soil, deeper than human culture, old enough to be thick with dust but every bit as young and as hot as red-streaming lava. And the fires burn from one place to the other, tree to tree, stone to stone through the dark there. For Creation’s living spirit burns in the roots of the very Land itself in these times, through its seas and its rivers, through the living and connected roots of its creatures—plant, animal, micro-organism, and fungus—and through the hearts and souls of the Indigenous Peoples who have never abandoned it.
I hope that now it burns in you, too.
1Summer “comes up from the South” only in the Northern Hemisphere, of course. But the Circle, like other aspects of Indigenous culture, is Place-based –and that includes hemisphere as well as latitude.
2 Consciousness is variously seen by scholars such as Estes, Jung, and Campbell as an emergent phenomenon arising from human biology or as an independent phenomenon related to, but not wholly dependent on, human biology.
3 Western scholars who have come to a similar understanding of the ontologically real relationship between “symbol” and “the natural world” in some of their writings include Paul Ricoeur and Alfred North Whitehead.
5 This account of the Cheyenne Outbreak is based on materials found in two sources: Sandoz, Marie. 1953. Cheyenne Autumn. McGraw-Hill, New York. and Brown, Dee. 2001. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. (Anniversary Edition) Henry Holt and Company.
8 See, for example, Allen, Craig D. et al. 1998. LUHNA Chapter 9: Landscape Changes in the Southwestern United States: Techniques, Long-term Data Sets, and Trends. in Perspectives on the land-use history of North America: a context for understanding our changing environment. United States Geological Survey Biological Sciences Report, USGS/BRD/BSR 1998-0003 (Revised September 1999). 104 pages. http://biology.usgs.gov/luhna/chap9.html
9 The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection is maintained at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Department of Geological Sciences. We are using their images with permission. You can access the archive at http://geology.geol.cwru.edu/~huwig/
10 Jamison, Michael. 2005. “Through following avian wildlife, a UM scientist has discovered that burned forests play a critical role in the health and diversity of the Western landscape.” The Missoulian, August 11. cited in DellaSala, Dominick A. 2006. Post-Fire Logging: Summary of Key Studies and Findings. World Wildlife Fund Report. page 21.
16 Beschta, Robert L. et al. 1995. Wildfire and Salvage Logging: Recommendations for Ecologically Sound Post-Fire Salvage Management and Other Post-Fire Treatments On Federal Lands in the West. (Government-ordered report that was refused by the federal administration. http://www.saveamericasforests.org/congress/Fire/Beschta-report.htm)