Indigenous fire, land, water, art, and education

Fire, in the hands of the right Indigenous practitioners, brings order to the land. For example, Ron W. Goode, Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe and a Comparative Wests Project research partner, uses fire to care for a stand of sourberry (Rhus trilobata) on land that his family owns in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Here’s a “before” photo of a tangled, overgrown portion of the sourberry stand prior to burning:

Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2012

After carefully preparing the site with pathways and firebreaks…

Photo by Ron W. Goode, 2012

…Ron conducted a contained burn in the sourberry stand:

Photo by Ron W. Goode, 2012

And here’s an “after” picture. The photo below shows another part of the same sourberry stand, one that Ron burned two years ago:

Sourberry plants burned in 2010. Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2012

Note the long, sparsely branched shoots of the plants in this last photo. After the fire, more light and rainfall reached the soil, resulting in this vigorous regrowth. At this stage of their growth, these plants don’t need to form multiple leafy branches to absorb adequate sunlight, and the canopy stays open. One sign of a healthy landscape for Ron and other Native practitioners is their ability to “see through” its vegetation. ”Seeing through” is a tough criterion to quantify in a scientific sense — it’s more of an aesthetic judgment, a preference for open country and parklike stands of trees and shrubs, for interconnections between earth and sky.

In a future post, I’ll illustrate how “seeing through” a stand of trees follows from a prescribed burning program. For now, though, let’s stick with sourberry for just a little longer. Ron Goode is engaged in a form of agriculture, in raising food and materials, and fire is one of his tools. The straight sourberry stems are highly useful for baskets, including baby baskets. Here are a couple of views of a boy’s baby basket made from sourberry and other fire-cultivated plant materials by Ron’s father, Ulysses Goode:

Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2011

Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2011

Here’s the baby’s-eye view, taken by holding the camera under the hood of the baby basket shown above:

Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern, 2011

The chevron design evokes arrows and hunting. Metaphorically, these arrows point the way for the infant boy to grow into a good man, hunter, and provider. And what’s more, Uly Goode made sure that a baby in this basket will see through the vertical sourberry sticks through which the arrows weave. The structure of the basket reflects and embodies the structure of healthy land — a landscape, sculpted with fire. This is art as education. Taking the view of a baby boy in a North Fork Mono basket, we learn about land.