Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sustainability Through a New Lens

When you were a kid, do ever remember grownups telling you to "Take only memories and leave only footprints" when you were out in nature? There's a prevailing idea about conservation in our country that says that the most pristine, healthiest natural landscapes are those that are untouched. As it turns out... that might be incorrect.

The native Americans lived here for 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. And wouldn't you know it, they know a thing or two about this continent. I decided to take a few classes from the tribe that lives near me, the Kumeyaay. I highly recommend one of the textbooks from my ethnobotany class. It's called Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson. The overarching theme of the book is perfectly in line with a major theme of the book 1491 by Charles Mann: The view of Native Americans as interacting so minimally with nature that they did not make a mark on the land is incorrect.

In California - and undoubtedly elsewhere - native Americans blurred the line between hunting and gathering and agriculture. They shaped the landscape to their advantages and at the same time, to the benefits of wildlife and plant communities. They did so in a sophisticated way that Europeans did not understand or try to understand. Fortunately, many of these indigenous practices are still known and we should learn from the indigenous and harness their wisdom now.

There are several quotes in the Kat Anderson book I'd like to share:

The explorers, missionaries, settlers, and gold seekers entering California from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries rarely saw it as it was - a land carefully tended by large populations of people with remarkable and diverse cultures - but instead saw the landscape and its inhabitants through the lenses distorted by Western ignorance, prejudice, and greed. As a result, the history of contact between the indigenous people of California and outsiders of European heritage is one of subjugation and devastation - of both the land and the people.

The colonizers variously saw California as a foreboding wilderness, a place to do God's work, a giant untapped storehouse of wealth, and a place of raw, unspoiled beauty. Although these conceptions varied, they were consistent in two ways: they ignored the essential humanity of the native inhabitants, and they failed to account for the changes in the landscape these people had wrought over millennia.

The first Europeans viewed California as an untouched wilderness. It was not untouched, nor was it what the indigenous would call a wilderness. To them, a wilderness is a place neglected by humans. It's not a good thing.

California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes "wilderness."

After several centuries of Europeans coming to California to exploit its resources, conservationists realized that they were causing irreparable harm on the environment. But they, too, did not have exactly the right idea.

Muir's view of California nature was a necessary counterweight to the view that had prevailed before - that nature was there to be used, exploited, and commodified - but it left us with a schizophrenic approach to the natural world: humans either conquer nature and destroy its integrity, or they visit it as an outsider, idealizing its beauty and largely leaving it alone. These seemingly contradictory attitudes - to idolize nature or commodify it - are really two sides of the same coin... Both positions treat nature as an abstraction - separate from humans and not understood, not real.

A recurring example in this book has to do with fire. The indigenous used fire for a number of reasons. It killed off pests and disease, released nutrients back to the soil, spurs new plant growth, and got rid of brush that was blocking sunlight from any new plant that grew. With the dead brush gone, there were more clearings where grasses would grow, attracting animals - and making it easy to see them and hunt them. What's more, periodic or frequent light burning ensures that there is no fuel build up that could result in a huge blaze later.

Unfortunately, California has adopted Muir's view of nature as something to leave untouched by humans when at all possible. The burning done by Indians - annually or every two, five, or ten years, depending on the ecosystem and its needs - is no longer done. Wherever there is native vegetation, there is tons of dry, dead brush.

The plant communities around here evolved with the indigenous and their practices. Many plants need fire. Others can easy stay alive either because they are tall mature trees that don't burn when a light fire passes below them, burning the brush, or because the above-ground parts of the plant do burn but after the fire, the plant regenerates from the crown. But these plant communities did NOT evolve to withstand the huge, hot fires that we get when the enormous accumulation of dead brush goes up in smoke.

Some ecosystems, typically prairies and grasslands, are entirely dependent on frequent fires for there very existence. The book gives the example of Yosemite. Before, there was a much larger meadow, when the Indians maintained it through burning. But this meadow is shrinking, and a sign there tells tourists that nature will eventually turn the meadow into forest and it will be gone. The lack of frequent fires set by the indigenous has endangered many California ecosystems and the plants and animals found in them.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to share what I learn on this blog. You will no doubt notice this theme going forward, of the importance of human intervention to care for the plants and animals around us so they can flourish. The Indians found a middle ground, in between "taking only memories and leaving only footsteps" and total subjugation of the environment. The English term that most readily comes to mind of what the indigenous did (and still do when they can) is "land management" but that is not correct because it implies control. My instructor prefers the term "The interdependency between the land and the people."

A question that will of course arise is: how can indigenous practices support such a large population? It's true, that indigenous ways have never supported the millions of people that now live in this state. Clearly, a 100% return to indigenous customs is probably not a solution. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from them. We should absolutely use what is valuable and we don't have to use what isn't applicable to modern society.

What's more, I think we would also do well to give the indigenous more control over the land. Historically, the indigenous did not just burn, till, prune, weed, etc, because it was an environmentally good thing to do. They did it to promote the growth of favorable species for a wide variety of uses - food, tools, weapons, musical instruments, ceremonial uses, games, baskets, etc.

As of now, firefighters in California do some burning during the winter to prevent the growth of brush that causes the huge fires in the summer and early fall. But they do that at taxpayer expense and with no immediate economic benefit. They don't have the budget or the staff to do the amount of controlled burning needed to keep the levels of brush low enough to prevent the huge wildfires we get every few years. It would make a helluva lot more sense to allow people who have 10,000 years of cultural experience in managing this land burn as they need to and then harvest the supplies they need for basketry, food, or what have you, than to lock them out and deny them their traditional food sources and resource base and rely on a too-small, underfunded firefighting force to do controlled burns.