Stories, Water, Fire, and Sierra Meadows

Stream in Reds Meadow, Sierra Nevada

“All right,” said Measuring Worm. “Take your fires off the ground, for I am going up there with the water. I’ll go up in the water.”

So goes an old North Fork Mono story, told in 1918 by North Fork Mono storyteller Molly Kinsman Pimona to the Berkeley anthropologist Edward Winslow Gifford.  According to this story, Coyote, Mockingbird, and all others had failed to rescue Prairie Falcon from atop a great rock in the High Sierra. Measuring Worm knew that that after a burn in the forest, surface water and groundwater rise. Needing swift passage from his home in the foothills, Measuring Worm directed the others to take their fires off the ground, and then he rode the rising waters to the higher elevations, “scaled the rock in two steps and brought Prairie Falcon down.”

The Indigenous fire regime of the Sierra Nevada consists of a sophisticated set of interactions — interactions among people, land, and water that took place for innumerable years before the first European set foot here. The fire regime was based on a varied, adaptable rotation of fire frequency and intensity. The results were environmental mosaics – complex, quiltlike environments with multifaceted habitats – teeming with all kinds of food, medicinal, and basketry resources.

Back in those days, wet meadows, with their finely structured, moist fuels such as sedges, may have acted as firebreaks until late in the season, allowing people to steer and diminish fires by taking advantage of slope, prevailing winds, and fuel characteristics. In turn, these prescribed, cultural fires helped to prevent invasion of meadows by conifers, deciduous trees, and shrubs that desiccate meadow soils by intercepting rainfall.

The ethnobiologist Kat Anderson once interviewed Dan McSwain, a North Fork Mono elder who confirmed that his people‘s traditional practices included carefully designed cycles of burning. Anderson quoted McSwain in a report for the National Plant Data Center:

The Indians used to burn in the fall. They burned in the oaks, chaparral, ponderosa  pines, and fir… Different areas were set on fire in the fall, brushy areas, not the same spots every year… In those times it would seldom get in the crown of trees… They burned every two or three years. You could ride a horse anywhere without running into the brush. Now you can‘t even get off the road.

Today, North Fork Mono fires can still enhance the growth of desired plants and, by eliminating competition for water and reducing the interception of rainfall by trees and shrubs, the raise the water table. Fire is an indispensable tool in the maintenance of fertile, functional montane meadows.

And healthy meadows soils act as water storage tanks. The most recent United States Forest Service inventory shows that the 11,000 meadows in the national forests throughout the Sierra Nevada comprise about 220,000 acres. According to the forest management strategies document [PDF] of the 2009 State Water Plan Update, these meadows could potentially store as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water, eliminating the need for new, massive dams and reservoirs such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Temperance Flat development.

Instead of allowing rainfall to immediately run off, undamaged or restored meadows absorb and slowly release water into streams, thereby increasing the amount of summer (dry-season) water available to downstream users. As the Water Plan’s forest strategies document puts it:

Meadows with intact vegetative cover act as natural reservoirs, regulating streamflow… through storage and release of snowmelt and rainfall runoff. …These meadows attenuate flood peaks and prolong dry-season base flows. … Meadows therefore increase available water for downstream farms, communities, and hydropower facilities.

This regulatory function of meadows could become increasingly important for human water supply as the annual snowpack decreases in the high Sierra, due to climate change. Climate scientists predict that precipitation formerly retained in the higher elevations and slowly released through the summer as snowmelt will fall progressively more in the form of rainfall that, in the absence of alternative forms of storage such as healthy, intact meadow soils, would run off at once.

One factor in the historic desiccation of meadows has been the increase of trees and shrubs (due to fire suppression) that intercept rainfall. Much of the water held on the surface of the trees evaporates during or after a rainstorm, instead of infiltrating into the groundwater supply. A dense cover of trees and shrubs intercepts a significant amount of rainfall and prevents the infiltration of water into the aquifer.

In addition, recent research suggests that many meadows could have more connections to upland groundwater than previously noted by scientists, and that the flow of groundwater into meadow soils increases with reductions in the density of trees and shrubs on hillslopes and the concomitant reductions in interception and evapotranspiration.

Meadows and uplands are connected, and fire can sustain these connections. It’s possible to restore meadows and increase their storage capacity.  It’s also possible to increase the infiltration of preciptation throughout the watershed by reintroducing the Native fire regime throughout the forest.

The State Water Plan Update also claims that meadow restoration in the Sierra could have global effects as others learn from the efforts in California.

Alluvial valleys in mountainous areas throughout the world, including Africa, Australia, Europe, and South America, are faced with erosion and water-supply problems similar to those facing California‘s Sierra Nevada montane meadows. Many of these alluvial valleys provide water, crops, and forage that sustain local communities and economies. Successful restoration of meadows in California could provide methodologies that are applicable to critical land and water degradation problems around the world.

There’s much to learn from Native Californian fire lighters and storytellers.  Just as California Indian artists weave the cultural materials of Sierra hills and meadows into an intricate order, so do storytellers entwine land and water into extraordinary narratives. The next steps are up to those who would continue to listen to and learn from the stories.



Indigenous stories and common core standards: there’s exposition in those narratives

That tribes have been able to maintain their discrete identities as national groups can be attributed to their steadfast adherence to their mission as a distinct people, as revealed to them in creation or upon one of their migrations… Tribes are, therefore, ultimately guided by internal prophetic instructions rather than external political and economic events, and the success or failure of the tribe in dealing with unexpected problems can be traced to this concern with fulfilling their cosmic responsibilities

                                                            — Vine Deloria, Jr.

Tribal creation and migration stories pervade the Lessons of Our California Land (LOCL) land tenure curriculum in all grades, K-12, because the stories provide keys to understanding of American Indian views of land in the past and the present. Stories engage, inspire, and motivate listeners and readers in ways that technical instructions or scientific explanation cannot. An American Indian origin story is not only a sacred text that expresses beliefs about Creator and the Creation, it is also a guiding text in the sense that the founding documents of the United States such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are guiding texts. Origin stories show people how to put values and principles into action.

Much more than simple fables or fairy tales, California Native American stories often use uncomplicated sentence structures to build complex narratives that are often intentionally left open, stories that allude to other stories in a tribe’s repertoire and that reward repeated readings and tellings.

The complexity of Native American narratives may make them ideal resources for English and history teachers who want to help students meet the Common Core State Standards. The State of California adopted the Common Core – developed by a consortium of states to provide consistent educational goals across state lines – in 2010, but educators in the state are just now beginning to grapple with ways to implement the new standards in classrooms.

According to my friend Marsha Ingrao, who is the History-Social Science Instructional Consultant for the Tulare County Office of Education and one of the directors of the California Council for the Social Studies, the Common Core State Standards will “open the door for integration of academic content at an all new level of rigor.”

Marsha notes that the Common Core State Standards call for several shifts from the traditional state standards, shifts that will “bridge the gap” between English-language arts and history-social science in K-12 schools. Resulting instructional changes will include an increase in reading complex, non-fiction text and primary historical sources, and an increased focus on text-based questions.

As Marsha writes:

The key to teaching history is using questions to investigate the past. Integrating ELA and history-social science can be as easy as altering the kinds of questions teachers ask their students.

In professional development workshops, Marsha asks teachers to formulate open-ended, complex questions for students about their reading selections, rather than, as Marsha puts it, “the relatively simple recall questions that are typically found in their ELA textbooks.” In guiding these more complex inquiries, teachers may well learn a great deal about the texts from their student’s observations and interpretations of them.

The historical and social inquiries that make up an integral part of the LOCL curriculum could make the lessons prime components in a teacher’s toolkit of approaches to the Common Core State Standards. By encouraging teachers and students to pay attention to how Native American stories characterize relationships among places, plants, and animals (see the discussion guides here and here) LOCL guides them to insights into American Indian lands, national identities, and purposes.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize reading and writing expository text in addition to narrative.  By approaching Native American narratives in a respectful spirit of inquiry, teachers will find rich and deep exposition, explanation, and description within them.




Great Teaching, American Indian Education, and Social Media

My first two blog posts had to do mostly with cultural burning, with the “eco-cultural restoration” and “history” sides of my interests.  Today I’ll zero in on my third area of interest, on education.  Eventually all three areas – education, history, and restoration — should interweave on this blog, since lighting fires on the land for cultural purposes is like lighting fires of inquiry in human minds.

During my K-12 classroom teaching days, my current work on the Lessons of Our California Land (LOCL) curriculum, my past work with the California History-Social Science Project, and my ongoing work with the California Postsecondary Education Commission’s Improving Teacher Quality Program, a question has often come up:

What is good, great, or “effective” teaching?

The California Standards for the Teaching Profession (2009) answers the question this way:

Effective teachers integrate the following: (1) ethical concern for children and society; (2) extensive subject matter competence; (3) thoughtfully selected pedagogical practices; and (4) a depth of knowledge about their students, including knowledge of child and adolescent development and learning; an understanding of their individual strengths, interests, and needs; and knowledge about their families and communities.

Regarding the last clause in these state-listed criteria, unfortunately, professional development programs for teachers almost never strive to help teachers deepen their “knowledge about [students’] families and communities.”  In my work with professional development programs for teachers, involving a total of about twenty universities and perhaps fifty school districts, I have only rarely – quite rarely – seen the leaders of the programs try to foster such knowledge.

If the subject at hand is American Indian culture and history, and if Native American students are present in the class, how can teachers meet the State of California’s standards by extending their subject matter competence and deepening their knowledge of the students’ communities?  I’ve provided suggestions for how to get started on the tasks in LOCL’s teacher resource materials (PDFs here and here), but the challenges for teachers who want to develop their knowledge of Indigenous culture and history and improve their teaching are considerable, especially for teachers in rural, isolated school sites.

Some of the best models for approaches to professional development in American Indian education may come, surprisingly enough, from the UK, where a movement is underway to facilitate connections, communications, and collaboration among teachers, subject matter specialists, and families using social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.  Take a look at the policy paper “Tweeting for Teachers” (PDF), for instance, for examples of how educators are using social media to cross boundaries and work with each other and with the communities that host their teaching. Here in California, social media holds great potential for teachers, community members, and experts in Crescent City, Covelo, Highland, Hoopa, Julian, or Lakeport to exchange ideas with others in Oroville, Santa Ynez, Temecula, Tollhouse, or Winterhaven.  Great teaching – great American Indian education – could follow from these connections.



Smoke rises to a diseased oak tree from a cultural burn conducted by Ron Goode on April 5, 2012. Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern.

At last week’s Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire and Smoke Symposium in Clovis, California, Nick Goulette of the Hayfork Watershed Research and Training Center shared an excellent website called GoodFIRES, a collaborative project of thirteen state forestry agencies in the southeastern United States. Click through the pages of GoodFIRES for a primer on the theory, practice, and benefits of prescribed burning.

Over the course of the morning at the Clovis symposium the overall message of the speakers — fire scientists, land managers, and air-quality regulatory agency staff — became clear: Fire is good. Smoke is bad. Prescribed fire reduces fuel, the speakers told us.  It prevents large, catastrophic wildfires, and it helps animals and plants by keeping their habitats healthy. Smoke, on the other hand, is another matter.  The consensus at the symposium seemed to be that smoke is a pernicious nuisance, a pollutant to be controlled and minimized — especially here in the San Joaquin Valley, where weather patterns, topography, and countless sources of pollutants keep Fresno and other Valley cities near the top of the nation’s most-polluted lists.

So went the overriding discussion theme, until North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode rose to make a comment.  Our oak trees need smoke to produce good acorns, he said.  Maybe we need a broader definition of health, he hinted.  His comments reminded me of what North Fork Mono elder Melvin Carmen told me a few years ago: “We’ve got to put smoke on those trees.”

Now, I like clean air as much as anybody else.  My family, with our asthmatic tendencies, has suffered since our move from the relatively clean air of San Diego County’s backcountry to Fresno in 2006, and I love the view of the Sierra from Fresno and Clovis on a clear day — a view that is the very picture of “purple mountains majesty.”  But on a smoky day, my wheezing and my inability to cast my gaze on the snowy peaks a few dozen miles away don’t stop me from appreciating the benefits that smoke provides.

Ron Goode’s comments at the fire and smoke symposium prompted me to ask one of the UC Berkeley fire scientists in attendance whether he knew of any current researchers working on the ecological effects of smoke, and he replied that he did not.

So I got busy on my smart phone and googled this up:

Here’s an interesting excerpt from pp.4-5 of that document:

The Need for Smoke

…[S]moke from wildfire has decreased seven-fold compared to pre-suppression times. Skies were consistently more smoky and hazy in the past, as fires burned frequently and naturally across the landscape. In 1898, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, Chief of the federal Division of Biological Survey, wrote: “Of the hundreds of persons who visit the Pacific coast in California to see the mountains, few see more than the foreground and a haze of smoke which even the strongest glass is unable to penetrate.” …

The concept of a “smoke deficit” may seem strange. One might say that if smoke contributes to air pollution, then smoke is only a detriment. Yet within the larger ecosystem context, smoke plays a necessary role. For reasons still being studied, the seeds of some plant species require exposure to smoke in order to germinate. Smoke also keeps certain insect populations and tree pathogens at bay. Excluding all smoke therefore could interrupt the natural cycles and environments in which these plants live. As scientists continue to document the many natural and necessary ecological functions of fire, so too they are discovering related beneficial effects of smoke.

There are a few other fragments of research on smoke floating around in the scientific literature. For instance, in Introduction to Fire in California, David Carle writes: 

Whispering bells (Emmenantha penduliflora) germinate when exposed to the nitrogen dioxide in smoke for as little as one minute.

And Kat Anderson wrote in a 2009 report for the National Plant Data Center:

It is possible that the smoke from the fires curtailed oak diseases.  It is known that smoking foods reduces microbial activity, yet the effects of smoke generated from burning plant materials has rarely been studied in forest ecosystems.  

Yes, breathing too much smoke can be detrimental to our health.  But if we inquire further, perhaps we’ll find that smoke has its health benefits, too — for us and for the land.  Maybe we’ll all agree, eventually, with Australia’s Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways project that fire and smoke lead to healthy country and healthy people:

During a rainy spell I sometimes hear people say, “You know, I sure am tired of all this rain, but I know we need it.” Maybe someday word will get around — after all, where there are GoodFIRES there may eventually be a GoodSMOKE website and other good educational resources — and we may even start to hear during fire season, “You know, I sure am tired of all this smoke, but I know we need it.”

Ron Goode and his nephew Jesse tend a cultural burn in the Sierra foothills, April 5, 2012. Photo by Jared Dahl Aldern.



Indigenous fire, land, water, art, and education

So, I’m easing into the whole blogging thing here.

After participating in the Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire and Smoke Symposium this week, I think I’ll go ahead and devote my first-ever blog entry to how Indigenous fire can bring order to the land.

My friend Ron W. Goode, Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, 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.

More about fire — and a little smoke — next time.