I’ll never forget the words of my college professor, Dr. Daniel Widener:
“Natural disasters are only ‘disasters’ because they affect humans”.
I don’t think it struck me in any particular way other than that being interesting at the time and giving me a feeling that it was logically true. It’s always stuck with me like a riddle or a veil hiding something of importance over the years and something I’ve always gone back to consider.
Though what I didn’t understand is how this framing is crucial to balancing ourselves in harmony with our ecological surroundings and recognize our place within the natural world, not apart from it. Our current relationship to fire seems like a continuation of the ecocide that we have committed in a centuries-long epidemic across what used to be one of the most abundant, thriving ecosystems in the world.
Fire. We’ve all become all-to acquainted with it all to well over the last several years here in California.
Seeing (from abroad) my home state California go up in toxic smoke for weeks, hearing the stories of people barely escaping with their lives (if they were that lucky), communities broken apart, and seeing how people still waiting for relief, unable to return to their land to clean up and move on with their lives all present all add to the feeling of disaster.
A group I am a part of recently inherited a beautiful property to research ecological regeneration (among other things). Shortly after that, all the infrastructure than was 20 years of the previous owner’s blood, sweat, and tears poured into the property was reduced to ashes. Gone. Poof.
People are rightfully afraid, and sometimes living in California, it feels like impending apocalypse due in no small part to fire.
The Cultural Icon of Our Relationship to Fire
Growing up in California, we were well acquainted with Smoky the Bear. He would come visit us in school, he’d be up on the mountain in the summers telling us how bad things were, and lord help us all if fire danger showed EXTREME today.
I think it’s safe to say that from a young age we were taught that fire, beyond the confines of the wood stove or campsite is bad. Fire is the enemy. Fire is a disaster. Fire is beyond our control, and what lies beyond our control is bad and should be stopped at all costs.
Before the colonizers arrived, up to 3/4 of present day California was managed with fire (Vogl 1967).
Fire as an Ecological Necessity
Fire was (and still is) used as a tool by indigenous peoples to regenerate ecosystems and reach peak biodiversity and abundance. Animals used to return to graze on lush new growth in the wake of fire. Certain ecosystems in California NEED fire to fully express themselves. Certain seeds will not sprout until it is cracked by fire. Fire allows certain plants to grow and thrive that otherwise would not.
There is no doubt in my mind that fire needs to be reintroduced to the ecology of the land. Many people who know much much more than I do are pushing for this to happen.
So what to do about the wooden boxes?
I recently went to a talk given by Miguel Elliott of Living Earth Structures to those of us helping with the Camp Fire Restoration Project. He builds beautiful naturally-built structures for a variety of environments. Most recently, he is applying with Sonoma County to build an eco village for the chronically houseless.
Besides being insanely beautiful, Miguel tells us that his structures are strengthened by both fire and water and that he would welcome a fire to envelop his home. That is freaking awesome.
Even before I started learning about the finer points of permaculture, ecosystem restoration, and exploring how to live in harmony with the natural world, I thought it was insane that we as a society build wooden houses in the forest. So here we have a solution to the problem of people wanting to live in the forest, but also not wanting to burn. Will people pay heed? Will the building codes change to allow ease in building such structures? We will find out soon…
Looking Back to Look Forward
It won’t be enough just to build natural structures or even to embrace fire as a way of life west of the Sierras. We need to understand and acknowledge the past. The Ecocide of “California” has been a continual process ever since settlers first appeared. It continues today within the structure of how our lives are designed in society…our way of life today is the latest chapter in the legacy of what Tending the Wild author M. Kat Anderson chronicles in an awe-inspiring glimpse into indigenous pre-California, abundant and thriving, teeming with wildlife, plant, fungal, and microbial life to a brutal outlining of what it has become in such an incredibly short period of time. It’s one of the saddest things to have to recount.
But from the ashes and from the sadness, from the grief and from the understanding things will become illuminated. We will remember the right relation to the rest of the world. We will understand the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in. We will understand the work we need to do, and the strength it must take to persevere through this and manage our future carefully. The wisdom is out there, all it will take is for us to start listening in the right direction with open ears and open hearts.