Gardening With Fire (and Spiders, too)

I went for a long hike through the fire that fried the hills a couple weeks ago, to see how things are getting along, and was struck at how foreign fire has become to contemporary gardening methods and how strange the world of renewal is that follows it.

The Dead Zone

It’s a long time since the Okanagan looked like this. It once did, however, every decade or so. This is a traditional method of gardening in this place.

Although they didn’t burn as hot as this fire, which was fed by a century of imported weeds that went up like gasoline, Syilx traditional gardens in this land were all maintained by fire. They were, in other words, succession gardens: a kind of permacultural garden maintained in a juvenile, productive state by fire.

Two Weeks After the Flames

The grass is coming back. Well, not everywhere. Only in select locations, where the fire didn’t burn too hot, or where it jumped a roadway and left the grasses along its margin only slightly charred, or, as here, where imported species around a cow wallow didn’t go up as hot as bunchgrass did on the main slopes. 

This imitation of natural succession is effected in gardens these days with seeds and water, tilling and compost. Out in the hills, it’s a little different. For one thing, the scavengers are out in force. There are the ants, and black widow spiders casting up their scrubby webs, to see what they can catch.

Black Widow Web in the Fire Scene

Hey, when you’re a black widow you just need a web strong enough to confuse your prey. It’s all in the hunt. I’m all for it, if it keeps them out of my basement.

… and all the magpies for miles around, cleaning up the hillside where the local colony of rattlesnakes got a bit scorched. Here they are, just hanging out.

Magpies in a Dead Saskatoon

While the sound of a heavy metal music and a complaining loon wafts up from a ski boat on the lake below.

So, that’s intriguing. A garden that’s not tilled but which is turned into a kind of death, populated by scavengers, cleaning up the last of the animal and insect life from the previous regime and preparing to be there for the next. Maybe the composting here doesn’t happen in a compost box but in a broad inter-species context, in which succession is an alteration between the realms of life and death.

Black Widows Hanging Around My House

Up into the Hills, I say, where you can do some real good and don’t scare me out of my wits when I go down to the freezer for some frozen peaches, sheesh.

The ants that move into this zone after the fire will be there to help replant it afterwards. The black widows that prowl out from underground (or my basement, hint, hint) to catch whatever insects they can will still be here long after the land regrows, and will survive the next fire. Same with the magpies. All of them don’t so much fertilize the ground, to prepare for the next crop as lay down pathways for the insect life that even now is drifting through from the edges of the fire zone, block it from abusing a very tender landscape in the first stages of recovery, and use the energy within that insect life (and dead snakes) to make sure that they, themselves, survive. Could it be that the mix of species on this land is not just determined by fire but also by the actions of the first colonizers after the fire has passed? Or is that just what goes on when the fire burns too hot? I dunno. The photo below shows a zone on the edge of the burn, where the fire passed through quickly…

Bunchgrass Coming Back

Two weeks after the burn, this bunchgrass is thriving.

It seems that if the fire isn’t too hot, the landscapes of life and death intermingle in complex ways and regeneration is almost instant. What would our gardens look like if we farmed them this way? For a century, we’ve taken fire out of the equation. The magpies appear to be awfully glad that it’s back.

Magpie Surveying His Dead Kingdom …

…and, no doubt, finding it good.

I’m left with a haunting question… which is more destructive? This replacement of landscape with a weed culture …

Vineyard  Roadway North of the Fire Zone …

Virtually every plant you see here is a weed. Is this form of succession a true desert?

…or this?

Wild Cherries Cooked on the Branch

Is this the true desert?

Hurts the head, for sure. Both conditions are the result of human intervention into a humanly-created process. Both are the land. At the moment, however, one of them is undergoing a fascinating process of predation. Maybe that’s the place to keep our eyes … not so much on plants, all nice and green and pretty, but on animal life and the role it plays in succession here and regrowth. What a fascinating way to garden: not by controlling weeds but by controlling animal life on the land and maintaining it rather than fencing it out.

Beehives at Brushy Bottom (Similkameen)

No bears welcome. Well, at least no bears that can read AND are too gullible to notice a bluff when they see it.

What if, gasp, bears were welcome in our gardens? What if we farmed with so much excess that they played a role in managing it for us?  I have no idea what that would look like, but I find it intriguing.

Next post, I’ll expand this idea into a form of gardening that incorporates weeds. I’ve been collecting seeds and pictures of that just for you. See you then.

4 replies »

  1. Those are some rather healthy looking black widow spiders hanging around your house! Yikes, do you have any plans to fumigate? Glad to see the magpies are thriving.


    • Hi, nope, just try to enter dark areas carefully and to carry a big stick. Yeah, the magpies are wonderful and curious and entertaining. They follow me along just like I follow them. There were actually about a dozen of them up there, in three locations, zooming back and forth between a few spots.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.