The earth is warming, globally. There are many factors for this warming, including carbon emissions, methane emissions and urbanization (which changes light absorption patterns), among others, likely even including long-term non-human cycles, but it’s not really warming that’s the issue. Warming is a consequence. Simplicity is the problem.
Smoky Gurty (Gewürztraminir), Anyone?
From coastal flooding, increased storm activity, warmer winters (which increase insect damage to forests), to accelerated summer drought and resulting fires, the change is really a change in atmosphere. The sky contains more carbon. Lots more carbon.
It is a different earth, capable of hosting life differently. It is also a fire planet, rather than a water world. The life that lives on it is an artefact of the past. Well, sort of.
Otter Marsh, Big Bar Lake
That’s still not the source of the problem. The last time Earth was a fire planet, Antarctica froze over, creating global “cooling” and cycles of wet monsoons and dry summers. Grasses were the expression of this new earth, and intensified it. They grew at fantastic rates at the edges of forests, in the wet season, and fuelled dry fires in the dry season. They survived those by seed and root. They even looked like flames.
Couch Grass Gone Feral
Within two weeks of a fire, it will be back, resolidifying the carbon its burning stalks gave off to the sky.
The trees that had sheltered the grasses did not survive. What was left was an edge ecosystem, of grass, without trees to be an edge of, but remember, the grass’s signature is fire. What was left was an ecosystem of fire. Fire is not the problem.
Blue-bunched Wheat Grass in the Smoke
Each one is a point of fire, shall we say.
Eventually, elephants and apes (among others) evolved to colonize the last edges of trees living as islands in the grass — or, shall we say, they evolved to colonize fire and the combustion of carbon. Eventually, that led to this kind of thing:
Later, in the Miocene Age, when so much ice was in the poles that sea levels sank drastically and the maritime ecosystem crashed, horses, the pure creatures of the grass, evolved for the treeless landscape.
Horses in the Walhachin Weeds
All of these creatures, elephants, humans and horses became the edge, that was once provided by trees. As long as these edges were contained within the landscapes of which they were part, all was well. The image below shows an edge of this kind. This is the Fraser River, the last great salmon river of the West, deep within its fault at Chapman’s Bar.
This is an edge in many ways: it is the boundary of cold and heat, wet and dry, summer and winter, ocean and grass, humans and water, forest and tide, and much more. The richness of trees on the western bank of the river indicates how close we are here to the rain forests on the other side of these mountains, yet even so this is where the grassland begins. Old photographs from the beginning of history here, in 1858, show half the trees that are here now. You are looking at grassland weeds, that grew in when fires were suppressed. The image below was taken close to the one above. It is 115 years old. That’s not a rainforest in it, though, or even close to one. It’s a transition zone…
… rather like this one today:
These are the bends of a sub-glacial river. They are made out of ground-up, subducted and uplifted seabed from the age of the birth of the grasses.
Let me clarify. I’m not re-defining global warming to discredit its seriousness. I’m trying to show that there’s more to it than a simple story of warming or of carbon alone. Fixing carbon will give us a chance to fix the behaviours that are exacerbating global warming. Eliminating fire is not the way to do that. We are fire. That being said, here’s an old savannah on the north edge of the eskers. (Warning: it’s in poor shape.)
There are two tall firs there that are savannah trees that probably grew in the grass, alone, in a wet summer about 400 years ago. Kind of like this:
Young Douglas Fir in Dog Creek
Or maybe like the following image of pines and firs in the scree on Puddin’head Mountain in Keremeos. Note the burn on the valley wall on the edge of the Ashnola in behind.
Every year some trees go up in flame. Every year, the excess trees are fire waiting to happen. It will happen. They are weeds. They are the result of human intervention in the fire landscape. The thing is, that human intervention maintained that fire landscape for something like 4,000 years. Here’s why:
Interior Douglas Fir Crowded Out by Scrub
Yeah, her daughters, really. This should be grass.
Like I said, this savannah is not in very good shape. If this thing burns, the old trees are going to go up like rockets, and the young ones will burn way too hot. The place will become charcoal. Traditional burning maintained these savannahs in a juvenile state, for food. Fire burnt through quickly, left the big trees, took out the small ones, and made the grassland young again. Biscuit root grew…
Commonage, Kalamalka Lake
… and balsam root, also edible …
… and mariposa lily, also a staple…
… and so many more, even quicker to benefit from fire than the grasses they grew among. By burning, humans, who are fire, ate the fruit of fire. Like these plants, they live in edge environments: complex interactive zones between modes of being. In the grasslands, such boundaries often look like the riparian zone below, which shelters deer, bears, porcupines, grouse, and many species of birds, which either feed here or out on the grass, and at the same time provides food sources for birds that live out on the grass: it is as much the grassland as the grass; a kind of contained edge or elongated savannah moving through zones of altitude and maintain life sources across seasons. It is not separate from the grass.
Without edges, contained within systems, without a depth of zones of resiliency and variability, edge-system creatures cannot survive. Here is what human society and technology and culture in the Okanagan grasslands has made out of these edge and savannah systems today:
Royal Gala Apple Plantation, Bella Vista
Note that the grass has been removed from fire, the savannah ingrowth has been controlled by pruning and wires, and the ecosystem has only social edges and edges with weather and atmosphere. Water from the high country maintains this system, and animals and insects are kept out with poisons and fences. It is not a monoculture, but it’s close: trees, dandelions, one species of grass, the occasional pheasant or robin, and humans. Weather and water are the sole determiners of success here. Renewal is not done by fire, but by human intervention, as in the image below:
Those are spartan apple trees I planted in Keremeos in 1973. They have been replaced by cherries, grown for the Chinese market. Humans are the fire here, and the edge is within them. From this perspective, global warming is not about carbon, but about the simplification of fire and of the interface of living systems with it. When fire comes now, it wipes out overly-simplified ecosystems, and renewal does not include humans. That’s logical. Humans have so taken on the role of fire that any fire outside of human boundaries becomes the human enemy. That’s actually insane, because this is a fire planet. It’s covered in oxygen, which is like a bomb. The solution is not to ban fire, but to act proactively against any fire which simplifies complexity, and that means any social system which prevents such proactive action. For reference, this is complexity:
A hundred species per cubic foot.
This is simplicity:
Golf Course at the Rise, Bella Vista
Two species. It is an edge, yes, but the edge of a desert. It is not contained within the grassland. It is an exception to it. The desert here is not the wounded sagebrush and cheatgrass grassland, but this green grass. Life’s drive for complexity must be beaten back with petroleum-based fertilizers and weedkillers, with the end result that the earth is simplified and turned into a machine. There are consequences to that.
Compare my front lawn.
As the grassland on the hill above my house (and that golf course at its crown) is simplified by the absence of fire and renewal, the native insects of the hill have increasingly fewer places to go. This small field of flowers, some 400 square feet, provides space for something like 50 species of bees and wasps, who come down here from the grass, and about five species of grassland birds. In imitation of fire, I collect seeds every summer, scythe down the stalks, and reseed this plot every spring. I also find it beautiful. The human world is a social one, but that does not mean that Earth and its creatures are not part of the social group. Here’s what the Syilx, the grassland people, have to say:
The word “Syilx” takes its meaning from several different images. The root word “Yil” refers to the action of taking any kind of many-stranded fiber, like hemp, and rolling it and twisting it together to make one unit, or one rope. It is a process of making many into one. “Yil” is a root word which forms the basis of many of our words for leadership positions, as well. Syilx contains a command for every individual to continuously bind and unify with the rest. This command goes beyond only humans and encompasses all stands of life that make up our land. The word Syilx contains the image of rolling or unifying into one, as well as the individual command which is indicated by the “x” at the end of the word which indicates that it is a command directed at the individual level. The command is for every individual to be part of that stranded unified group, and to continue that twisting and unification on a continuous basis. It is an important concept which underlies our consideration of the meanings of aboriginal title and rights.
As the syilx point out, nature is not something present by accident. It is something created by the intent of those creatures of fire and grass when they maintain edges by weaving them in to community. Here, take a look at something known as a global warming catastrophe, the haunt of the Mountain Pine Beetle:
Most of the ingrown and replanted forests of British Columbia, and expanse of fire pine with an area larger than most European countries, has fallen to the beetle in the last ten years. We have all wept. I made firewood, because we all thought fire would come, and I wanted to protect my house.
But look, today:
Not only did the grass, which had become ingrown with trees since burning was stopped in 1920, come back, but so did the forest. Wave after wave, fire to grass to fire to grass, in a process of continual renewal. The lesson is that in a fire landscape, with fire grass and fire pines, the fire of beetles and the slow fire of rot are as much fire as flame or human intervention, and the forest is neither the trees nor the grass but their weaving. Maintaining edge systems in relation to each other is key. Here’s one, essential to the grasslands:
Here the great desert of the American West meets the snow.
Water provides edge habitats where the water planet and the fire planet meet and continually create new life at the intersection. I don’t mean directed life, like this:
I mean this:
The grasslands survive because of wetlands like this. Water savannahs, let’s call them. The wetlands survive because of grasslands like this:
Wetlands and grasslands are two sides of the same thing. They are two sides humans, who live at their intersection, as do all savannah and riparian creatures. Simplification is not the answer. Adaptation to survive boundary events is. Right now, global warming is a huge boundary event, one in which the forests have been turned into latent fire, the grasslands have been tilled and sown with wetland water, the wetlands have been paved and filled with burnable wooden houses and the only thing that keeps this going is petroleum, the burning of fossil carbon. The only thing that powers the orchard below, for example, is fertilizer made from fossil carbon and tractors powered by fossil carbon and fruit delivered to cities by fossil carbon:
The fires that have filled the air here this last week are the result of this oversimplification of what it is to be a human habitat. A human habitat is not a village. That is only a substitute for a savannah. It is only an attempt to keep one from burning. It will burn. The challenge is not to stop global warming but to adapt social systems to allow for fire. That might include stopping global warming, if by that is meant a rise in mean atmospheric temperature due to the greenhouse effect of atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, but the base change is to become syilx, quickly and thoroughly. The real global warming happens when fire and water are removed from living relationships. Carbon follows.