Slow Fire in the Okanagan

It has been a summer of fast fires, burning off the growth of a century throughout the grasslands and fire forests between the mountain ranges of the North East Pacific Coast. While that has been consuming attention, a slower fire has been going on. This one is called drought.

It’s not drought. This is one of the Turtle Hills along Turtle Ridge in Vernon. Note how so many plants, which have flourished in a long series of fire-free, wet summers, were burnt away this summer by the sun alone. It is the same story of balance and renewal. It is this cycle of forces that have made this land, and are continuing to make it in new circumstances, right now. Destroying land like this to protect houses is necessary, but it is also very colonial. It is the wound originally opened in the earth at the time of British and American settlement and the separation of the land and her people. There is a song that could be sung here at the intersection of Earth and Sun.

It is stress like this — not the easy years — that create the patterns of energy that are the story here.

The End of White Privilege in the Okanagan

For about 125 years, my valley has been the setting for the creation of a White homeland. It started in a British Empire that was largely Asian, looking for a racial state for a Britain driven to overpopulation by industrialization: the same force that drove Americans west across the continent to dislodge native peoples there. After the First World War, the whiting of the Okanagan continued by embracing other Europeans, after the British population was decimated by insane class-based military bungling in the trenches in France. During these two seminal generations,the indigenous population was confined ever more tightly to tiny “Indian Reserves” and the land that it had cared for for 6,000 years, was now approached out of european ignorance as “nature.” Its wealth was soon drawn down ecologically until now it is a ruin of weeds and burning forests and smoke. Well, it’s all over. It ended this summer. It is the end of White privilege in the Okanagan.

“The Rise” Development

Government ecological-protection legislation allowed for the legal ruin of essential grassland here in Vernon, through, in part, its replanting with native bunchgrass. This image shows how invasive cheatgrass is rapidly making inroads. It will soon replace the bunchgrass with a one-species wasteland of drought, because no one is minding the show. They’re not doing so because this is “nature”, and hence outside of human control. What nonsense.

Sure, land will continue to be abused, indigenous people will continue to be excluded from decision making processes or land use, but it’s all done on borrowed time now. Still, white culture continues to build for its views (all that foreigners can understand of a landscape) and continues to play, even when the valley is full of the smoke of burning forests caused by a hundred years of forest mismanagement, in general, and 25 years specifically. The smoke is “nature”, the pillar of whiteness, burning up.

Okanagan Lake, Below Bella Vista Road and Okanagan Hills Boulevard

 

White culture is so affluent that even in the smoke it can continue to offer elite views to the working class. Working class? Yes. The wealthy part of it. You can be sure that the elite white classes have already packed up for their second or third homes in Maui or Bermuda or Portugal or are the colonial elite teaching English in China.

As it was in the beginning, White settlement in the valley is fortress culture….

…and every view of smoke and shame is for sale, on the bluff that it is still a view of “nature.”

Even a view of smoke and shame. As I said, White culture has so much power it will continue for a long time here, but it will do it out in the open now. It does not own this land. That’s not to say that the syilx, our indigenous people, do. No-one does. But we all do together. Fire certainly does. At the moment, we all own the shame and the smoke. We could all own the pride. This couple just over the mountains at Willow Point already do:

 

Water in the Land of Fire

Smoke has replaced the sky. It is the way of things.

Here are the dry hills. Overgrazing, a reduction to three species, one native and two of which are as flammable as gasoline. Nice.

Water: forestry nursery in the distance, sport fields  below, and a royal gala apple orchard. Nicer yet.

Below are the old wetlands that used to store water. Note the recent disperal to high evaporation house plots. Exquisitely well planned.

European culture sits uneasily but orderly upon this smoky land.

 

 

No More Wild Fires Please

It is a catastrophic summer in the Interior of British Columbia. Close to 15,000 people have been evacuated from their communities. Indigenous communities who refuse to leave are isolated. Read about the grim situation at Anaham here: http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/first-nations-community-holds-on-as-fire-threatens The question of why these people have chosen to stay in the face of catastrophic fire, isolation and great danger can be answered only in troubling ways. They are, however, simple enough. The tsilqhot’in are this place of fire. There is no evacuation. A lot of this has to do with a century and a half of great cultural hurt, but there’s a positive story here as well. Perhaps this image from the height of this land, at the crest of the Yellowstone Plume, in the great caldera that is the heart of winter …

…and fire on this continent and which anchors our country, Cascadia, like the eye of a pool in one of her rivers displays something of the answer:

A pine rooting on the face of the cooled molten plume, from this post about my journey to the height of the land: https://okanaganokanogan.com/2015/09/28/cascadia-land-of-fire/

If we call these uncontrollable and violent fires “wild fires”, we are participating in the environmental destruction that has created them rather than in the solutions that will control them. Until then, they will remain gothic and destructive, like the nineteenth century creations that they are. At the moment, of course, we must protect our homes and our loved ones, with all the vigour we can bring to this terrifying and important work, but let’s do it in a way that leads directly to the future that must follow this catastrophe of environmental mismanagement. Let’s call these fires by their correct names. They are not wild. Fire lives in this plateau. Smoke, such as obscured Okanagan Lake below, is the natural form of summer here.

Through neglect to honour fire’s primary place, it has been called into violent incarnation by excess fuel. The explosive sage below, above my house, is a bomb waiting to explode, and it’s the creation of bad resource policy. It can be fixed. We will have to be doing this in the next few years.

 

 

To say these horrific fieres are wild, is to say that an abstract notion of fire is fire’s base state, and that fire that escapes the boundaries of the controls of intellectual understanding is “wild”. That’s insulting. In Cascadia, wild fire control began a bit more than a century ago, to protect the nationalized forests made out of depopulated native space for the benefit of industrial and recreational use. This management regime was a replacement for indigenous fire management, in land forcibly removed from indigenous control. The indigenous understanding was based on living within space. The replacement, modern civilization, declared the land wild and foreign to human consciousness. That was a lie. Fire remains far bigger than any human or any collection of humans. Perhaps the image below of when the grassland hill above my house burnt a few years back and the fire turned to life within a few weeks can illustrate the edges of the tsilqhot’in resistance to evacuation. Within a few weeks, this:

Nootka Rose Sprouting from Cooked Rock

Let’s bring the irresistible force of living and destructive and creative fire within our social group and develop strategies to tame it. It’s coming to us anyway, horrifically. Yes, let’s save our homes, our farms, our communities, our forests, and our lives with all the effort we can bring to it, but let’s then move on to build a society that recognizes that fire is the natural state of this place.The failure to create civilized, or artful, fire within organic environments such as grasslands and forests, except at moments of catastrophe when fire sweeps in waves across the land due to being ignored for too long and its potential disrespected, is also a created state, but not one of which we should in any way be proud. And I want to be proud of how we live with fire. This work can wait until the crisis is over, but we can start now in a small way, by throwing away that awful racist term: wild fire. The time for that was 160 years ago, two weeks ago, today, and tomorrow. Fire is here to stay. Let’s hope we are too.

 

 

 

Evacuated from Fire Country

Central British Columbia is going up in flames.

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Towns in which I used to live, with my friends, have been evacuated in the face of fire. We got off the plateau just in time yesterday, before the last road over the Bonaparte Plateau was closed, leaving our beloved Big Bar Lake to face the smoke alone.

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May the fire ride gently across the land, may the wind still and call the rains, may we all come safely home, may the lakes and trees receive us, may we humbly accept this second chance.
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Of Racism, Nature and Ethnic Cleansing

Most trees in the Okanogan and the Okanagan are scrub growth that grew up after the land that was the people was ethnically cleansed to create wilderness. The pines below, victims of last year’s fire, are to be mourned, as all living things are that pass, but not in a simple way. Certainly they are a part of natural history, but they are a lot more than that.

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In contrast, the ghosts of two pines turned to soil in the grass on the slope below are Sinlahekin trees. They grew and fell when the land and the Sinlahekin people were one. They do not belong to the realm of nature, except in an abstract sense, in a kind of abstraction that is effectively a dismissal of human worth.P1070028

Certainly these trees are a part of natural history, but they are a lot more than that. The Sinlahekin are no longer mentioned in their valley. It’s as is they were never there, or that in death they have gone back to nature, as spirits of earth and air. That’s simply not true.

Talking with Rilke Talking with the Earth Talking with the Sky

Here’s an image of a fairly typical hillside on the west side of Yellowstone.fire

Earth is fire: not just her core, but all of her. The steam, the wetland sedges and reeds, the cloud, the exposed clay, the volcanic rock beneath the pines, and the pine themselves are here all fire. That the pines can burn later, in a more open fire, doesn’t take away the fire they are now. That Earth has dense gravity at her core, doesn’t mean that at her surface it’s not fire. Look what happens when this fire is expressed as height and pressure. One moment, water is cupped between two mountains …. cupped … and  another moment, a mountain draws it from the air.grove

And look at it: it’s not fire, or gravity, or altitude or pressure. It is a grove of pines, and cloud on a morning mountain in Yellowstone after night snow and freezing rain which still gloves all the grass. That is Earth’s way. Her creatures speak like this as well. Only humans have the choice to speak differently. It is a profoundly bad idea. What there is this:

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Explain her away by deep psychology if you want, give her alienness and separateness, call her “Cistern Spring”, do whatever you will do, it makes no difference at all, because there is only one thing, this thing: her, now, here. Rilke said this in 1923 in the Valais, scarcely differently. After a lifetime of chasing symbols and angels and sensitivity and women and love, he found the high clear air of the Rhone, and became a poet at last: this tree, he said, right here, right now.

What Exactly IS Global Warming Anyway

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.

vineyardhill Vineyard in the Smoke, Vernon, British Columbia

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.

P2000756 BX Creek Mouth, West Arm Okanagan Lake in the Smoke of the Washington Fires

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.

loontrees Female Common Loon and Chick Among the Reflections of Beetle-Killed Pines

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

P2000134The image captures an ancient, Indigenous Nlaka’pamux salmon fishery, as you can, perhaps see below. The colour of the water comes from the glaciers to the north melting away…cut

… and settling as silt.P2000200

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…

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… rather like this one today:

P1980287The Big Bar Eskers

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.)

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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:

 

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Grassland Soil

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.

Source

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:

beetle

Source

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.

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But look, today:

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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:

P1970943 Rocks are islands of cold in the heat of the grass. They catch water, initiate savannahs, shelter animals, catch heat, and disperse lichens, which maintain the soil. Here’s another:
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Vaseaux Lake

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:

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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:

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Conconully

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:

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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.

Let’s Get Serious About Global Warming

Sure, the story of carbon emissions is the global warming story, but there’s also the story of the warming that comes from urbanization, and there’s the story that comes from the warming that results from being blind to the wisdom an experience of indigenous knowledge of the land. For example, this:

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Well, no wisdom except a the view from a Smlqmx village site in the Similkameen Valley, with a history of many thousands of years. This is fire country. Fire is natural here, not a disaster, or an aberration. Look, for instance how the smoke through the snout of the mountain into relief. I tell ya, on a non-burning day, you don’t see that, because there are other mountains in behind. When it burns, though, the story is highlighted.

P2000673Global warming, that’s a tricky thing. Huge sums of money have been spent fighting fires this year. This smoke comes from Washington, in the USA. It has blown north and west to come here, in Keremeos.P2000663 Thing is, this village site invited the Hudson’s Bay Company to set up its horse ranch on its boundaries, and a métis packer for the company settled on it, and then an Austrian scout from the Apache wars bought it, and in the third transaction after that, my father bought it. Now, two generations have passed. The old stage coach road I remember is gone. This is serious farming country now. The image below shows where the stage over Green Mountain pulled in and crossed the Keremeos River, which has been downgraded to a creek.

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Here, too.

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These old black locusts (and honey locusts) were planted to grow without water and provide fence posts that would last 100 years. Here’s what’s left of the orchard I planted on the village site (not knowing it was a village) in 1973, out of the trees I learned to graft on:

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That’s right, out of 120 trees, four remain, and next year the one on the left is going to be toast. Here’s what’s left of the fifty acres of trees I planted when I was twelve years old. Yes, in the smoke.

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That’s global warming, too. An orchard my father planted eight years earlier, out of the same varieties, is still productive. The warming here, is a measure of human incompetence. If the farmer who “owned” these trees had known what on earth he was doing, they would have still been alive, and would still be producing. So, when you see smoke…

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…look for the coyote in the rock or the marble on the hill …

P2000661 … see it? …P2000652 That’s Chukuaskin’s grave. He tried for a fair deal for his people. He got a graveyard excavated for a gravel pit, now grown over with weeds.

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Disrespect leads to global warming. If we’re going to turn this around, then respect for the ancestors of this place is the way to do it. I don’t mean my ancestry in the orchards. That’s factory land now.

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I mean the foraging that we referenced with our orchards two generations ago. Here’s some foraging land that has suffered from the warming created by the extraction of capital from it in the mouths of cows that didn’t belong there.

P2000774 And here’s the sagebrush (in the smoke) that represents that warming. This stuff burns like gasoline, and it’s the result of overgrazing.P2000760 What’s to do? Burn it! The hill in the back in the image below burnt three years ago when a kid started playing with a lighter on the corner where a “land developer” (sic) blasted out an 8,000 year old rattlesnake den to build a road to a subdivision and a golf course no-one wants. No sagebrush there in back. Fire would blow through it in a few minutes and fizzle out.  There’d be no smoke.P2000773

Of course, this excess of carbon in the landscape, this warming of the landscape, holds the carbon of the industrial age, in the grass, where it doesn’t belong. Burning might be extreme until the situation is stabilized, but you could cut this damn stuff out with a pair of clippers for 1,000,000th the cost of fighting wildfires and replacing houses that went up like aviation fuel. We could do this. We could bring the grass back, and cool the land. I can see no reason why we should be the holders of the carbon of people who don’t respect people like Chukuaskin. Here’s his vandalized grave three years ago, when the world wasn’t burning.

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Remember, this is the centre of the Smlgmx world. 2,000 people lived here for 10,000 years. Ignoring their knowledge is suicide. It’s horrible that people are losing their homes these days. It would be more horrible if it ever happened again.