transformative fire --10/5/23

Today's encore selection -- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Native Americans systematically used large-scale fires to transform the American landscape in the centuries before European dominance of the continent:

"Adriaen van der Donck was a Dutch lawyer who in 1641 transplanted himself to the Hudson River Valley. ... He spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee [tribe], whose insistence on personal liberty fascinated him. ... Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to 'the woods, plains, and meadows' to 'thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.' At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. 'Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks' he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists' boats passed through a channel of fire their passengers as goggle-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. 'Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides...a delightful scene to look on from afar.' ...

"[From] Hudson's Bay to the Rio Grande, the Haudenosaunee and almost every other Indian group shaped their environment, at least in part, by fire. ... For more than ten thousand years most North American ecosystems have been dominated by fire. ...

Prescribed fire in ponderosa pine forest in eastern Washington, United States, to restore ecosystem health.

"Fire is a dominating factor in many, if not most, terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it -- at least until contact and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used 'to set fire of the country in all places where they come.' The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska: all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.' Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall, tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles. ...

"Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm. ... Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first. 'When Lewis and Clark headed west from [St. Louis,]' wrote ethologist Dale Lott, 'they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.'

"In 1792, the surveyor Peter Fidler examined the plains of southern Alberta systematically, the first European to do so. Riding with several groups of Indians in high fire season, he spent days on end in a scorched land. 'Grass all burnt this day,' he reported on November 12. 'Not a single pine to be seen three days past.' A day later: 'All burnt ground this Day.' A day later: 'The grass nearly burnt all along this Day except near the Lake.' A month later: 'The Grass is now burning [with] very great fury.' ...  'These fires burning off the old grass,' he observed, 'in the ensuing Spring; Summer makes excellent, fine sweet feed for the Horses and Buffalo.' ... Captain John Palliser, traveling through the same lands as Fidler six decades later, lamented the Indians' 'disastrous habit of setting the prairie on fire for the most trivial and worse than useless reasons.' ...

"Carrying their flints and torches Native Americans were living in balance with Nature -- but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if 'stable' is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash."



Charles C. Mann


1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 2005, 2006 by Charles C. Mann


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