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I just ran across this Scientific American‘s Primate Diaries blog post, “Fire Over Ahwahnee: John Muir and the Decline of Yosemite” by Eric Michael Johnson. Anyone who’s read Charles Mann’s 1491 (great read btw!) knows that the indigenous peoples of the Americas from the forests of New England to the Amazon, rather than living in pristine wilderness, profoundly shaped their environments through techniques like cultivation and controlled burning. But Muir, often seen as the father of environmental conservation, actually did much harm to the Yosemite valley that he loved so much. Johnson writes eloquently about and makes connections between Muir, the lost history of violence and ignorant racism against native peoples and the issue of fire in Yosemite, and links to several scientific journal articles about fire as well as a fascinating USGS report “Status of the Sierra Nevada: The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project”.
It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels. He did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley its park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the U.S. and even the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.
It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855. “At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”
However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later Clark found that Yosemite’s open meadowland had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.
[HT to Kottke blog (a favorite of mine!) which alerted me to Johnson’s Scientific American post!]