The Burning - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

Listen to Arden Henley reading this article (9:29)

Dead tree standing sunned and whipped dry
firewood lichen curls kindle                       
_____Cecily Nicholson

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
__________Midnight Oil

What happens to the rhizome-world when this forest goes up in flames?

I leave the hotel in Kamloops early morning, heading north and east towards Valemount, about three and a half hours of driving. The road is wet from overnight showers, but the sky is clearing, the sun, here and there, breaks through. I follow the North Thompson River, which downstream, behind me, joins the Thompson and later becomes part of the Fraser.

The name – North Thompson – is a remnant of early colonial days, but the river, it flows as it has for countless generations, no dams, few dikes.  We follow upriver, a steady, easy drive – a joy of a drive.

            About 40 – 45 mins into the trip we approach the town of Barrière.  The land has transitioned from the dry, desert-like country around Kamloops into sparse ponderosa pine forests.  These forests, in turn, transform into a terrain deeply scarred from previous years’ forest fires.  Dead, burned trees, still standing upright, surrounded, in a rather ironic manner, by the lush, green grasses and undergrowth that only a spring burn-site can offer.

A couple of memories return to me, as I pass through these burns – both memories of fire.

The First Memory: A few years ago, I was driving north and east from the Fraser Valley to the community of Lillooet.  Once through the Fraser Canyon, at Lytton, I crossed over the clear waters of the Thompson River just before she enters the muddy Fraser.  On the other side of the bridge, I was on Lytton First Nation territory.  This was early-spring, the snow had recently melted, and there were men from the community purposely burning the dry grasses around their homes and community.  Because there was still moisture in the soil from the winter snows, the surface grasses burned but the pines and other trees remained unscathed.  I had heard rumours before about how, traditionally, the First Peoples of the interior of what is now called British Columbia used prescribed spring burns to protect their communities from the scorching fires that often moved over the land through the summer seasons.  Fire – a respected friend and foe.

It was necessary for the people here at Lytton First Nation to work with fire in the spring time, to understand it and honour it as integral to the land itself, to make sure that they were working on the fire’s side, and not operating against her.  It was particularly important to establish relations with the fire after the snows had left, when she was amenable to being worked with, rather than waiting for the summer droughts when the fires would simply rage through, caring nothing for human well-being and planning.  Sophisticated relations with the land, and with fire, were evident upon the land of the Lytton First Nation.

The Second Memory: A few years ago, my father’s home in Abbotsford, BC was being shut down in preparation for him to move to a nursing home.  I had the bitter-sweet job of going through the large book collection that he and my mother had collected through the decades.  In the midst of this collection I found a small chapbook about the history of my childhood hometown of Melfort, Saskatchewan.

I took it home with me.  Within that book, which is no longer in my possession, the story is told of the colonization of the Melfort area.  The author describes how, prior to the intrusions of colonization, there were small woodlots dotting the prairies in this area.  These woodlots were filled with old-growth timber, trees that could have been hundreds of years old.  The Cree, who had traditionally been living upon this land, and who had been harvesting those woodlots for generations, were then removed.  The settlers came and occupied the land, transforming it into wheat-based farmland.  However, after only a few years of the settlers’ occupation, great fires passed through, burning everything in their way, including the grasses, the settlers’ homes and farms, and the woodlots that had held the old-growth trees.

The book tells the story of an old Cree elder who told the author how, when they had been responsible for these lands, every spring, while the snow was still in the woodlots, but the surrounding grasses were drying out, they would purposely burn around the woodlots, consuming the flammable grasses and tinder.

Deliberately burning grasses. Prescribed burn.

Deliberately burning grasses. Prescribed burn.

Because of the snow still in the woodlots, the fire stayed away from the trees.  This ensured that, when the fires came through in the heat of the summer, there would be no fuel for them around the woodlots and the fires would be forced to pass by.  The Cree people had clearly been actively involved in holding the integrity of these landscapes together through time.  They were not simply people who roamed over the land, just passing through.  No, they were involved in sculpting the land on which they moved.  When they were removed, the land, as it had been known, was forever changed.  This brings home what a Sts’ailes elder recently said to me, “The land and the people are one.”  Such words are not just a statement of a truth, but a calling that must be lived up to.

Back to my trip from Kamloops to Valemount.  I am unfamiliar with this land.  I haven’t travelled upon it before, and I do not know its histories very well.  I do not know the indigenous connections to this place, other than a small amount that I have been able to read.  But, I am certain that these lands that look so wild and free, were also formed, molded, and held by the people who, for innumerable generations, lived with and upon these lands and waters.  I think of how often we all travel upon land without knowing even its simplest of histories.  There is much to learn.

Continuing on the journey: Somewhere just south of Valemount, I leave the watershed of the North Thompson Valley.  The streams that I drive over now no longer enter the North Thompson, rather they all go northward directly into the Fraser, herself.  Just outside of Valemount the Fraser and I am reacquainted with the river.  The river here is a young and vigorous flow.  Tomorrow, I follow her to the headwaters, and beyond.

I began this section with a question: What happens with the rhizome relations – that is networks of trees, plants, and creatures — when this forest goes up in flames?  We could limit ourselves to a story of destruction, an accelerated destruction for which we and our ancestors who came before us clearly have some responsibility.  We could enter a process of lamentation – which is a tried-and-true biblical tradition.  But we also can carefully attend to the land, and witness and encourage the rhizome’s organic return.  I remember that intense green spring growth around the charcoal trees in the burn near Barrière – for rhizomes return.  We discover this rhizome-return in new ways.  For new sets of relations come to life: new plants (successions of plants beginning with fireweed and then moving into new aspen growths – both fireweed and aspens are rhizomes), new fungi (the morels arrive the first spring after a fire season), new assemblages of people and creatures and land, together, coming together, finding renewed and creative relations that can sustain and give a future.  Is this, perhaps, not a large part of our task in today’s scorched world — to discover and enter into the new and vigorous rhizome worlds (both worlds that we sometimes call natural and other times call human) coming alive around us?

Chris Kinman – Family therapist, photographer, poet, author and musician… Chris’ work reflects diverse sources from Gregory Bateson to Lyn Hoffman, as well as, more recently, Deleuze and Guattari. He currently works as a therapist and provides supervision in Penticton, BC. He has been a consultant to a variety of human service organizations and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. Chris has two Masters degrees, in Marriage and Family Therapy and in Divinity, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Education.