Learning from Fire, Teens & Traditional Ecological Knowledge

By August Freas

The morning of September 9th, 2020, like everyone else in San Francisco, I woke up to a sky so deeply orange it seemed the sun hadn’t yet risen. I was used to judging the air quality based on how hazy or how golden the light outside was, but I was not used to feeling my stomach drop when I looked out the window.

Kyle Lawson, San Francisco

That morning, I let grief wash over me. I sat at my kitchen table with the lights on at 9am, and wrote poems about carrying the weight of that feeling. I spent time up on Bernal Hill with a former elementary school student of mine who seemed shockingly unphased by the whole ordeal. I looked out over the city cloaked in rusty haze and thought to myself, “What kind of world is he growing up in?”

A world where fires and smoky skies are seen as an imminent hazard, especially in the Bay Area. By the end of that year, wildfires across California had ravaged more than 4 million acres of scrubby forests, golden hills, and of course, land upon which people had made their homes.

That day left me worried and heartbroken and scared about the future. It reawakened my fear about climate change, about all the people I love, and the fear that there just isn’t enough time to stop the crescendo of natural disasters that seems to be getting more devastating each year.

But this story of fire isn’t the only one. Yes, fire can be relentlessly hungry and destructive. But it can also be a life force. It can be the spark (literally) that helps the lodgepole pine spread its seeds, the serotinous cones opening after a fire has come through and melted its resinous protective layer. Fire can be ceremonious, as in the work of Lead to Life where it’s used to transform guns into shovels, to be used to plant trees. And fire can be used to care for the forest, with prescribed cultural burns, as indigenous tribes in Northern California have been doing for thousands of years.

Every fall for the past three years, I’ve talked with high school students about these different stories of fire. In the BEETs teen internship program at CommunityGrows, I worked with youth to uncover the ways that the sacredness of fire has been lost through colonization, white supremacy, and forest management practices that are out of sync with the needs of the land.

Evan McEldowney, Sunrise Movement

After the election of 2016 I promised myself I wouldn’t let the 2020 election slip through my fingers as that one had. The 2016 election devastated me as a queer and trans person, as an aspiring anti-racist, and as someone that cares deeply about the natural world. I joined the Sunrise Movement, and I began organizing for climate justice with other young folks. I brought that organizing lens to my work with the BEETs, and over the years, my students and I discussed how each of us can use our unique gifts to work towards a more environmentally just future for everyone. We made space for feelings, for asking questions, exploring ideas, and for seeing multiple truths, like we did in our conversations about fire in California.

The Nature Conservancy, Kiliii Yuyan

As in the practices of the North Fork Mono, cultural burns have been implemented as a way to rejuvenate the soil as well as remove ground cover that would otherwise catch in the event of a wildfire breaking out. Unfortunately due to a lack of understanding about how to tend to fire, settlers banned prescribed burns, and the US federal fire policy for most of the 20th century prevented tribes including the Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk from continuing with their ages-old controlled, deliberate burning practices. Only in the past few years have there been budding opportunities for partnerships between agencies like CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) and the YurokTribe Wildland Fire Department, to legally resume that reciprocal relationship between humans and an earth tended by fire.

During our month of programming focusing on Local History and Indigenous Wisdom, BEETs interns were especially interested in the practice of prescribed burning. Some youth chose to dive deeper into the practices during their self-selected facilitation the following spring, and others recalled the topic during their end of year review.

From October to May, teen interns learn about basic gardening and maintenance practices, as well as spend time in the classroom exploring themes like Climate Justice, Activism, Identity, & Movements, and Environment in Government. In the spring, around the time we hold a graduation ceremony for all students who have completed the program, we ask them to participate in exit interviews. One of the questions I ask is “What’s something that you learned during BEETs?” Last spring, one student finishing his freshman year of high school said “That you can help nature with fire-controlled fires! That was astonishing to me. Really burn things on purpose?”

August Freas, Koshland Garden

This idea of prescribed burns was clearly memorable for students, and facilitated a big shift in their thinking. We learned about fire in November, and six months later, this student pointed to that knowledge as a major “aha” moment for him. Not only did this encourage me to think more deeply about incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into my teaching, it also made me think about all the ways the narrative about nature gets skewed in a way that centers negative impact, and only tells part of the story. Oftentimes this is a human-centered narrative, that focuses on how we’ve done wrong by the earth, and how it has responded reciprocally, in magnitudes more destructive than we could have imagined. And yet reciprocity also looks so many different, beautiful ways.

As we have discussed with the youth interns what it means to be a guest on this land, they have also been invited to think about their place in the world, and about their purpose. They have yet to choose what kind of career they want to pursue, how they want to spend their time after high school. They are both shaping and being shaped by these conversations, with alumni often contacting me after they’ve left the program to inform me that they’re using what they learned in BEETs in their climate change writing class or their geology class in college. This program serves as a place for students to explore and wrestle with big problems in the world, and to be in community while they try to find what solutions are already out there, and what their role in that work might be. 

What we pay attention to grows. As I move forward into this seemingly climate catastrophe-doomed and simultaneously abundant and community care-rich future, I want to think about how I can apply that idea with my students, and with my relationship with the land. What if I started paying attention to knowledge that extends beyond this generation? What if I started questioning stories that characterize disasters like fire in just one particular perspective? What if I started paying more attention to the way the earth responds to my touch? What if I listened to the teachings of indigenous wisdom, and held reciprocity at the center of my work and my life?

August is an outdoor educator and current graduate student in the Berkeley School of Education. Their work centers around the intersections between climate justice, education, and anti-racism.

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