Living With Fire

Ancient Eel River

Smoke lingers in a coniferous forest in late February after a successful prescribed fire mission on Old Briceland Ridge, 2022. 
Photo by Kyle Keegan
Smoke lingers in a coniferous forest in late February after a successful prescribed fire mission on Old Briceland Ridge, 2022. Photo by Kyle Keegan

Whale song interrupted by tectonic collisions. Crushing pressure of oceanic plates giving birth to a new land; accretion and incision; upthrusted matrix of igneous, submarine and metamorphic rocks: sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, clay. Earth, Air, Water, Fire.

Green serpent, a temperate rainforest organism unfurled, grasping boundaries of Pacific coastlines. Outstretched arms of ancients holding sky-gardens of mosses, liverworts and lichens. Where fog drip meets mycelium and trillium, amanita caps and medicinal elderberry. Where varied thrush serenade coastal giant salamanders and yellow spotted millipedes. Interwoven landscapes: marsh and estuaries, sand dunes and coastal chaparral, bunchgrass prairies and oak woodlands—all acting as one.

Ancient Eel River born from meandering incision amidst crumpled margins of accreted rock masses. Deep dark pools of cold blue, swirling eddies of summer steelhead and Pacific lamprey. Grizzly bears built of salmon, coyotes built of salmon, forests built of salmon, peoples built of salmon. Salmon Nation cradled by Turtle Island, birthplace of the original inhabitants of the North Coast.

A cultivated ecology tended by human hands, maintained with fire. Plant medicine. Bunchgrass seed and hazel baskets, manzanita cider and smoked salmon, thimbleberry, huckleberry, black caps and bay nuts, acorn bread and brodiaea bulbs, shellfish and seal meat; buckskin and chert blade, redwood plank and Doug-fir bark, elk bone tool and buckeye fire drill.

Many languages, one belief: These are relatives, if we treat them as so, they will feed, shelter and heal us forever.

Old-growth cultures and keystone ideologies. Animate world views: all alive, all in motion, all relatives. Diverse and localized economies. Rituals of place, rituals of self-restraint, rituals of reciprocity, rituals of renewal. Languages of animacy. Land as pedagogy: rock—teacher, beaver—teacher, yellow jacket, fire, poison oak—teacher, water—teacher. Stories shaped by place, songs sung for place. Cycles and ceremonies in and of place.

Many languages, one belief: This is home, if we treat it as so, we can live here forever.

New arrivals, pale faces, lost peoples in a foreign land. A pioneer culture with imported beliefs. Same species, same landscape—different world views. Fear of first peoples, fear of the unknown—fear. War on peoples, war on land, war on grizzly bear, war on fire. An acquisitive hunger, insatiable wants, illusions of ownership, lack of self-restraint; fire arms and real estate. [Fencing-in, fencing-out.] Mono-economies worshipping derivatives, exporting wealth and dishonoring the source. Living communities transformed into commodities: forests—money, salmon—money, land—money. Frantic-and-fast-paced-Gold-Rush-to-Green-Rush—panic stricken.

A lush and fertile land of possibilities objectified and systematically reduced to a drying landscape of short-term profits and failed dreams. Where ghosts of grizzly bears wander dried-up canyons in search of coho salmon once abundant. Where ghosts of condors glide thermals of a warming climate fueled by human disillusions—perceived separation. Dry wells, dry springs, dry rivers, dry creeks, dry tears.

A re-awakening emerges. New visions for the new inhabitants. New members of Salmon Nation enlisted. New dreams of a land replete with all members present—from stickleback to sturgeon—beaver to bald eagle; because in our hearts we know that the whole of the Eel River basin is greater than the sum of its salmon parts.

No longer consenting to economic systems that diminish and dehydrate physical and cultural landscapes. A revival of reverence and reciprocity for place. Economies and ecologies mutually supportive. New peoples and original peoples—now one people, one vision, one future; collectively holding the humility to acknowledge that in our attempts to heal the land we are healing ourselves. New rituals and new beliefs informed by ancient rituals and ancient beliefs; a re-storyation of place. The land once again as pedagogy. The North Coast re-discovered, re-defined and re-imagined.

Many peoples of many origins, one belief: This is home, if we treat it as so, we can live here forever.

By Kyle Keegan

(Originally presented as a keynote speech for “Earth, Water and Fire Day” in Redway, California, spring 2015.)