Editor’s note: Lane B. Johnson is a Research Forester at the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center. Gwiiwizens, aka Ricky W. Defoe, is an Elder and Pipe Carrier of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Caption for blog cover photo: A collaborative red pine underburn on the Fond du Lac Reservation at the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center, May 11, 2022. Photo provided by Lane Johnson.
Restoring fire dependent landscapes necessitates collective knowing that fire has been missing as an integral community member. After a century of fire exclusion and suppression of Indigenous fire stewardship, re-story-ing place through fire is a means of healing the land and mending relationships. Cross-cultural collaboration gives ecological restoration the cultural meaning necessary to reclaim and revitalize time-tested ways of living in balance and harmony with fire.
Pausing to take in the scene, I [Lane] breathe deeply and smile with satisfaction. It’s August and the air is warm, dry, and still smells of char three months after the pine stand I am walking through, known locally as Camp 8, saw fire for the first time in over a century. At my feet lie charred pine cones and branches, newly fallen pine needles and sluffed red pine bark. The forest floor is profuse with a resurgence of bunchberry, blueberry and sweetfern hidden beneath a blanket of bracken fern, aster, raspberry and blackberry. A season’s growth of supple beaked hazel stems resprout from cut and burned bases.
Looking into the distance, the sparse understory is largely open and sun-dappled, broken occasionally by pockets of fire-stressed red maple and paper birch washed with muted fall color on display weeks ahead of schedule. The nearby pine trunks are variably adorned with bark char left by the playful flames that tickled their boles in spring. This sensory experience is foreign to most Minnesotans but these fire-influenced conditions are native to this place. Today, the 40-acre pocket of old-growth pine at Camp 8 is one of only a few sites in northeast Minnesota, and the only site within the Minnesota portion of the Lake Superior basin, where one can come and experience a remnant of the tracts of fire-maintained pine woodlands once common in the Upper Great Lakes region.
Towards collective remembering
At the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center and on the Fond du Lac Reservation where we [Lane and Ricky] work in northern Minnesota, we are coming to know the value of fire restoration as a catalyst for cross-cultural learning and relationship building, remembrance and healing. Fire suppression culture has had a chokehold on our Great Lakes landscapes and people for over a century. As a result, the voices and stories of the plants and animals that once emanated from fire-dependent places have been quieted. But at sites like Camp 8 on the Reservation, through the collaborative restoration of fire with the local Fond du Lac Band, and other partners, we are beginning to know, understand, and share stories about fire and people as integral parts of Minnesota’s forest lands.
Fire has largely been absent from our fire-dependent places for over a century, and as a result, cross-cultural memory of fire-influenced conditions prior to colonization is lacking. Many of our landscapes have been so heavily terraformed – simultaneously fragmented and homogenized – through settler-colonial land use and fire exclusion that they’d be unrecognizable to the generations that came before us. This collective faded memory has been termed by ecologists as generational ecological amnesia or sliding baseline syndrome. Those of us living within fire-dependent systems today, including contemporary Indigenous communities, have only a hazy understanding of the magnitude of these changes without the benefit of site-specific points of reference, the traditional ecological and cultural value of fire-dependent places difficult to express and communicate in the absence of experience.
Fortunately, in places like the Camp 8 stand, the 200-year-old red and white pine that tower overhead hold stories of the fires that shaped life prior to Euro-American colonization. The elder pine and their deceased neighbors share their life histories, through their records of growth, gently reminding us that fire is needed in these places for fire-adapted biocultural diversity to persist and flourish.
Reserved from harvest during the 1910-12 cutover on this part of the Fond du Lac Reservation, these fire-origin pine exhibit fire-scars from eight fires recurring roughly every decade from 1841 to 1905. The fires stop with the University acquisition of tribal land on the reservation in 1910 and efforts to exclude Indigenous fire stewardship in a place once a productive community berrying and hunting ground on the Reservation.
In 1923, a University forester described the fire-maintained conditions of this site (products of an Indigenous fire regime) akin to all similarly-aged stands within the region. He described the sunlit forest floor blanketed with food and medicine plants – blueberry, sweetfern, wintergreen and bush honeysuckle – lightly shaded by an overstory of healthy fire-charred and fire-pruned red, white, and jack pines. This casual description of vegetative conditions is notable as it speaks volumes of the changes wrought by settler-colonial fire suppression, particularly the widespread conversion of open, fire-maintained woodlands to closed forest.
With the return of fire, and some mechanical inputs to set the stage, the abundance of productive traditional food and medicine plants that characterized the open woodland conditions described in 1923 have begun to return. The stories associated with these eco-cultural conditions have begun to return too.
Fire knowledge becomes practice through story
It is not enough to know what must be done. We need to put what we know into practice to make meaningful change. The process of fire restoration – the cross-cultural logics of who, what, where, when, why, and how to burn – creates opportunities for truthtelling through story and making known the root causes of fire’s absence (colonialism, extractivisim, paternalism, racism to name a few). This process is described by ethnobotanist scholar Gary Nabhan and Potawatomi scientist-writer Robin Kimmerer as re-storying and re-story-ation (see Chapter 27 of Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass). Stories stick and motivate. The stories, old and new, come from diverse voices, human and non-human, but thematically remind us of our human responsibility to live in reciprocity with the more-than-human world. In many landscapes, we have lost the fire-maintained conditions that prompt the transfer of place-based stories shared by people and our plant and animal relatives. Conversely, the process of ecocultural fire restoration initiates noticing, recollection, and intergenerational transfer of fire knowledge.
Fire-shaped biocultural diversity promotes the collective remembrance needed to overturn misguided ways of thinking and being. We need places where we can be awed and wowed by the beauty and function of wild places, and our human ability to enhance these places by giving of ourselves. We need opportunities for people to be immersed in the effects of good fire and literally taste the fruits, smell the scents, hear the sounds, listen, and begin to know what it means to live in relationship with fire. These awesome sensory experiences, provided appropriate cultural context, can be positively impactful, and carried by individuals for their lifetimes.
Community building. Community healing.
The purpose of our 2022 burns, and our ongoing collaboration, is not to preserve fire-dependent sites as museum pieces, but as dynamic wildlands shaped by the same ecocultural processes that have made them resilient, diverse, beautiful, and bountiful for thousands of years. Fire restoration is an ongoing effort in collective remembering, cutting through the shared fog of ecological and cultural amnesia, and demonstrating the value of planned fire as an effective and time-tested traditional cultural practice that cannot be emulated by other means. There is no surrogate to this approach.
As we continue to reclaim our human role as fire keepers and caretakers of our home grounds, our shared understanding of and appreciation for fire dependent landscapes and cultures will grow. The work cannot be undertaken alone but carried out through relationship building and in neighborly cooperation. Community building is one of the stories. When we do good work together, we renew the land, revitalize ourselves, strengthen our connections to place and with one another. Through practice, this knowledge becomes lived experience and experience becomes story. When story becomes collective truth it leads to intergenerational transformation. With persistence and time, the beauty of stories that flow from fire-shaped places and people will become part of our collective consciousness and set new standards for future generations.
Learn more about this work:
College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, University of Minnesota, November 2022:
Ojibwe Firefighters Restore Fire to the Cloquet Forestry Center
YES! Magazine, September 2022:
How Indigenous Knowledge Reconnects Us All to Fire
Past Global Changes Magazine, Spring 2022:
Blending Tree-Ring Fire Scar Records and Indigenous Memory in Northern Minnesota, USA
Interlochen Public Radio’s [Un]Natural Selection story series, March 2022:
Rekindling Wilderness (22min. listen)