Posted on Nov 24, 2016 Leave a Comment
Ricardo Sierra from Hawk’s Circle interviewed me for his Wolverine Way podcast series. We talk about running small businesses that are ancestral skills themed. [Listen Here]
Posted on Oct 10, 2016 2 Comments
“Forests are social, they are lonely, and they need us,” proclaimed Hazel, thus beginning a week-long workshop on “social forestry” that involved clearing brush, making charcoal, thinning tree stands, coppicing shrubs, reducing fire danger, weaving baskets, making wooden poles, touring various ecotones, and the main reason most of us were there: prescribed burning. There were lectures on topics including gender, forest systems, holding council meetings, biochar, permaculture forests, “retro-feudalism,” timber stand assessment, transition horticulture, and more. The central theme of the week was a simple yet complex question: “How do we bring back burning to the landscape?” For a wet, dreary week in late January, life couldn’t be more fun for a rewilder!
I’d been curious about using fire to manage the landscape ever since reading M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild back in 2006. The book explains how hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists have used fire to manage landscapes and assist with hunting for thousands (and quite possibly hundreds of thousands) of years. While Tending the Wild focuses on California, books like Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest, Forgotten Fires, and The Biggest Estate on Earth have given rise to the understanding that land management among hunter-gatherers appears to be more common than previously thought and spans the globe as well as various ecosystems. These studies have blurred the distinctions between hunter-gatherers and horticulturists. Fire has long been a friend of the Homo genus, for warmth, cooking, and security. To what extent, and when we first befriended fire, remains unknown. Many theories link to archaeological hearth sites and physiological changes, but nothing is known for certain. Land management is perhaps one of the most difficult uses to prove.
Social forestry aims to return people to the forest with the practice of strategic burning. Civilization encourages fire suppression. Fire suppression in fire-prone habitats is, to put it bluntly, stupid. What kind of social forestry class would exclude a prescribed burn or two (weather permitting)?
Before burning, you must get the proper burn permits. Once you have permission from the state, you’re ready for site prep. To prep a site you need to establish fire lines, which are essentially barriers to keep the fire from spreading. They are generally wide, flat areas without a fuel source: a paved road, a stream, or a very wide trail with something like the top 6 inches of soil scraped away. Think of it like an invisible fence that contains the fire. We prepped two sites split in half by a gravel road. The lower half ended at a creek; the upper half ended in sparse star thistle and then a thicket of buckbrush. We had water on site, shovels, rakes, and other gear to fight the fire if it got out of hand.
Our goal with these burns was to burn out the seed load of the invasive star thistle, and help germinate the native seeds that are adapted to fire, so that the native plants would have less competition in following years. The first fire was a slow, cold back burn. Starting at the road, we lit the top of the meadow on fire and burned downhill. Imagine lighting a match and holding it upright. It slowly burns down the stick. The meadow slowly burned over the course of 45 minutes, with continuous fires being lit by us to keep it going. It was nice and gentle.
By the time we’d eaten lunch, the morning clouds had drifted on and it was time to try the uphill burn. Imagine lighting a match and holding it diagonally, with the flame rising up from the bottom. It burns hotter and faster, quickly consuming the stick in a large flame. The afternoon sun had come out from behind the clouds and began to dry out the fuel load on the upward slope. The sun also heated the air, causing a pressure change that encouraged the winds to kick up the hill. Then my friend Jesse lit the fire. The next 10 minutes would prove to be the most intense moments of my life in over a decade.
I first met Hazel when I took a Permaculture Design Course with Toby Hemenway in 2009. Back then they went by the name Tom Ward. Hazel is one of those rare humans with an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge and a deep, everlasting passion for sharing the information they know and love. They were born and raised a Quaker on the East Coast, from a line of the oldest Quakers in the country. They have a degree in forestry from a highly renowned forestry school, and they’ve taught permaculture with Bill Mollison. Hazel is a botanist, peasant, forester, teacher, and underlying it all, more than a fair bit of a trickster. They stuck out in my class, not just because of their charismatic and unique presence, but because, of all the permaculture experts in that class, Hazel was the only one who seemed to have the vision of rewilding. I remember them saying something along the lines of “the future is bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers wandering the Willamette Valley between permaculture villages.” I remember thinking, oh, here is someone who actually gets it. Beyond getting it, they are creating it, experimenting with it, in their forest laboratory.
Five minutes later, a wall of flame raced across the meadow toward me and the rest of us who stood on the fire line. Another moment later and I couldn’t see much because the flames and smoke had consumed most of my vision. I knew I didn’t really have to worry; I could run to my left where there was no fuel load and I would be okay. But there was one problem. On account of the wind, the flames were so long that they extended over our fire line and jumped it. All of a sudden, shit got real.
I will never look at fire the same way again. It was a sobering moment. Don’t fuck around with fire. Seriously. Stationary fire is not scary. I had never seen fire move before. A friend who had been a firefighter in her younger days told me once about a fire that ripped up an incline she was on, and how she had to jump off a 30-foot cliff to get out of its way. I never quite understood what she meant until now. Firefighters are no joke. Mad respect.
A few weeks after the social forestry class, I had lunch with a friend who had taken it the year before. It was too rainy that year so they didn’t get to burn, and he was eager to hear about this year’s burns. I shared the story of all that happened and he laughed, telling me that he had taken a TREX training once, a government-funded and -operated prescribed-burn education program, where the fire jumped the fire line and burned several acres before they could put it out. Even government professionals can have a hard time containing fire; even with all the safety measures in place, fire can surprise you and do something you didn’t think was possible.
Once we extinguished the fire completely, something unexpected happened. Stunned, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, but the threat gone, I started to cry. Then I started sobbing. I sat down on the hill and just let it out. I was laughing and crying. I just let myself emote. I saw the true, hungry, wild face of a force of nature that I had only ever seen before in captivity. Here, in the forests of southern Oregon, the only thing between the fire and a thick bramble of buckbrush (a plant that contains flammable resin) stood a handful of rewilders with a couple of shovels. The whole experience happened in a matter of minutes. The amount of meadow that took us 45 minutes to burn going downhill took 11 minutes going up.
Later some friends of the farm sent us this picture of our uphill burn seen from a distance:
Back in the lodge, everyone quite frazzled, we sat gathered in a circle. The silence was only to be broken when we felt called to speak. Once everyone felt heard, we would conclude. Aside from the fire itself, the council was one of the most transformative experiences of the social forestry class for me. Partly because it was charged, but mostly because it had the power to diffuse the intensity and collectively debrief the experience without a moderator, without a long list of communication tools.
The reality from my perspective was that the danger wasn’t as bad as we thought. We suppressed the fire in only a few minutes, in part due to the lack of fuel load at the top of the meadow. There was, in a sense, a natural fire line that was better than the one we dug ourselves: about 20 feet of sparse fuel allowed us to simply come in and stamp out the fire once it burned through the heavier load. Hazel, the farm’s forester, was in control of the situation the entire time. I remembered something that I had learned in a mentoring workshop about creating rites of passage. You want the experience to have a “perceived danger high, yet actual danger low.” I think our perceived danger was high and the actual danger very low. However, this led to a very important lesson: fire is no joke. Controlled burns are an important part of ecological restoration, and you must be very careful and have multiple backup plans in place.
We spent the rest of the week doing more mellow but important work. We chopped down trees. We made charcoal. We learned about Hazel’s “retro-feudalism.” (This is a hilarious yet very practical concept put forth by Hazel that I can’t do justice to here, so I won’t try.)
Near the end of the week, in the foggy fir woodland with axe in hand, I realized that this was probably one of the only places where you would find a group of hippies gleefully chopping down trees. That’s part of the magic of social forestry. It reminds me of how I gave up veganism once I realized that I could respect animals and still eat them. You can respect a forest and still chop down trees. (This in no way condones industrial logging or the senseless killing of trees.)
Prescribed burns are no longer a mystery to me. Now I’ve actually done it. It’s not just a theory that I espouse but a skill I have begun to learn through doing. I’ve moved beyond the theoretical stage of fire. Yet this intro class made me realize how much there is to learn in this field. I will probably never become a highly skilled burn boss. It’s not my lot in life. Still, as a spokesperson for the return to these lifeways, it helps to have actually done them. This class was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Perhaps it will be for you too (weather permitting).
Check out Siskiyou Permaculture’s website for upcoming classes on social forestry and more:
Heron’s Social Forestry Video (a different but related program):
Posted on Sep 24, 2016 4 Comments
Urban Scout had a reputation. Good or bad, it depends on who you ask. From 2003 to 2009, he evolved from a fictional movie character, into my full blown alter-ago and muse. In 2006 I began blogging under the moniker to encourage more people to begin rewilding. The end goal was to spark a movement that was large enough to where I could assemble a group of people (back then I used the term “tribe” but I avoid it now) to go live with the land in the style of immediate-return hunter-gatherers. Over the span of several years I wrote many short essays on my blog “The Adventures of Urban Scout”, received a lot of attention for my antics, and garnered a lot of fans. It wasn’t all roses though. I likened Urban Scout’s voice to George Carlin’s; angry rants filled with curse words and strong opinions. This style had a specific audience who “got it” and another audience who had a tendency to be offended by the work.
In 2008 I assembled many of the short essays into this book, Rewild or Die. I couldn’t afford a professional copy-editor, so I had a few friends proof read it for me (including my mom!). In defiance of standard writing rules (the book itself written in an experimental form of English) I left in some typos and grammatical errors. This was partly out of laziness and partly in protest. It felt appropriate to publish the book with some rough edges. While many people appreciated the book, the lack of standardization, consistency, and conformity to American English “rules” of writing made the book less broadly appealing.
Two published reviews exemplify the polarization of subjectivity in regards to how the writing was received. One of the reviews said that the book was:
…emblematic of a text filled with poor grammar and misspelled words. It was difficult for this former teacher to gloss over the poorly edited text…I have serious problems with the messenger’s butchering of the English language…Scout should have stayed in school a little longer, if only to polish his writing skills…as if I have time to deal with juvenile delinquents who do not know how to write.
The other review couldn’t have been more different:
Urban Scout writes really well; not only does he write well, he appears to be constructing text in the manner of an artisan: few words are wasted or superfluous, and the style matches the context effortlessly. Or rather, it seems effortless, though I have little doubt that a great deal of effort has gone into each and every one of the essays…
This dichotomy shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Therein I realized that Urban Scout was a niche. If my goal was to encourage more people to rewild, this voice was limiting to that goal. Beyond just its limits, it also had the potential to alienate; during a book tour my car was totaled by haters. Tires slashed, windshield smashed, and an insult scrawled on the passenger side. That was when I decided that Urban Scout was finished. It was time to hang up the loin cloth and find a new muse. I stopped blogging regularly, discontinued the book, and began focusing all my efforts on Rewild Portland, a non-profit organization that I founded.
Almost immediately I received some angry messages from long time supporters of Urban Scout, asking me what happened, why could they no longer find my book. Initially I ignored them. One in particular was persistent. A man named George Steel (who is now a dear friend) threatened me that if I didn’t make it available again, he would create a bootleg. In a sense, any damage from the book couldn’t be undone. Once something goes online, it lives there forever. Since the essays in the book were formerly blog entries, they couldn’t be erased. Apparently they couldn’t be forgotten either. I conceded and told George that if I were to put it back out there, I would want to have it copy edited and have a better design. So began a journey that has lasted a few years. I met a professional copy editor who took on the work. George created a new typeface. I redesigned the cover. If I can’t get rid of it, the least I could do was polish up a little bit.
I was still really apprehensive about putting it back out. Then I got a message from an old-timer of the Rainbow Gathering tradition. He had sought me out to thank me for writing the book. He said that the Rainbow Gathering had originally been created to do something like rewilding, and that over time it became just a party scene. The elders lamented, but the middle generation didn’t seem to care. He said that he found my book among youngest generation, duct-taped together with notes in the margins. They were bringing back the original intention of those gatherings, through rewilding, through my book. I’m sure they had other influences, but the image of my book in the hands of some teenagers, duct-taped together with notes scribbled in it made me realize that Urban Scout does have an audience, and that it was worth keeping alive if not for me, for them.
I still love the book and I don’t think it’s bad. I’m embarassed by parts of it, but in the way that I’m embarassed that I wore JNCO jeans in high school. I don’t agree with everything I wrote in it, and it’s not really my voice. I was 25 when I wrote most of it, drinking large amounts of black coffee and typing out long, angry rants at the behest of my peers. I’m nearing 35 now. My rewilding journey has taken me in many unexpected places, and I’m more excited about the work and writing that I am doing today. Still, it feels like a great time to re-release this book, as most of the rewilding literature I see in the mainstream these days feels more like Rewilding Lite™. While I disagree with the tone, and some of the content, the end goal is the same. Urban Scout had a sense of intensity, wholeness, and urgency in regards to rewilding that I don’t see much of elsewhere. Rewild or Die isn’t a book for everyone, but maybe it’s just right for you. There’s only one way to find out. Get yourself a copy here:
Posted on Sep 4, 2016
Rewilding starts September 12th. All other dates TBA.
Posted on Aug 11, 2016
I did this interview with some students from Evergreen for their research last November at the portland plant medicine gathering. I enjoyed it and felt like posting it online. The questions were deep and wide-ranging. It was a really fun interview.
Posted on Mar 28, 2016
Posted on Mar 28, 2016
Posted on Jan 7, 2016 2 Comments
People often get on my case for not prescribing a “5 things you can do to rewild” type of program. To me, rewilding is a renaissance; an idea (or cohesion of ideas) that takes form through individual & collective creativity. To make it a program is to kill it. Instead of coming up with a program, I’ve devised this course. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all Rewilding™, we’ll look at our personal passions, our resources, our social networks, and brainstorm together what is possible for each of us and collectively tackle the barriers that hold us captive to civilization. Who’s ready to roll their sleeves up with me?