Science Provides, Wisdom Will Lead

In Pursuit of Logic: Part V of V

“Although most Americans know they are supposed to say ‘We learn from our mistakes,’ deep down they don’t believe it for a minute.”
– Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The key issue we have been struggling with while exploring the topic of this series, In Pursuit of Logic, is how to develop engaging conversations with people of divergent views that avoid the toxicity of ego – to inspire people to listen rather than waiting to talk.

We keep coming back to Brother David Steindl-Rast and his simple message of gratitude. Simply put, he suggests an easy first step that is based on what we do before crossing the street. We stop, look, then cross. The key here is stopping to allow time to think. Or put another way, placing some space between our feelings and how we eventually respond.

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with my dear friend Mike about the issue that has inspired this series: clearing habitat in an attempt to reduce the threat of wildfire. Mike filled our experience together on the phone with laughter, self-depreciation, respect, and pauses. I knew we disagreed on a few things, but by the end of the call I honestly couldn’t tell what exactly those things were. Mike always provided space for me to think, to contribute. That’s the secret of successful communication.

Mike and I have been traveling similar journeys of late, the kind that a lot of folks take an interest in after realizing they’ve entered the last third of their lives – how to connect it all; our triumphs, our mistakes, the space we occupy, the life around us, and the space we will leave behind. On his recent journey to the Southwest, I gave Mike one of the most influential books I’ve read in my life, Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism, by Frank Waters.

Like the underground mycelial network of delicate white threads joining together to provide common, vital nutrients to individual plants, Waters connects Indigenous wisdom with other spiritual and intellectual journeys that cultures have taken to understand the flow and meaning of life: Buddhism, Taoism, Christian Science, and Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. They all travel parallel paths.

The road of life …is a long one and a difficult one. For man is at once born of the Earth Mother and the Sun Father and acknowledges allegiance to both the cosmic dualities which they symbolize. Hence the supreme purpose of his life is to resolve within himself the conflict of these polarities so that he may finish his road in harmonic relationship with both and with all the universe.

Much of my life has been guided by the richness of such words, words shared in the kivas of Pueblo ancestors and Buddhist monasteries for centuries.

Masked Gods by Frank Waters.
Our library of dogeared books. Mask Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism by Frank Waters.

Stepping Back From the Abyss

And so, when we were accused of using “offensive, racist language,” and were told we were promoting the “erasure” of Native American “cultures and stewardship” in our original essay of this series, We’re Getting Indigenous Burning All Wrong (which appeared originally as a letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times), the dissonance was significant.*

Our initial reaction was what one should expect. Outrage. The criticism was yet another example of exactly the kind of behavior we have been exploring recently – using a straw man argument to deflect from the actual issue being discussed, or as a distraction to the preservation of today’s natural environment. In this case, it diverted the discussion away from how non-Indigenous people were appropriating Indigenous culture to promote habitat clearance projects to an argument over racism.

The fear of being accused of intolerance, losing colleagues, friends, academic grants, or even one’s job, cause a fair number of people to look away from honestly challenging questionable claims. Those that speak up have hell to pay. Chad Hanson and Aaron Mair were censured by the Sierra Club Board of Directors for challenging the club’s inaccurate claims about John Muir. Research is now being rejected by some institutions if it does not align with ideological criteria. And news of a professor losing a job because of expressing unpopular views is not uncommon. We lost members both when we advocated for a more inclusive world, and when we joined Hanson and Mair in defending Muir against accusations of racism.

And, as we have discussed in a previous essay, if your intent is to influence instead of venting your spleen, one doesn’t throw around accusations. Such behavior only backfires, causing the recipient to entrench even further.

Alright. A stop at the crosswalk before we crossed was needed.

The individual who called our essay racist appeared in part to base the accusation over our failure to recognize that one of the authors of the op-ed we were criticizing in the LA Times was Miwok and that Native Americans are partnering with non-Indigenous scientists to conduct some prescribed burning projects. The LA Times also published a “For the Record” statement to clarify this after the authors of the op-ed complained to the paper about our letter.

In this case, the broader argument really didn’t matter. The point was that I failed to note that there are Native Americans who are indeed involved with some of the state’s prescribed burning efforts. In not recognizing this, I was ignoring the author of Miwok heritage and his people’s desire to reestablish cultural practices. I sent a letter of apology to the author.*

*Addendum 11/4/2022
We sent this essay to the author who accused us of racism. We have not received a response. Our letter of apology to the author of Miwok ancestry has met the same fate.

Cultural Appropriation

Back to our discussion – are non-Indigenous people appropriating Indigenous culture to justify and promote large scale habitat clearance projects? Can agencies use the fact that Native Americans sometimes join them in localized prescribed burning projects to inoculate themselves from criticism over landscape-scale “treatments” of forests and shrublands? Do agencies invoke the name of Native Americans to promote burning/clearance projects when there is no evidence Native Americans ever did the same?

The answer remains yes to all three questions, regardless of the accusations.

An example of these strategies was on exhibit during a US Forest Service public informational meeting when the agency invoked the name of Native Americans to justify a proposed project to log, masticate, and burn the Reyes Peak/Pine Mountain ridge line in the Los Padres National Forest near the town of Ojai. They claimed the Chumash used cultural fire to clear the area. When a Chumash woman in the audience indicated that her people had no knowledge of such fire use on the mountain, a sacred place for her people, she was informed by the USFS representative that she didn’t know what she was talking about.

We are currently in a lawsuit to stop the Reyes Peak/Pine Mountain project.

For some tribal groups in northern California, like the Karuk, the historical connection with the ancestral use of fire appears to have remained intact due to their distance from the missionaries, miners, and settlers that caused havoc further south.

For other groups, especially those in central and southern California, the connection has been tragically severed by the long span of time between the actual practitioners of Indigenous fire use and today. In conversations our colleagues have had with the Tongva, Chumash, Esselen, and Ohlone people, traditional knowledge concerning fire use has been lost in this manner.

Unfortunately, this has not prevented the wildfire establishment from making sweeping generalizations about Native people to promote their own aims. There’s a simple definition for this behavior – cultural appropriation. However, who exactly is engaging in cultural appropriation is a complex question that is not easily answered. A thoughtful essay by Jaya Saxena explores this subject from the perspective of a mixed-race individual.

Stories vs. Science

What of traditional stories being told, even those from groups that have suffered generations-long separations between ancient practice and today?

The stories must be respected. However, it needs to be recognized that stories about what happened in the past from any group or family change slightly with each retelling, are embellished, and are usually modified, unconsciously or not, to conform to current expectations and by the desire to self-justify.

This is where science comes in.

Science has taken a beating lately, especially since COVID and the politicization of life-saving technologies, because its messengers (scientists) had the wrong stripes (i.e. were from the other tribe). Even in the face of death, countless numbers of people laid in hospital beds with respirators providing the last link to life, still believing a lifesaving vaccine was a secret government plot to fill our bodies with tracking devices.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, science prevailed. There was no one in the room (that we know of) advocating for hanging garlic outside our doors, nor were knowledgeable people sitting silent when clearly erroneous solutions were presented as viable options.

For science to work, as Richard Feynman said so clearly,

“It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with the experiment, it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”

Science has allowed us to extend our lives, eliminate deadly diseases, and create the comforts we take for granted. We may desire to escape the pressures of our new life among cars, planes, and computer chips, but we do so with the knowledge that a medevac helicopter is just a phone call away.

Science can also help us answer the question, are age-old practices such as Indigenous fire use still relevant in today’s environment? To facilitate cultural practices at the local level, yes. However, in an new environment being dried by climate change, invaded with massive amounts of flammable, non-native weeds and grasses encouraged by fire, and being continuously ignited by the activities of millions of people, adding more fire to an already more flammable landscape can cause significant environmental harm.

Regardless, traditional knowledge from both Indigenous people, and all of the ancient civilizations that contributed to our present understanding of both the physical and spiritual worlds today, remains fundamental to our souls. It illuminates our way of being in a way that science has yet to understand.

Large Wildfires are About Climate

After claiming that our essay failed to recognize Indigenous knowledge and traditions, the critic wrote,

“… traditional ecological knowledge is nationally recognized among other science and knowledge. Integration of such knowledge and practice is critical if we are to retain the diversity of species and habitats within our landscapes.”

As an extension of Richard Feynman’s comment, whether or not something is claimed to be nationally recognized does not make it true. This has been tragically demonstrated by vaccine hesitancy, a belief that is purportedly nationally recognized by a fair number of outspoken Ph.D.s and about a quarter of the US population.

The criticism is likely related to our statement that there is no scientific support for the notion that, “cultural burning was able to prevent large wildfires.”

Although the notion is frequently stated as if it has always been a major rationale for Indigenous fire use in California, we’ve never been able to document it from any historical or anthropological evidence. Regardless, the idea that large wildfires were prevented by small groups of people burning millions of acres per year is neither logical nor realistic.

In brief, the frequency and size of large fires has very little to do with what is burning. Large fires are primarily driven by climate and weather (i.e., long-term drought, high temperature, low humidity, and wind) as shown in the chart below. This is why, despite all the 747s dropping fire retardant and legions of fire fighters with modern equipment, we continually fail to stop the wind-driven wildfires that cause nearly all the devastation to our communities. Such fires only stop when the weather conditions change (or when they run into the ocean).

For example, centuries prior to 1860s when Native American fire use is assumed to have kept all fires small and at low-severity, the climate was a lot cooler and wetter than it is today, exactly the condition where one would expect to have less fire activity. However, during the Medieval Warm Period (between approximately 850-1200 AD) when conditions were warmer and drier, there were large numbers of wildfires throughout the West including the Sierra Nevada. Many of the older forest stands we see today, such as those of the sequoia (a fire-cued species), likely got their start during this warm interval when high-severity fires opened up forest canopies and allowed the establishment of new forests – the type of fire so many wring their hands over today.

In a comprehensive article, ecologist George Wuerthner does an excellent job explaining why Indigenous burning is a false solution to large blazes. Additional science references on this subject can also be found on our Native Americans and Fire page.

Area burned per year is dependent on the climate, not what is burning. PDO, or Pacific Decadal Oscillation.
Area burned per year is dependent on the climate, not what is burning. When the climate is cooler = smaller, fewer fires. The PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) basically measures when the air over the Pacific Ocean cools year over year, cooling the western North American continent as well.

Nature Domesticated

The claim that integrating traditional “knowledge and practice is critical if we are to retain the diversity of species and habitats within our landscapes” is no different than saying Nature requires human interference to maintain its ecological balance, i.e., Nature is a mess and will somehow fall apart without human assistance. In short, Nature needs to be domesticated.

Other than the absence of any scientific support, this claim poses a threat to wilderness preservation and devalues Native American people by romanticizing their cultures. Like all human beings dependent directly upon the natural landscape, Indigenous people developed skills to utilize Nature in efficient and sustainable ways. But sometimes, as with all human beings, local ecosystems were modified in ways that negatively impacted other living things.

The Miwok burned the Yosemite Valley on a regular basis to artificially promote open meadows and California black oak (Quercus kellogii) at the expense of conifers (and to keep the grizzly bear at bay). Ancient shell middens (refuge piles) in the San Francisco east bay region begin with the bones of large animals, then end up at the top with mostly the remains less preferred food sources such as mollusks, indicating significant population declines for many species, likely due to over hunting. The use of fire on the coastal plains appears to have led to the type conversion of native shrublands and the expansion of more open landscapes, setting the stage for the later invasion of non-native weeds and grasses brought to California by European settlers.

Pointing out these facts is not an act of disrespect. Ignoring them is.

Instead of creating an unrealistic image of what we want to believe, we need to support Indigenous cultures in ways that can foster the reestablishment of traditional practices, preserve languages, restore and maintain cultural knowledge. Addressing the inequities Native Americans face in our nation today must be a part of this support as well.

Facilitating Indigenous fire use that enhances the vigor of grasses such as Muhlenbergia rigens used for basket making, encouraging the growth of and access to traditional foods like acorns and chia, and restoring areas around village sites that were once maintained by fire are respectful and achievable goals.

Yosemite Valley is an excellent example of how maintaining a human-centric landscape around a traditional village makes perfect sense – it is used by millions of people every year today. But we need to recognize that such a goal is for us as human beings. It has nothing to do with the natural functioning of a native ecosystem.

Indigenous burning in Australia.
An early dry season controlled burn being conducted by Aboriginal family in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo: Ted Wood

Selling the Image

Appropriating Native American culture as an advertising tool has a long history. From selling tobacco to promoting anti-pollution campaigns and prescribed fire, Native American images have proved to be powerfully effective, and profitable.


A study by D’Silva et al. (2018) concluded that,

“The tobacco industry has misappropriated culture and traditional tobacco by misrepresenting American Indian traditions, values and beliefs to market and sell their products for profit. Findings underscore the need for ongoing monitoring of tobacco industry marketing tactics directed at exploiting Native culture and counter-marketing tactics that raise awareness about the distinction between commercial and traditional tobacco use.”

America the Beautiful

The successful Keep America Beautiful television ad, with a crying Indian imploring Americans not to be litter bugs, is perhaps the most well-known example of exploiting Native American imagery. Ironically, the ad was sponsored by the beverage industry to combat efforts to require recyclable beverage containers.

Finis Dunaway wrote in his 2015 book, Seeing Green, The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images,

“As a moment of intense emotional expression, Iron Eyes Cody’s tear compressed and concatenated an array of historical myths, cultural narratives, and political debates about native peoples and progress, technology and modernity, the environment and the question of responsibility. It reached back into the past to critique the present; it celebrated the ecological virtue of the Indian and condemned visual signs of pollution, especially the heedless practices of the litterbug.”

Iron Eyes Cody in the anti-pollution, America the Beautiful advertisement.

The story of the actor, Iron Eyes Cody, is a fascinating one. Even though he was Italian-American, he fully embraced his role and came to believe he really was Native American. Beyond the ad, Cody acted in more than 200 films, playing the iconic, stoic Indian. Regardless of what one thinks of Cody’s representation, the America the Beautiful ad did play a significant role in convincing Americans to stop littering. Cody was also a champion of Native American rights. He fell in love and married Bertha Pallan, a Native American, and they grew their family by adopting two Native American children.


The selling of prescribed fire by using Native American imagery differs from product advertisements in that it is being employed to justify a much extended and unrelated program of habitat clearance, incentivized by millions of dollars available in wildfire grants. Although the public is led to believe that during the process wildfire agencies gently lay fire on the ground with drip torches, burning only grasses and downed debris, the reality is quite different.

To prepare a forest site to be burned, trees are logged (“thinned”) and dragged across the fragile forest floor by large chains and tractors, new roads are often built to remove the cleared vegetation, and the delicate soil is ripped open exposing its network of interweaving fungi. What debris remain are often burned in piles. Then prescribed fire is laid on the ground. Herbicides are often used to get rid of those stubborn, chaparral under story shrubs. After all this, the product will eventually begin to resemble the mythical park-like forest often described by foresters with less biodiversity, but a lot of space for picnics.

If conducted in chaparral, giant grinding machines typically masticate the habitat into millions of small chips. Non-native weeds invade afterwards. That’s it. On the rare occasion fire is employed, it is used in the cool season when the ground is still moist, causing the water to turn to steam, cooking buried seeds – seeds that are stimulated to germinate when exposed to the hot, dry heat of a high-intensity fire.

Regardless, the prescribed fire campaign has been incredibly successful, in part because it appears to provide a quick answer to soothe the public’s fear of wildfire. And it sounds right because, according to the narrative, large wildfires would never happen, or would be smaller or less severe, if we had been burning the landscape (millions of acres per year) on a regular basis like Native Americans once did.

This sound bite is robotically repeated in nearly every wildfire news story and by the online public who comment on them, by politicians, by fire agencies, and even some environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy. And it is applied regardless of which plant community is burning – forest, chaparral, or grassland, and regardless of the factors that actually caused the fire to spread.

Science Provides, Wisdom Leads

There is hope, however, because of science, and because sometimes we can learn from the past.

Being a human endeavor, science is subject to the same fear, selfishness, and greed as everything else we do, but only in the short run. In the long run, science prevails by subjecting every idea, opinion, or story, regardless of the source, to the penetrating eyes of questioning outsiders. Over time, the truth is eventually revealed.

As large, high-intensity wildfires continue to burn, despite the self-justifications and the massive habitat clearance projects, the fallacies will eventually be exposed and the facts will matter. Like so many times before when we’ve tried to control Nature, we will finally recognize, again, what fools we were.

Science is one of the reasons why our species will continue to excel, to discover new opportunities, and to improve our relationship with each other, other living things, and with wild, undomesticated Nature.

And when we do, our accumulated cultural wisdom will be ready to lead a more enlightened version of ourselves.

“As the Pueblos believe: there is no dead earth; inorganic matter has life. Places do not exist; they live.”
– Frank Waters, in Masked Gods


In Pursuit of Logic Part I: We’re Getting Indigenous Burning all Wrong

In Pursuit of Logic Part II: Alien Shrubs from Mars

In Pursuit of Logic Part III: When Factual Arguments Fail – Nearly Always

In Pursuit of Logic Part IV: Plants and Animals Have the Right to be Left Alone

One Comment on “Science Provides, Wisdom Will Lead

  1. My paternal grandmother was Cherokee, one of the children of a child left with friendly Europeans at the time of the Trail of Tears. Her physical appearance, not to mention her knowledge of Nature, was convincing. I have no way of knowing how true the stories she told me were, as they were second- and third-hand. I have noticed the playful sense of humor characteristic of some Native Americans, especially with regard to anthropologists; ever eager to please and have something to laugh (quietly) about, even make fun of, they would tell anthropologists what patter the latter wanted to hear . . .

    I’ve heard all kinds of stories about burning, mostly second-hand, from anthropologists, who tend to believe everything they hear, and record it as fact. A self-reinforcing psychology? I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. Bring on the science!

    Grasslands, including coastal prairies, grow best on deep alluvial soils, and tend to leave chemical markers behind (e.g., sodium, calcium). Shrubland soils are not easily “converted” to grasslands, by burning or even plowing. The plant associations destroyed eventually, if slowly, “re-invade.” Provided there’s a propagule source and favorable site conditions. Mostly the result is easily ignitable, fast-spreading weed fuels.

    Coastal sage scrub (or, as Ted Hanes preferred to call it, “soft chaparral”) native shrubs tend to “invade” the native grasslands, and frequent burning tends to favor the grassland component of this “odd” association. So, it might make sense to believe that the First Peoples might burn them to refresh the food sources (e.g., roasted insects, wild onions, bunnies breaking cover . . .), but it is difficult to imagine them setting the woods on fire (except figuratively, perhaps). A Miwok woman once told me that they didn’t dig onions, they only took one leaf from each plant.

    Ray Gilmore summed up science this way: “The suspension of judgment is the highest exercise in intellectual discipline.” This helps keep the straw-men at bay, as well as the ego-plagued. But indignation at the temerity to question will not go away anytime soon, so don’t get your hopes up. Just keep writing great essays!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: