We reside on the western edge of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the very edge, on the last sloping hill above the Marys River floodplain. Looking east across the heart of the Valley, we can see the Cascades, and I know the Willamette River is out there about six miles away, flowing north to the Columbia, passing Corvallis where the Marys conjoins the big river. Five miles to the north of us is a ridge line of the Marys watershed, 800 feet higher than the river. Looking due east from our home is a very subtle edge, imperceptible unless the river is in flood stage, that marks the southern boundary of the watershed. The floodplain here is like a plate with only the finest hint of a rim, defined today by a gravel road. In the highest floods we can see the Marys spill over this boundary into another’s country, sending water toward Muddy Creek, taking now a different route to the Willamette. Two hundred years ago this subtle rim was a boundary between the People of two different watersheds, Chepenafa and Chemapho.
The People of the Willamette Valley, the Kalapuya, were a people of rivers. There were ten (perhaps twelve) distinct tribes of Kalapuya, each associated with one of the tributaries flowing from the mountains to the Willamette River. From the north to the south of the Valley, the People were distinguished by three related dialects (somewhat akin to French, Spanish, and Italian). Despite differences in language, all Kalapuya shared a universal purpose and cultural imperative; burn the Valley, so there may be abundance. This they did for more than 40 centuries, stewarding the largest contiguous anthropyrogenic landscape in the Northwest. The purpose was to keep Douglas fir confined to the mountains and some isolated hunting reserves, leaving the Valley floor open as an oak savannah, a productive proto-agricultural landscape with food and material resources for both people and game.
From where we live, looking east and north across the Marys watershed, we are gazing across Chepenafa, “the place to gather elderberries.” This floodplain just below us, now growing organic produce and grazing sheep, was once an expanse of exquisite blue every spring as the plain of blooming camas came into its harvest period, and the People began their yearly food rounds. Seasonal camps to harvest and process the camas root were established each year along the river in sheltering groves. Underground camas ovens were established and tended for months to prepare this essential carbohydrate for storage and trade with other tribes. As the large roots were being dug up and removed for cooking, smaller camas roots were being repositioned to fill empty areas created by harvest. By July, when this largest of harvest tasks was complete, the vegetation was dry enough to set alight, the final step in camas culture. Burning off the camas expanse was probably the first strategic fire of the season, assuring that these areas would remain free of brush and other camas competition. From above, the blackened floodplains of ten rivers and the larger Willamette would have appeared as the first seasonal element of a fire mosaic landscape.
This hill farm that we manage by stirring and planting the earth must have been a seasonal camp for the People of the Marys River. The location is strategic, right above the subtle boundary of two tribes, above the floods of winter, and a food source itself for strawberries, blackberries, serviceberries, yampah root, medicinal Lomatiums, and iris leaves for fine basketry. Our farm rises about 50 feet in elevation before it meets the forest of fir and maple that covers most of this small mountain, a forest that only appeared after the Old People were forced from the land. Settlers called it Strawberry Hill, but no one I know ever refers to it by name. There are no strawberries on it now, just a cell phone tower nestled among the trees at the summit. I’m sure the Kalapuya had a name for it, perhaps, “the place to gather berries and tarweed,” or likely something more personal, or more powerful.
After the floodplain around its base was blackened, the People would have begun their rounds on the grassed flanks of this hillside and others. To call it “grassed” is really to miss the biodiversity fostered by the People who managed this land with fire. More than 50 endemic species of forbs and grasses comprised these upland prairies, perhaps many that were never cataloged before their disappearance into overgrowth. The wealth of food, fiber, and medicinal diversity provided by these uplands is hard to reckon today, when the same slopes are ecological trash heaps of invasive grasses and brush, with nary a native plant to be found. In the time of Chepenafa, these same slopes were fields of harvest that looked like well-kept gardens, flowering in waves of dense color that flagged the best purpose of every location and aspect. Here the lavender Iris tenax as dense as grass, there the soil deep and moist and crowded with graceful yampah, on the driest sites the tarweed as boldly yellow as sunflowers, the big chocolate lilies called rice root for the thousands of tiny offsets around its bulbs, the nodding onions, large seeded Elymus grasses, hazel nuts, three or four Lomatium species that settlers would call “parsnips,” though they were so much more.
Harvesting and processing the wealth of these upland locations was done from seasonal camps, with the food and products being transported periodically to the permanent winter settlements in wooded areas above the river for safe storage. Roots were dug, berries dried, medicine and basketry gathered, all before the ripening of tarweed seed in early August. When tarweed seed (nutritionally similar to sunflowers) was ripe on the plant, the dry hillsides were set ablaze in preparation for its collection. There were a number of important benefits to burning prior to this final, critical, harvest of hillsides. At this point the hills were dry, the ripened tarweed interspersed with the chaff of grasses and seedheads of forbs, and grasshoppers abounded in the heat. The tarweed plant is covered in a sticky resin that entangles aphids and other pests, and would foil attempts to gather the seed en masse. But while this resin is quite flammable, the stems of the plant are resistant to burning or seed shattering, even when afire. The fast moving “grass fire” simultaneously removed all the debris from around the standing tarweed, flared away the sticky resin, roasted the seed (killing the germ, stabilizing the oils), and roasted the grasshoppers, which were easily collected. As soon as the fire passed, the hillsides were covered by long strings of women walking parallel lines. They carried a conical basket reaching to the ground under one arm, a racket-like beating paddle in the other hand batting toasted seedheads into the wide basket mouth.
Toasted tarweed seed, after winnowing and screening, was pounded into an oily high protein seed cake using stone mortars and pestles. This seed cake was as good as money when taken to trading centers. It was compact, long keeping, and nutritionally dense. The Chinook People of the Columbia and lower Willamette were eager to exchange dried salmon for tarweed cake at Willamette Falls, a natural barrier to salmon migration up the Willamette River into Kalapuya lands, and a major trading center between tribes. The importance of camas and tarweed cannot be overstated in the nutrition and economic trading power of the Kalapuya culture.
The end of tarweed harvest would have laid down the second layer of fire mosaic on the landscape. One effect of charring the floodplains and uplands would have been to concentrate deer and grouse into unburned areas where grass, seeds, and browse were still available. Forested islands were left in strategic areas as shelter for game, and to serve as convenient centers for the autumn hunting season. Hunts for deer were regularly performed as a communal enterprise, not surprisingly, involving fire. Large areas of deer shelter would be surrounded by hundreds (perhaps thousands, if the stories are to be believed) of men standing within sight of one another. On signal, fires were set along this perimeter with the intention of herding deer toward a central location where the best bow hunters were waiting along ravines into which the running deer were funneled. The communal slaughter was followed by communal processing of meat into dried jerky and the tanning of hides. These too were valuable items for trade.
After these strategic applications of burning and food gathering were complete, remaining areas were burned to clear pathways and the grounds around open oak “orchards,” comprised of large spreading Oregon white oaks with a parklike spacing. Burning under these fire-resistant trees made acorns easy to gather and eliminated poison oak and other brush species from the understory. By the time rains returned in autumn, the fire mosaic that maintained a culture and its ecosystem had been completed for the year. As geese and other fowl arrived, dropping from the great western flyway to cover the floodplains for winter, the food cycle was complete as well.
The People of Chepenafa were people we would recognize. Aside from the obvious sophistication of their provisioning and economic exchange, their land management and permanent system of river fisheries, they played field ball games and wagered on winners, gambled personally and ran up debts, accumulated wealth, took slaves from non-neighboring tribes (and traded them to others), elected the wealthiest among them to be leaders, divided labor between the sexes, grew and smoked tobacco from hidden gardens, and went on vision quests. To be a Burning Man, one who managed fire, a certain level of power and knowledge had to be acquired through study, trial, and quest. There was no anarchy or room for error in the matters of fire. Fire was a matter of control.
We know very little about the origins of the People of the Willamette Valley. People have been in the Pacific Northwest since the end of the Ice Age, evidenced by a 12,000-year-old spear point embedded in a mastodon rib from the Olympic Peninsula. Some of our most reliable and interesting data related to human activity comes from sediment cores of regional lakes, where pollen leaves a record of plant species diversity and changes. This record clearly shows that the region was originally a dry steppe grazed by now-extinct megafauna. Over time this dry grassland became wetter and more enclosed by forest. The last eruption of Mt. Mazama (now Crater Lake) left a bookmark of ash in this record 7700 years ago, and ushered in a climate regime similar to the present day. An abundance of Douglas fir pollen in the record ensued, and then retreated. Grasses and bracken fern returned to the record, eventually followed by the hallmarks of the savannah ecosystem; oak, hazel, and ash. By this point, charcoal had become a regular part of the sediment record, whereas previously it was more intermittent. This suggests that fire had become a regular occurrence, and that possibly, these fires were anthropogenic. Were they set by Kalapuya people, or their progenitors? We have no way to know but believe the Kalapuya culture and its systematic use of fire were at least 4000 years old. Then the dying began.
Lewis and Clark were not the first white people to visit this place. Trappers were the real European explorers of the Pacific Northwest and the Spanish the first to alight along its coast. With them came smallpox in the 1770s, 30 years before the Corps of Discovery, and then malaria in the 1820s. The People were literally decimated, reduced to 10% of their original population, the culture reduced to a ghost. When white settlers moved in, there was no resistance from the Kalapuya. Burning of the landscape, such as it was by the 1850s, scared the settlers into murderous predispositions. Fire was no friend of theirs. Blatant attempts at genocide by settlers eventually lead to a war effort by the Umpqua People, just south of Kalapuya territory. The eventual treaty that ended this conflict invoked Oregon’s own two Trails of Tears, as the People were forced from their lands west of the Cascades, to march north along the coastal or the Willamette Valley trails to reservations “where they might be safe from attacks of white settlers.”
We find the lasting remains of the People who lived here doing their seasonal work, gathering elderberries and preparing tarweed cake, fashioning obsidian points for grouse, looking out on Chepenafa and its borders. Stirring the earth, we raise up glass flakes and the smoothest of river stones, flattened, rounded, elongate, oily satin in texture, or with the curvature of a mortar. Bits of a way of living that must have seemed eternal. I have no illusions about our permanence here. Our culture is burning this place in ways the Old People would not have recognized. The abundance and balance and diversity are ashes of the past. The sediments are still keeping records of what has become and what has gone. The catastrophic wildfires of 2020 have left a dark line of forest char, an exclamation point, marking two centuries of tenure in a land where we are still strangers. As I scratch around this land, William Faulkner’s quote is always arising, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
Originally published in the 2021 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.