Burning cut benches to convert into char. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.
Burning cut benches to convert into char. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

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California ecologists, indigenous leaders and fire experts will gather in Indian Canyon May 13-15 to teach community members how to revitalize oak woodlands.

Bringing indigenous ecological perspectives to the challenge, a series of hands-on workshops aim to teach participants to improve oak health, lower wildfire risk and restore cultural landscapes that reach back to pre-contact times – all the while strengthening people’s connection to the forest and each other.

Kanyon Sayers-Roods, a native Californian of Mutsun Ohlone and Chumash descent, will be hosting the workshops in Indian Canyon, where she grew up.

Participants performing oak surgery. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.
Participants performing oak surgery. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

A 30-minute drive south of Hollister along windy dusty roads, her ancestral home is a narrow valley cleft deep back into the Gabilan Mountains. Leaving the road’s open sun-baked grasslands and vineyards behind, towering sycamores line the stream banks, while wide-spreading oaks cast deep shade over the canyon bottom’s gentle slopes. Trails winding up into the forest lead to sacred ceremonial glades. Beyond, they rise steeply out of the cool forest into sparse scrub dotted with scattered oaks and pines. 

For thousands of years, Native Americans have tended oak woodlands to maximize their canopy shade, acorn yield and wildfire resilience – practices which continue to this day and which will underpin the upcoming workshops’ teaching. Now called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), the techniques are not just practical but also central to native peoples’ spiritual lives. 

The unique shapes of many wide-spreading oaks in California are the legacy of generations of traditional tree care by native people. Young trees were pollarded and shaped into productive forms much like Americans of European descent tend their own orchards today. The understory was regularly burned to improve the oaks’ health and clear the ground for nut harvesting. 

Acorns are an important staple food crop in native Californian culture, alongside grassland grains, so oak tree care really mattered, and still matters today.

Such traditional practices declined steeply after European colonization. “The history of settler colonialism has deeply impacted our environment and the land that we are on,” Sayers-Roods said. 

Much of the local native population was lost to disease, Spanish missionization, American gold-rush era militias and migration driven by modern economic pressures. Fearing for their lives and faced with discrimination and assimilation under American rule, many remaining native people hid their languages and culture.

In Indian Canyon, traditional practices continued around homesteads on the canyon floor – but the outlying forest and steep-sided slopes are now overgrown with highly flammable young California Bay and Gray Pine surrounding the veteran oaks. 

The risk of catastrophic fire in the canyon is high and growing by the year. “It’s a tinderbox,” Sayers-Roods said.

To help restore the canyon’s oak woodlands, Sayers-Roods has been working with Lee Klinger, an independent forest ecologist. After 20 years of academic research, he spent another two decades drawing on native elders’ stories, landscape clues and ecological science to learn how to bring oak woodlands back to health. 

Setting fires that burn gently along the ground helps to heal the oaks by releasing nutrients, lowering soil acidity and limiting insect pests. The smoke discourages parasitic mosses and lichens. Gentle fire is the foundation of traditional oak woodland management. 

But most forests are so overgrown that any fire would quickly get out of control. It takes time to make forests safe for gentle fire, and this may never be possible in suburban areas. In these situations, Klinger uses “fire mimicry” techniques to simulate the missing fire’s healing effects. Under the banner “Sudden Oak Life”, his small crew travels Central California readying oak woodlands for the return of gentle fire, and healing oak trees in need of help.

In recent years, Klinger and Sayers-Roods have held afternoon oak tending workshops at the bottom of Indian Canyon. Those oaks’ health has rebounded in the years following treatment, their canopies filling out and casting deeper shade over the forest floor.

Then, last November and December, a much larger group of around 60 people were brought together for the first time. They camped out under the oaks on the canyon floor for four days of workshops and work parties.

Gathering circle where Kanyon Sayers-Roods talked about TEK, the importance of ceremony lectures and demonstrations were presented. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.
Gathering circle where Kanyon Sayers-Roods talked about TEK, the importance of ceremony lectures and demonstrations were presented. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

The gathering was organized by EcoCamp Coyote, a community group based in Morgan Hill and led by Leo Lauchere and Ero Gorski. Their vision, Lauchere said, was “to bring people together who want to heal the earth, to see them befriending each other and making connections – who knows what the ripples will be.” 

Over one three-day workshop in November, Klinger taught oak woodland ecology, clearing the flammable scrub around oaks for fire safety, and boosting their health by fertilizing the soil and surgically removing infections. Meanwhile, Sayers-Roods explored indigenous worldviews and led attendees in ceremonies to nurture their relationship with the land.

In a follow-up one-day workshop in December, Jared Childress of the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association taught how to safely burn off the cleared brush in piles – with CalFire in attendance.

Scaling up the workshops holds the promise of bringing large areas of the canyon back into active stewardship, reducing catastrophic wildfire risk and improving oak health – whilst also bringing oak care culture to a much wider audience across Central California. 

For Jessica Perez, director of BirdHouse Community Garden in Los Angeles – “Oaks are one of my favorite trees. [The workshops] made me realize that there’s a personal relationship that I can develop, that now allows me to tend for the trees that I love so much.”

Throughout the event, Sayers-Roods guided attendees to better understand the history and worldview of indigenous Mutsun Ohlone people in the canyon, especially their relationship to the land. Mutsun culture holds the land, its ecosystems, and fire itself, as sacred.

“We are in relation to our environment. We are taking time to steward these areas and we’re touching the Earth and we are respecting fire. We are not scared of it. We are establishing a healthy relationship with fire,” Sayers-Roods said.

Opening the first workshop, Sayers-Roods led a ceremony that encouraged everyone to acknowledge and improve their relationships with the land, wildlife and their own ancestors – whilst deeply considering the effects of our actions today on future generations.

“This is a way that community comes together to learn, and it is exciting because we started today in ceremony”, Sayers-Roods said. “We grounded ourselves in a circle. We set our intentions and we had a land acknowledgement and we opened up with songs. My mother and my grandmother have always taught me when song, ceremony and dancing stops, so does the Earth. And working with fire is ceremony.”

Ruth Orta, an Ohlone and Miwok elder, also shared stories of her ancestral family history and younger generations, while she demonstrated traditional methods of acorn processing for food. 

Missionization and disease depopulated woodlands during Spanish occupation, and many TEK practices were banned. As the Mexican and American occupations further decimated native populations, some ranchers did continue regular burning – but on a different schedule. By the early 20th century, this one remaining echo of traditional land management had been outlawed – marking the start of modern fire suppression and escalating catastrophic fire risks.

As a result, Klinger explained, oak woodland ecology has shifted dramatically.

Participants clearing the understory shrubs for pile burning. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.
Participants clearing the understory shrubs for pile burning. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

Understory shrubs have proliferated, allowing wildfires to jump into the tree canopy and kill the oaks. Pines, mosses and lichens have moved in, acidifying soils and depleting essential nutrients – such as calcium for healthy bark. California Bay trees grow up and shade out the oaks.

As the bark cracks from lack of calcium, the trees are vulnerable to infection from microbes like Phytopthera ramorum, leaving discolored cankers on the trunk. They ooze a tell-tale black goo which trails down like blood from a wound. The infection is often the final stage in the lethal affliction of oaks known as Sudden Oak Death.

“People call me and they can’t understand why their oaks are dying, they go ‘Look I have all these oaks, I haven’t done anything to them, why are they dying?’ And it’s because they haven’t done anything. Oaks need tending. Doing nothing is not an option.” Klinger said.

Understory brush is first cleared with chainsaws and hand tools, then piled ready for burning later. The soil is fertilized by dusting a layer of white ash and lime under the tree canopy, and spraying a concoction of compost tea.

Scaping moss and applying lime got healthy Oaks. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.
Scaping moss and applying lime got healthy Oaks. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

Cankers on the trunk are stripped back with hatchets, chipping away the outer sapwood to reveal how deep the black infection reaches. If they’re unlucky, a pulse of foul-smelling pus bursts out of the trunk and drenches the workers. Once the black is gone and healthy red tissue shines back through, the flamethrowers come out to cauterize the wound and promote healing.   

The trunk is given a thorough brush down for mosses and lichens, and painted with limewash to bring much-needed calcium to heal the oak’s bark. The resulting white sock can be seen in orchards all over the world. It also protects the trunk from sunburn and marauding insects.

Weili King, a 30-year-old from Berkeley, said “It doesn’t have to be so complex or requiring excessive industrial tools. It can be done with people coming together who care and simple things we can find in home improvement stores. We can bring together these ingredients to create medicine for our forests.”

Klinger hopes the training will help spawn more small businesses and communities dedicated to taking care of the oaks. “There’s so many trees that need help. I can’t take care of them all. We need a whole army of people doing this if we are going to make a difference.”

Debbie Sabo, a school garden teacher in Los Gatos is ready to take up the challenge. “When I go back to school I hope to care for the oaks and mimic fire … I teach about 100 students there. We’ll spread the minerals and we’ll do the compost tea and we’ll do the limewash.”

Once the oaks have been tended to, workers return to burn off the left over wood piles. 

With California’s forests so loaded with dead wood, however, a careless fire lit at the wrong time could set off a catastrophic blaze. In a followup workshop last December, Jared Childress taught attendees how to plan burns for safe weather conditions, comply with air quality permits, build the piles, clear the perimeter, and finally light them in a safe way.

Jay Ryan from Aptos found the burn invigorating. “I was excited to learn about proper brush fire management, building fires and especially learning in a special place like this with the traditional knowledge associated with it … It’s cool to do it, learning extra safety procedures and with the community.”

Thomas Price traveled down from Karuk Oregon with Jonathan Kabat from Hotlum Eco-Regeneration Camp. They demonstrated a portable kiln that converts waste wood cuttings into char. Spread on the forest floor, the particles lock up carbon from the atmosphere and help soils hold more water.

The long-term goal, Klinger said “is to eventually make all this fire mimicry work obsolete. So we don’t need to go in and do all this heavy clearing … We can eventually use fire to manage this whole landscape.”

After four days of teaching, learning, work parties, ceremony and socializing in the canyon, it wasn’t just the oaks left in better health – the people also came away with a sense of hope, peace and connection. 

Georgia Crowley, a 23-year old from Santa Cruz said “It’s easy to become hopeless, and to become stuck, to lose focus of the bigger picture and importance of life and what we need to be doing. But then when you just think about solutions that can actually help other living beings, and help us … It’s so inspiring, and motivational.”

Klinger finds inspiration in teaching the youth. “The younger generation is our greatest hope … I find young people these days, even adolescents, that know more about what’s going on in the forest than I did until I was thirty or forty. So I’m definitely quite enthused about training the next generation.”

The upcoming workshop on May 13-15 will continue to build on progress made last year. “Cheers to getting more people involved, to expanding it, to having fun and learning together, taking action together and connecting”, Lauchere said.