On the day we planned to send out an email announcement about a Yosemite backpacking pilgrimage we had extensively planned for Fall 2018, we got news of a wildfire exploding to the west of Yosemite National Park. In the two weeks since then, the Ferguson Fire has burned over 40,000 acres and is a quarter contained. Like so many wildfires on the West Coast, this one is fueled by California’s record-breaking heating climate, an invasive bark beetle-infested and drought-starved dying forest, and decades of misguided fire suppression strategies that have left dry timber and underbrush ready to burn across the state.
On a personal level, we (Noël and Fletcher) have become overly familiar with wildfire, and natural disasters in general. We have lived through three fires in our home-places in the last five years: Big Sur’s 2013 Pfeiffer fire and 2016 Soberanes fire, followed by Ojai’s Thomas fire this winter of 2017/2018, the latter which started up a month after we moved there with the explicit intention of avoiding another Big Sur winter landslide season!
We can’t seem to escape fire, so what does it mean to turn toward it? For us, it has meant feeling into the collective loss, grief and trauma of catastrophic climate change, and the heartbreaking reality that rampant, uncontrollable wildfires are the new norm in California. It has meant questioning how we can be in service to a new human paradigm, one in which humans are a reparative and beneficial force of nature. We launched Wildtender this winter as the ashes were still falling from Ojai’s fire.
Allow us to further weave the story of Wildtender and wildfire...
John Muir and many of the early non-native visitors to California mistakenly interpreted the land as a paradise unaltered by man. In reality, Muir was exploring a wildtended paradise (a case made powerfully by M. Kat Anderson in Tending the Wild, the inspiration for our name Wildtender). The Sierras were once (and hopefully will be again) land actively stewarded for the reciprocal benefit of countless lifeforms. Yosemite Valley was shaped with extraordinary long-sightedness and intention for thousands of years by the Ahwahnechee people, who called the land Ahwahne. Their wildtending approach included frequent and controlled burns, which rejuvenated the soil and oak ecology, created habitat for larger animals, opened up hunting and foraging grounds, promoted biodiversity, improved the overall health of forests, and prevented large uncontrollable fires from occuring.
In our view, John Muir and many of the conservationists that followed him were the unfortunate inheritors of a Western worldview that is predicated on the myth that humanity is separate from and above nature. In its most destructive manifestation, this illusion of separateness leads to the brutal extraction and pollution of the natural world. In the case of conservation philosophy, it manifests in the opposite duality, as a well-meaning ambition to keep wilderness “pristine”, and to achieve this by removing human beings as inhabitants of wild places. Muir’s instinct to preserve Yosemite lands by creating the National Park in 1890 was understandable given the damage that white settlers had already done in just a few decades of sheep grazing and development of the area. However, the displacement of the Ahwahneechee people from the area was a tragic violation of both the land and its original people, with consequences that continue to ripple into the present, as with the Ferguson fire.
Inspired by the native people who stewarded California for milenia, and by the important work of wisdom carriers such as M. Kat Anderson and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, we organize Wildtender group programs because of the urgent need for all human beings to come alive and come together in our beloved natural places. To collectively reject the destructive forces of colonialism that exploit and inevitably oppress all life. To step into our true power as change agents and stewards of this planet by untangling the social conditioning that has alienated us from our direct relationship with the Earth. To turn toward the seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges that avarice and ignorance have wrought. To not allow our love for wild nature to be diminished by her perilous condition. And to renew old promises that were made by our respective ancestors to care for this Earth, reinvesting in traditional ecological knowledge and practices developed over so many millennia.
Wildtender’s mission is tending inner and outer wilderness. We believe that building relationship with one's self and the natural world leads to a self-generated mandate to protect and tend the wild places we love. To summon the energy needed to defend and tend a place, we must love it first. To love anyone or anything, with any depth, we must establish intimacy. This is where Wildtender lives and plays, in the sacred work of re-establishing intimacy with human beings and the Wild.
Assuming the Ferguson Fire dies down and the smoke clears in the next two months, Wildtender will embark on a multi-day trek through the sacred Yosemite (Ahwahne) Valley from September 29 to October 5. We will journey mindfully to connect with ourselves and this sacred landscape which is always changing and calls out for our sincere awareness, connection, and care – as do our deep inner selves. Our pilgrimage will afford many opportunities for rich discussion about fire ecology, climate change, and stewardship, as well as immersion in the many natural delights that this incomparable landscape generously offers our animal senses.
More program information about our upcoming Wildtender Yosemite Pilgrimage can be found here.