Steve was the first person to show me how to start a chainsaw. When he came over after the clearing was done he might have regretted it. I remember him looking around and then down, kicking the dirt with his boot.
Lonnie and I had taken down 4 acres of mature forest in 5 days. Trees were stacked on top of each other like a box of matches dumped on the floor. Some piles reached up to 20 feet in the air. He would tell me later how quickly you learn, cutting a tree down is only the beginning of the work.
1814, 1826, 1837, 1848.
Carson is showing me a core sample from a Garry Oak snag. He reads the fire marks in the growth rings, naming each year a fire came through.
Point Disney, where Carson got the sample, is one of the only micro-climates that grows Garry Oak in the San Juans. The half square mile area sits at the edge of a cliff three hundred feed above the sea. A summer home for the Salish people, Point Disney was cultivated for Camas and the Native Tiger Lilly bulbs.
"You can see the fire rates are every 10-11 years," Carson says.
"So you're saying these were planned?" I ask. He nods.
I was working at the Bensel’s farm three days a week the fall I made the clearing. In the afternoons on harvest days we’d talk as we washed and packed boxes for market. One day I asked Steve and Linnea about Peter Gale, the man who’d homesteaded just below my property eighty years ago. Peter’s garden was a small legend on the island they said, a spot that seemed to grow anything without much care.
“My guess is Peter’s garden was an old Camas patch,” Steve says. “You just don’t see ground naturally that dark.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. Steve and Linnea looked at each other.
“The natives burned their Camas patches,” Linnea said. She talked about how the Camas bulbs lived 6 inches below the top soil, far enough away for fire heat not to reach. The natives would burn, creating room and fertility for Camas to thrive.
“Did they just start a forest fire?” I asked.
“Something like that,” Steve said. “We don’t really know.”
“What made it black?”