Does the word that just popped into your head show up here? Find out:

13 October, 2014

Trails and Fires

Lately, there's a lot more going on at the photo blog than here, and the dominant subject has been fire. This shot, for instance, appeared there. But tumblr's not the place to get into too much depth, and it ends up with a bunch of pretty pictures, scrolled through too fast to tell a story.

Like in the shot above. The dark line up the middle? It's a single rut, a foot or two wide and stretching across the meadow, where a controlled burn consumed an obscuring mantle of grass. Tomorrow, I head back to the office, where I'll see whether this rut matches up with a trail mapped in the 19th Century, which pretty much matches up with the route that Wenatchi people have always followed. Of course, the rut might be more modern, or just used by elk, or a meltwater channel. None of which, it should be noted, is mutually exclusive of a horse trail, and before that, horseless human trail; culture and nature meander and mingle.

At some point, I'll post about the (f)utility of post-fire archaeological survey in terms of finding artifacts, but for now just let me say that fire sure lights up larger features like trails. The above tree is obviously odd, growing gnarlier than a Ponderosa pine should. But in a lot of situations, foliage obscures the the blazed bark or modified trunks that mark historic and ancient trails. After a fire, the unusual trees stick out a much greater distances, and survey becomes easier. If you're really on a trail, you can often see the next marker. If you're really on a trail, you should not be seeing a bunch of similar tree-forms off to the sides. Last week, I followed what seemed to be a trail marked by a series of big stumps that survived the fire.

Many stumps do survive wildfires, and one of the most eye-opening things about doing survey in fire's wake is that the intensity can vary so much. Entire trees up in ash here, forests reduced to black spars there, but somewhere else the fire skipped along lightly. Like in this shot, where a grassy slope has islets of burnt bushes and spot fires, but the game trails where vegetation is tramped down failed to burn. Or the next shot, which shows vehicle tracks running through another controlled burn area.

Archaeologically, these glimpses snatched from the flames inspire and depress. We can see so much, but it will be hidden again in months, dragged back into obscurity in a few growing seasons. Though the weather will wash away down hill some of the traces, though creatures will stir things up, yet still will traces of trails remain sandwiched in soil. Today, I can discern cowpaths among a lace of deer trails. Today, I can tell where the engine trucks were deployed, where the pick-ups parked, and where the ATVs ranged during a controlled prairie burn. Tomorrow (in archaeological time), it will be impossible or insanely expensive to dig up that kind of information.

Meanwhile, I'll scope out what I can of fires both intentional and wild, looking for trails and the places they went to. Probaby the most common sights are bottles, cans, and campfire rings, all of which prefer to hide under plants and leaf litter. Sure, a lot of these sit right next to roads still travelled, but keep in mind that some of those roads follow older trails. The empty beer bottles in the fire pit along a road long abandoned can give you a good idea of when the road was in use. The obvious glint of glass might also lead to less visible but highly informative artifacts, objects that pinpoint the period or tell tale of activity beyond drinking and hunting. There is almost never anything that a non-archaeologist would value in any way, but camp-trash can help trace trails, especially when fire intervenes to lift the veil.

When under that veil lies a trail, I feel like I've found something worthwhile. Archaeology, learning about how people have lived on the land (rather than the treasures they accumulated that may be more interesting on a photo blog or National Geographic), benefits from mapping where they traveled. And fire helps archaeologists salvage from the devastation more than they normally could.

No comments:

Post a Comment