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It's All About Fire: A Talk With Lois Conner Bohna

Lois Conner Bohna, "The Acorn Lady," is a North Fork Mono artist and cultural educator who lives and works in Coarsegold, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We spoke with her during our filming of Tending The Wild. This is a partial transcript of that conversation.

What is a cultural burn?

A cultural burn is a fire that you set on purpose. Last February, we didn't get a drop of rain. What a waste, because we should have been burning, but you can't burn because [the Forest Service] doesn't want you to, you can get in a lot of trouble setting the woods on fire, especially for a cultural burn.

What is the importance of cultural burning?

Fire is so beneficial to us; [it] creates new life. You've got the fire and then before too long, you've got new life springing up almost immediately. Fire and water, they're inseparable. If we could have a fire, it [would] bring the springs back, the water level comes up, so the springs hold more water. You've got to have fire. Water alone won’t do the trick.

I remember where there used to be sedge growing, and then we'd come back a year later and those plants had disappeared. I've watched the environment change in many places all because of water.

The meadows and the high country are the big [issue], that's the thing we really want to protect and we've got encroachment, those trees they just grow in on the meadow. They just keep growing and growing and growing and before you know it the meadow's gone. It's changed from meadow to forest land, so it's very subtle and everywhere you go in the high country you see it happening, so it's pretty sad. Fire alleviates all that.

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Lois Conner Bohna | Photo: KCET

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What effects do fire suppression and tree overpopulation have on on the land?

Our environment is out of balance. Not only are plants are out of balance, but the animals are out of balance… This land is, I hate to say it, but [it’s] pretty much dead. My grandmas and aunties taught me how everything needs to be in balance. Your body is in balance, you have two eyes, two arms, two feet, two kidneys, everything in your body is in balance.

My grandmother used to keep a set of clippers in her apron when she went out and walked around. She would look at her environment and say, "That tree doesn't belong there," and she'd cut it off. There are literally thousands of little bitty of cedar trees coming up. My grandmother would have never let that happen, never. She took care of her environment. She couldn't burn very often. She'd burn little brush piles but she said, "Honey, we just can't burn like we used to." She said our trees are sick because we can't burn.  If your equilibrium gets off you aren't moving forward too long, you're going to be falling over.

Watch the Cultural Burning segment of Tending The Wild

Like right now, you see all these dead cedar trees down there. If a fire started over on the highway and came this way, I hate to say it, but you're going to get very warm because these trees are going to torch and they're going to kill all these black oak trees. It's going to be unstoppable unless they've got a DC-10 up there, then they can stop it.

Live oak? That tree will burn green. When it gets dry in the summer, it doesn't burn, it explodes because it has so much oil in it, in the leaves, it literally explodes. Most of these hillsides around here are all live oak. In the town of Oakhurst, people have got their houses built under live oak trees. The potential for disaster is unbelievable. You tell them to cut them down, [and they say] "it's green, it won't burn." They just won't listen.

I think our environment is just about to tip over, and that's really really sad. When I say tip over it's all going to get destroyed by fire. Wildfires just destroy, they kill. But try having this conversation with the Forest Service, then you hear a lot of snickering going on in the room.

How does the forest agency feel about cultural burning? What are the effects not having cultural burns?

The oak trees are going to go away. We have got to get our spiritual act together and start showing our appreciation, but our hands are tied because we have to answer to the Forest Service if they say "no burning." They wasted a beautiful February. Not a drop of rain in February. You ask them, why didn't you burn? “Burning costs a lot of money. Burning is expensive.” My travel chairman, Ron Goode, he's managed to get some grants and we've done some restoration and some burning. Not much.

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Lois Connner Bohna peels acorns. | Photo: KCET 

What's the importance of oak trees and acorns in your culture?

What we care about is our oak trees. That was our staff of life. Everything pretty much revolves around the oak tree. And, acorns unite people to me, it’s a sacred food. It's just fantastic for the human body. It's one of the healthiest foods you can eat.

It is difficult to find acorns because the trees are unhealthy and there’s competition from other trees taking their water. There are five of us in the North Fork area that gather acorns and we can't even find enough for ourselves at this point. You've got all this duff on the ground, the bugs are just horrible and as soon as the acorns come on, the bugs just attack the trees.

A long time ago, there were more oak trees. A lot have died. A lot. We don't know what to do, but Mother Nature is trying to take care of herself by killing off these extra trees that don't belong here to help out. As I said earlier, my grandmas would not allow their environment to look this way. They're going to eat or cut trees, prune them. When they would go through, they're going to burn. Their number one thing was their oak trees. That sustained not only them but the squirrels and the squirrels provide for the other animals. Everything was in balance a long time ago. Now, it is totally out of balance. So, it all comes back to fire. You've got to get the ground burned and it's got to be a slow fire that's not going to kill the tree. I look at it to protect the oak trees.

How is fire important to basketweavers?

Fire keeps the grounds and our environment clean. Fire is to keep the plants healthy, so they can keep growing more materials for us to use. It's a win-win situation for the plant and for us, because we keep the plants healthy.

When you remove fire, every plant is affected by it, and especially we as basket weavers, we are totally dependent upon the land for all or our materials. We can't go down to Michael’s and buy all of our basket materials. We can't. We need a full year, full cycle to gather our materials, most of our basket materials are gathered in the fall. Without [fire], you're not going to have the materials for your basket, because you've got all straight sticks in here that have to come from fire.

How did you become a basketweaver?

Aunt Rosalie Bethel taught me how to weave. I learned from several people, but she taught me just enough to be dangerous. I went and gathered materials with her for years. I was her "gofer" for probably eight years. I was gathering all these materials and I would dig trenches for her, move sand for her. She taught me all the materials to gather and my grandma was very happy. My mother's mother did not weave. She was a horse person like me. She was up on a horse and gone. Her mom tried to make a basket weaver out of there when she was a girl — nope, she'd jump on her horse and run. Rosalie taught me a lot, but, see, I wasn't her direct line. Your grandma or your mom is supposed to teach you. And she had a daughter she was teaching. She did help me get going and then she said "Good luck."

My Aunt Rosalie would say that for us, a woman is full of baskets that need to be born, they're waiting to come out. The California Indian Basketweavers' Association was wonderful. I learned so much from those ladies, just watching them and interacting with them. But the spirit taught me more than anything else.  

Your gambling trays are very valuable pieces. How long does it take to make one?

It takes twelve months. Almost to the day. [It] represents sequestering myself from friends, family, eight to ten hours a day, in a room, sitting in a chair, working on a basket. It's hard on the fingers, hard on the back, shoulders. It'll beat you up pretty good. I always tell the buyer a year because some time during that year, I've got to stop and go gather materials when the season rolls around, whether it's redbud, deer grass, but sedge is what you need the most of.

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Photo: KCET

Can you tell us what part of the basket that the redbud's used for?

It's the string. All the pattern you see, that's all redbud. Redbud string. What we do is we get the long new shoots, you score them with your wihi on the end, your knife, you put one side in your mouth and the other side you pull with your hands and you split it right down the middle, and then you turn it around and you split out the inner bark until you have string. I have some redbud string up at the car and I'll show you, but you need long shoots, no forks. What do you see here [on an unburned redbud]? Nothing but forks. And you see old wood? Redbud is supposed to be red. You can see the color on here, how pretty and red it is. That's the color the new shoots are. When they get old, they turn brown like this. There's absolutely nothing here that's usable. Nope, even the short stuff's got forks in it.

I haven't gathered off of this bush. What I did is I just ripped it with a chainsaw, and I'll leave a big tall one in the middle and so I just rip them with a chainsaw and they'll come back pretty good, because I can't burn. The only thing I got is a chainsaw. It does okay, but when you've got a drought they don't get enough water, and there is a fungus growing on all the redbud here at the ranch. Some kind of moldy stuff that causes the bark to come off. Fire would fix that too. It's all about fire. Fire is the nucleus, really. It is.

Banner: new, straight growth on a western redbud | Photo: Debbie Ballentine, some rights reserved 

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.