A few weeks ago I took my yearly pilgrimage into the Gila wilderness. The remoteness and wildness of this place always fills me with awe and reminds me of my own nature. On the way in we passed a big wildfire. The wind was blowing away from us and so we had a clear view of the soft gray plumes rising above the tree line.
After arriving at our campsite, we quickly set up camp and headed to the hot spring pools for an evening soak. I had seen Allen, the campground host, making his way around, talking to each camper and asking them questions- partly to get a feel for who they were, and partly because he just seemed like a curious and friendly guy. By the time he made his way to me and my friend as we floated around in the warm waters, the sun was setting and the light was silhouetting his tall angular frame against the western sky.
He asked us a few questions about where we were from and what we did, and we chatted a bit about our connection to the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque. After some light translating about what Ayurveda is, we all found ourselves agreeing that natural healing methods are the best healing methods.
Our minds were still preoccupied by the fire, so we asked him a few questions about it. It was burning about 5 miles away but you’d never know it since the sky was so clear. He confirmed that we didn’t have anything to worry about, since the winds were blowing in our favor. My friend asked him about if wildfire had ever come through the area where the campground was.
“Not often” he said pointing to the surrounding cliffs, “Rock doesn’t burn.” This area did feel very protected, nestled in the valley alongside the west branch of the Gila River.
He went on to tell us about the one time it did burn, in 2011. Apparently he had been out of town, telling us that he got called in by the forest service to help alert the locals when they discovered the fire was threatening that area. (I looked it up later and found out that the fire was called the Miller Fire and was caused by humans- almost certainly by accident.)
Allen is probably in his 70’s and has spent most of his life out here. He had experience fighting fire in this area and stressed how essential it was to know the land well in order to be able to predict what the fires will do there.
When the fire approached the nearby Gila Cliff Dwellings monument, the State sent in reinforcements from neighboring cities to help contain it. Allen went on to tell us that the fire near the monument became so powerful that at one point all of the fighters moved back into the safety zone of the adjacent parking lot. All expect 8. The eight fighters who stayed were a team of Apaches.
“Those guys don’t run.” He said in a steady tone, holding my gaze.
They stayed with the massive fire and put it out. Eight men.
“What did they use to fight the fire with?” I asked, in wonder.
“Juniper branches.” He said with a smile in his voice.
My jaw dropped and I looked at my friend in disbelief. “You’re kidding.” I say, trying to get a little more out of him.
“We had to give those guys credit.” He said, and they did. “Those men walked around that night ten feet tall.” Noting as an aside that the forest service hadn’t gone out of their way to acknowledge them.
The Gila wilderness is Apache land. It’s probably due to the presence of these fierce and wise people that the land itself was able to stay wild for so long and remains in such a pristine state today. I’ve always felt the presence of wise ancestors here, and after this talk I realized that this is largely due to the Apaches also. You must love a place to protect it. You must become a part of the land itself to be able to do what those eight Apache firefighters were able to do.
In the wake of all the changes to our climate and feeling the tremors of more changes to come, I am reminded that our connection and intimacy with the land we are on will be our salvation and will unlock the solutions to the problems we are facing. Several years ago I heard a small voice within me repeating “Indigenous wisdom will save us.” and I knew it was true.
This story of the Apache fighters gilds that phrase in a new light for me and I find myself bowing deeper to the whispers of the ancestors, and to the treasure of the presence of Native people here. May we listen to them, give thanks for them, and do everything we can in these coming chapters to heed their advice and honor the wisdom they still carry. The wisdom of the land itself.