Fire Stories

When I was a kid, my dad read me the book “Ishi in Two Worlds”.

I’ve never forgotten that book.

I’ve read it once or twice since, but it is not the same as that first reading.

A child’s mind does not hear stories and draw pictures in the same way an adult’s mind does.

I have certain images from Ishi’s life well planted in my memory and they remain very powerful to me. When my dad and I joined the Y Indian Guides we named our tribe the Yahi, after Ishi’s tribe. My Indian name was Flaming Arrow and my Dad’s name was Straight Arrow. We made necklaces out of beads and fake eagle talons, we burned our names on leather circles which we wore around our necks, we beat a drum in the style of a stereotypical Indian. I was so stressed about having to beat the drum when we handed it around in a circle- I almost had some kind of panic attack. But the kid just before me beat on the drum and broke the skin. So to my great relief I never had my turn.

Of course Ishi’s tribe never did any of those things. I think Y-Indian Guides has gone the way of other well-intentioned but rather insensitive institutions. It did present a positive view of Native-Americans, even though they were romanticized and inaccurate views.

As I remember the story of Ishi and his tribe; it was a small band living in the rugged foothills of the Sierra’s near Mt Lassen. The summers were very hot and the winters cold enough to snow. Who knows how long they had lived there because they left few marks. They lived only off the plants and animals of their small range, they walked barefoot along the river rocks catching fish. They made their own bows and arrows to hunt deer and I imagine they knew the uses of all the plants in their range. When they first made contact with the new settlers it did not go well. Most of the tribe was killed by the new settlers as these new settler’s began to encroach on the range of the Yahi tribe. (My own ancestors were part of the horde of new settlers in California, not in the Yahi range but at the same time.) Sometimes the tribe fought back by threatening and sometimes killing one or two of the settlers. But it was a losing battle for the small tribe and they knew it. When only a small band was left they went into hiding, trying to stay completely clear of the settlers and hiding all signs of their existence in this remote canyon land. Ishi was only a child when this occurred, so he had no memory of life before the conflicts. The small band of Yahi became smaller and smaller until only three or four remained including Ishi, who was one of the youngest.

These memories of my dad reading me stories are from the time when I was about 10 and are more distinct then my memories of Paradise.  My memories from Paradise have a more dreamlike quality (we moved from there when I was five). Our small living room there on Hickory Way is still filled with my very young and very foggy memories. The sound of my Mom using the Kirby vacuum first started feeling calming to me in that room. That is where I first asked her if people ever die and if I would die one day, and if she would die one day. It was a place I remember watching particles of dust floating in a beam of sunlight. Wondering what if each one of the particles contains a world unto itself. Microscopic people unaware that they are floating around in another much larger world. Maybe we are just microscopic people floating around on our speck that we call Earth in someone else’s beam of light.

What is this thing we call life?

Is it a story wherein we merely play our given rolls?

Or is it a dream in which we are the dreamer?

The child moves from the dream to the defined. The child never doubts reality- of course it is all very real- and the wildness is all very real. The child believes that a thing can happen. 

The adult moves from the defined, back towards the dream. It is only as we age that we wonder where the boundaries of the dreams are drawn. And the wildness is lost forever. The adult knows that a thing can not happen.  

Some of my earliest memories are of staring in a fire and thinking. My dad lit fires on the property on Sunset Way there in Paradise, he used it to burn the leaves and brush near the house. I used to imagine things happening in the fire- dramatic events of tiny people reacting to the fire. I guess it was kind of a waking dream. And I still have those at times when I am half way between sleep and waking. I can direct them to some degree but not completely. I still think watching the flame of a fire brings me into a kind of dream state and so this is why I have titled these stories- “Fire Stories”. 





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