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What made the hollowed out ‘fire trees’ of the Tongass? An artist turns investigator to find an answer

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: June 23
  • Published June 23

The Mystery of the Fire Trees of Southeast Alaska

By Mary Ida Henrikson. Epicenter Press. 88 pages. 2017. $16.95

Sprinkled throughout the Tongass National Forest in Alaska's Southeast Panhandle are giant cedar trees with hollowed out cores at their bases. Big enough to walk into, and showing evidence of heavy fire and smoke on their inner surfaces, the chambers in these trees are the sort of thing that hikers are naturally drawn to. Just to stand inside an enormous old growth tree is reason enough to enter these broad openings, and even better, they can provide quick cover during one of the region's notoriously heavy rainfalls.

But how did they get there?

Mary Ida Henrikson, a nationally recognized artist who grew up in Ketchikan and still calls the area home, only recently pondered the reasons for their presence. Early on in her book, "The Mystery of the Fire Trees of Southeast Alaska," she writes:

“The Mystery of the Fire Trees of Southeast Alaska,” by Mary Ida Henrikson

"When I was young, I discovered a charred chamber inside a tall red cedar, where it was impossible to resist entering and looking out the entrance at yet another vista, another point of view. Yet, perhaps because the whole forest is so mysterious, I failed to question or wonder about the singular origins of that burned relic. And in the decades to follow — beachcombing, living remotely, and walking animal trails — I never really thought about other burned cedar chambers. Lightning strikes, I casually assumed — just lightning striking the cedars."

She continues, "So, late in life, when a friend told me the Natives had stored their fire in those burned-out trees, I was surprised. I had never heard of 'fire trees' in my decades of living here. I had not found a single reference in academic literature or in any nineteenth-century text. Was this something the anthropologists had missed?"

Henrikson learned of the apparent purpose of the trees from her friend Snapper Carson, who was bringing cedar siding to her cabin via skiff. Noticing one of the trees on her property, he told her, "That's where the Natives stored their fire." It turned out Carson's father had long ago learned of the trees being used as a place to maintain fires for needed uses from an elderly Tsimshian man. Apparently it was an art lost well before the 20th century dawned, but some cultural memory of it had persisted into that century's early decades. Henrikson was astonished. "Storing fire," she thought, "was just about the most counterintuitive idea I had ever heard in this damp and dripping forestscape."

From that lone conversation Henrikson became obsessed, and one result is this brief but fascinating and colorfully illustrated book, wherein she attempts to tease out the purposes fire trees might have served for the Native inhabitants of Southeast Alaska before Europeans arrived and upended their cultures and practices.

Henrikson postulates that fire trees served two primary purposes for Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. The first was to provide a dry location where fires could be kindled from the core and grown for cooking and keeping warm. The chambers are often big enough for small groups of people to fit in them, indicating that they likely were gathering places when the weather turned inclement.

In seeking out the trees, however, Henrikson came upon something interesting. Some are located near shorelines where there were settlements. This supports the idea that they were used for keeping fires as needed. Others, however, are high atop islands or ridges. These are not places where cooking and social activities commonly took place. Henrikson's theory here is that these trees were used as navigational aids. In a place where most travel was by water, and where storms could rush in with little notice, Henrikson believes the trees set on high ground in locations visible from waterways were essentially lighthouses that could guide Native mariners on their way.

It's an interesting idea, and credence is added by the fact that fire trees at higher elevations are often found in clusters of two or three, which would have had the added benefit of amplifying the light that was given off, particularly in deep winter.

Henrikson's artistic side also comes into play. Through careful examination of her photographs of the trees, she noticed that totemic images could be seen in them. This prompted a series of five paintings of a single tree that she made and included in the book. The first four show the tree in the four seasons, rendered with rich colors and subtle mystical elements that she restrains until the fifth image, where she lets her visions of what the trees meant run freely across the canvas. It's a wild, somewhat chaotic and highly imaginative scene.

Henrikson ruminates on other purposes the trees might have served, including rites of passage for young adults, shamanism and even astronomy. She also discovered that some of the fire trees are actually two or three trees that were bound together when small so that they grew into each other. This would indicate planning for eventual use long after the deaths of those who first tied the trees.

Henrikson's background is in art, not anthropology or archaeology, so she doesn't bring to this subject a clinical scientific approach. As far as she knows, no one with those credentials has yet looked into fire trees. What she does bring is her artist's eye for details, her deep knowledge of the region from having spent most of her life living in it, and her willingness to put together the pieces of what she found from locating numerous trees to reach conclusions that make a lot of sense.

She also has tremendous enthusiasm for the topic, which spills out into her writing in a way that will make the average reader want to don a raincoat and a pair of Xtratufs and head for the dense forests of the Inside Passage in search of these trees (steer clear of culturally sensitive locations if you do go looking). With a little luck, an archaeologist will read this book and go in the same direction. This is a subject worthy of intensive study.

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