The Ancient Native American Practice of Remineralization
Dr. Lee Klinger is an independent scientist living in Big Sur, California, where he serves as director of Sudden Oak Life, a movement aimed at improving the health of trees and forests in California and elsewhere through practice, education, and research. His research could change the way we think about our past, and our future.
Recent research by Dr. Lee Klinger suggests that, far from being a new idea, remineralization has been integral to forest health in the California Sierras for hundreds of years. Using middens, strategic tree placement, and organic waste, Indigenous people of the California Sierras for centuries used remineralization to care for and shape forests.
A midden is a mound-shaped area that past societies used for disposal of domestic waste. The areas served as family or community dumping grounds for organic matter such as bone, shells, and the remains of meals. In archeology, these ancient mounds are signs of other artifacts and ecofacts associated with past human occupation.Dr. Klinger has shown that local California tribes stockpiled middens, as cultures worldwide have strategically done in regions containing heavily-tended trees. Excavations show compacted mollusk shell fragments in mounds, along with rocks, pebbles, charcoal and animal bones. Most materials were broken down and charred in situ. The Indigenous residents likely ground midden materials into fine particles using mortars and pestles, spreading them around trees to suppress moss growth and enhance forest soil fertility. Further, it appears they also painted a limewash mixture of finely-ground midden materials on bark, much like whitewash still used within some Indigenous cultures today.
The native trees of California are known to be amongst the tallest and most ancient on the Earth. The sequoia has evolved to stay alive through California’s wildfires by adapting protective methods such as thick trunks and fire regeneration: destructive fire promotes re-seeding in sequoias, so that the destruction of a tree also releases a chance at new life.
Given this, the circular and semicircular groups of giant sequoias in Muir and Redwood Mountain Groves posed a puzzle. Despite evidence of fire scars from many historical fires there are no sequoia seedlings, evidence of that fire damage, around the site. (Klinger 2006, 155) Because giant sequoias only produce from seed, the likelihood of these trees growing untended in orderly circles for centuries with no damage or evidence of a mother stump is highly unlikely.
The composition and stratigraphy of these sequoia groves, as well as close association with bedrock mortars and large trees, suggests the middens found near tree groves served as recycling centers for processing mineral-rich matter to enhance acidification for use in silviculture. The evidence is clear: Indigenous peoples knew and recognized the properties of mineral application, and consciously used this method to shape the oldest trees in the country.
Indigenous Perspective: Implications for the Past and Future
The practice and success of remineralization of forests by native populations spurs new questions in the modern era of climate change and ecosystem disruption. The indigenous practice of controlled burning was once spurned by environmentally-minded settlers – until they experienced the difference between lands managed with controlled burns and unmanaged ecosystems without them. Now, controlled burns are recognized as an essential part of managing and protecting many fire-prone lands from destructive burns that threaten communities. Does the ancient application of minerals on trees likewise shed new light on remineralization’s place in the race to stabilize the climate?
In an inspiring example of Dr. Klinger bringing the past to the present, he and his team have revived an oak that Native Americans tended centuries ago.
A few years ago I encountered an ancient coast live oak that was so magnificent, it took my breath away. At first sight the oak was barely noticeable, hidden behind a wall of young Douglas fir and bay laurel trees. But after slipping past the young trees Grandmother oak appeared. Her trunk was massive, at least 20 feet in girth, and was clearly pollarded by the native people. I estimated her age to be about 500 years, possibly older.
In early March of 2017, I and my dedicated crew, began treating Grandmother oak, first clearing away the encroaching fir and bay trees, pruning the dead branches, and removing the mosses and lichens from the trunk. We then fertilized the soils beneath the canopy with compost tea, followed by alkaline-rich minerals, and applied a limewash (a kind of poultice) to the trunk.
The results after just two years of treatments are exciting. […] If all goes well, she may live another 500 years!
Dr. Lee Klinger, on Sudden Oak Life
Beyond forest health, Native American use of remineralization is evidence of organic, natural land management practices that do not require harsh chemicals or pesticides. Modern agriculture focuses on removal and control of outside influences: douse plants with artificial pesticides to kill insects, douse with artificial fertilizer to make the plants grow bigger than normal, douse again to keep them alive. And while Native remineralization is also a form of land management, it’s a practice that incorporates organic material to work with the Earth to keep the land healthy. By fortifying soil and trunks with lime-rich minerals, the trees become more resilient to disease, pests, and age.
Remineralization creates fertile forests much the same way the Earth does: by weathering the minerals from rocks to return to the soil. Long term European experiments released in 1986 showed that in a forest where pine seedlings were treated with rock dust, wood volume was four times higher than in the untreated area after 24 years. Just one application lasted for 60 years. A wide variety of evidence has been discovered since then (see the RTE Research Database and the book Geotherapy for details about some of this research). The yield of the European pines and continuous resilience of the Californian sequoias begs the question: Can adapting Indigenous methods of land care add a new defense against a warming and polluted earth?
Dr. Klinger is an exceptional example of an independent scientist with a deep ecology perspective, who has developed his work through scientific research and attuning to the Earth’s natural processes. In this era of climate fear, crisis, and uncertainty, this perspective is essential as we adapt to climate change and restore ecological systems.
Sabrina Dengler graduated from Hampshire College in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Studies. She is passionate about challenging the idea of nature as separate and distant from society and works to promote intersectional environmentalism using science and sociology. Her background in writing and organic agriculture lead her to work with RTE and she is excited to share her skills in research while learning about the nonprofit sector.
Klinger, L (2006) “Ecological Evidence of Large-scale Silviculture by California Indians,” in Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America, ed. DT Jacobs, University of Texas Press (Austin), pp. 153-165