It was more than a decade ago that painter Mary Ida Henrikson began her quest for knowledge about fire trees, sparked by a cedar on her five-acre beach front-property in Ketchikan. She bought the place in 1997, and found a large, hollowed out cedar tree. She’d noticed trees like it before: the interiors were large enough for a person to fit inside. She didn’t begin to look into them until she decided to build a new addition to her cabin on her property in the early 2000s. Captain Lawrence “Snapper” Carson had been hauling a bundle of cedar siding for her when he spotted the hollowed out cedar. “Oh, you got one of those trees,” he said to her. “That’s where the Natives stored their fire.”
Henrikson was born and raised in Southeast Alaska, worked on the Alaska Marine Highway, taught at the University of Alaska Southeast, and she had never heard of fire trees before. She couldn’t find any information on fire trees at the library or online either. The exchange with Carson prompted her to begin a journey of discovery to learn about the trees and try to puzzle out how Tlingit people used them.
Her work culminated in the recently released “The Mystery of the Fire Trees of Southeast Alaska,” a unique book of Henrikson’s findings, art, and speculations. In her book, she states she believes the trees were used for navigation, like lighthouses, and communication, to send smoke signals. She also thinks it’s likely that they were used for cooking, fire storage, and maybe even an astronomical system. Throughout the book, she shares photos of fire trees from around Southeast and her original paintings of how the fire trees might have looked when they were in use.
On her property, Henrikson found groves of cedar that looked like they had been altered by humans. She thinks the Tlingits harvested from them to make baskets and other items a long time ago. She also found numerous rocks with holes in them, which fit in with her idea the trees were used for fire storage.
“I was told by the people I bought the property from they were oil lamps. Then it dawned on me no they aren’t. They’re fire carriers. … It doesn’t make sense as a lamp. The reservoir would not hold enough oil,” she said. Storing fire in this manner made sense to her in rainy Southeast. A person could go to a fire tree and collect coal to bring back home.
For years Henrikson investigated fire trees, observing some on both private and culturally sensitive sites. She delayed writing about them until she found a collection of them in Settlers Coves in Ketchikan. On “Hollow Cedar Access Trail,” appropriately named after the cedar grove near the trailhead, is a fire tree 31 feet in circumference. A person of average height could stand upright inside the chamber. It was charcoal-lined and had a vent hole, features common for fire trees she came to find. Another common feature for these trees were markings on the outside of the tree showing it had some cultural significance to the people living there.
Whatever definite use the trees served, Henrikson realized that the Tlingit people didn’t just hope to find cedars that would serve their purposes in convenient locations, but would plan generations down the road by planting and later tying together multiple cedars to create a large one. One such tree she found in Settlers Cove she called the Summer Cedar. From markings on the tree, she realized it was actually three trees grown together.
“What struck me about it, what hit me the hardest, was realizing the culture, how ingenious and how smart and intelligent the culture was, and how forward-thinking. They weren’t planning for winter. They were planning and planting for the seventh, eighth, ninth generation,” Henrikson said.
Before Henrikson brought together all her work into a book, she made an appointment with president of Sealaska Heritage Institue Rosita Worl to present what she had found and gain permission to write the book.
“It’s sensitive. It’s about ancient culture, and maybe the reason nobody heard about it is because they didn’t want you to know about it. I wouldn’t know that. I said, ‘Do I have your permission to write the book?’ and she said ‘Oh you bet, we love knowledge.’ She was very kind to me,” she said.
Worl later blurbed the book prior to its release, writing: “Hopefully, her work might spur serious scientific investigation to further validate the role of fire trees and the changes through time.”
With the editorial help of Alaska writer Lael Morgan, Henrikson was able to bring her findings and her art into something cohesive. “She put it together in one sentence: That I was an artist, and the direction my art took, inspired the conclusions I was able to make,” she said.
Before printing, Morgan wished to verify parts of Henrikson’s ideas on fire trees, but had to leave parts of the book unconfirmed; over Henrikson’s years of research, she could find no authority on fire trees and so her speculations could only remain speculations. Some may find that not all of her ideas are plausible, but Henrikson welcomes the skepticism and hopes more will be learned about the fire trees.
In the foreword to the book, Tongass National Forest geologist Jim Baichtal estimates that some of the red cedar fire trees were created between 1400 and 1800 A.D.
“This was lost knowledge. I know somebody out there knows, but they haven’t seen it as an important thing to talk about,” Henrikson said. She hopes that her book will reach people who may have knowledge about fire trees and encourage them to share lost information.
“This is not my story. It is the story of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska and Shuka Kaa or Man Ahead of Us,” she said. “I really do hope this adds to the adventure of the Tongass and leads young people to ask and explore further.”
Mary Ida Henrikson plans to travel around Southeast for book signings and talks about fire trees. Her next scheduled event is on Thursday, Jan. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan. She also has a Third Thursday February reading scheduled for Hearthside Books’ Nugget Mall location. The reading will be Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. Henrikson said she’ll be available until the bookstore closes at 8 p.m.
Those who wish to purchase a copy of the book can do so through their local bookstore, which can order it from Epicenter Press. Henrikson can be contacted through her website at maryidahenrikson.com.
• Clara Miller is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly.