The familiar neighborhood trails seem a slightly different place now, and I have changed some too. Not so much because of the input my nose and eyes receive from the scorched forest, but more because of what is missing and what is new. What once was a weave of trails that seemed to wind endlessly through a primal space has now been stripped of such illusion as surely as the trees have been stripped of their foliage, the rocks of their lichenous filagree. Seeing one trail from the next allows the mind to take measure of the exposed layout and know it as finite. It is a similar feeling to revisiting childhood places as an adult, where, like Alice in Wonderland, all of a sudden I am too big and the landscape is too small. Burned off with the underbrush is the mystery, and therefore some of the magic.
Also exposed are the hundreds of creatures of the woods. And also missing are their many scuffing, scratching, twittering, chewing, snorting and all manner of other sounds that used to accompany our time spent there. Singed away are their Kinnickinnick blankets, duffy burrows, Juniper privacy screens, cozy layers of bark, food supplies and pantries too. Reduced to ash are the traces that helped us understand their lives.
While the mobile animals fled and others perished, all the animals of civilization also hurried to remove themselves and each other from the fire’s path. With no time for false appearances, all of our strengths and weakness were before our eyes. Needs for assistance had to be communicated. Personal habits normally occurring in private recesses now happened wherever we evacuated to. Our success or failure to take care of each other as a community was exposed to ourselves and all those who came to help or watched from afar.
Most visible of all, our fire personnel had a job to perform that must rise above any personal losses or collective flaws. Photos of them in the local newspaper reveal the truth of their fatigue, briefly visible behind the screens of professionalism. Vague embarrassment accompanies discovery of my own picture there, eyes closed, cloak of invulnerability temporarily cast aside, too tired to care if I was thus recorded. The return of mystery, for knowing too much can burden the spirit. In the candid snapshot captured by this disaster, our town and it’s people all look pretty good despite the unexpected exposure. The charred landscape is even still beautiful, just different. And yet the soft coverings of snow and fluffy sweaters will be a relief.
Mountain life has already begun to ornament all that has been laid bare. A brave lupine finds just enough shade from a lodgepole snag to survive the heat of midday. As grasses push bright green blades up through the dispersed pine seeds, the birds return first to take advantage of this boon. A vole ventures her tunnel beneath the burn scar. There vigorous Kinnikinnik roots send forth new growth to welcome the rest of the forest host. Seeds of fireweed, raspberry and huckleberry gathered in nearby unburned areas are cast about from local hikers’ hands. A wandering fox gifts his scat to a toasted aspen stand. It wastes no time growing new leaders up higher than the fox’s ears. Soon the season will turn emerging leaves to glowing colors against the black backdrop that will be rebuilt as they fall.
Between remaining or rebuilding dwellings the vegetative mass becomes thinned either by fire or community stewardship. Yet even with less buffer between them, neighbors find more initiative to traverse these spaces for the exchange of greetings and information. Porosity allows the vibration of a plucked string to carry it’s invitation to all dusty instruments a little further afield than it used to. In the absence of habitual seclusion, I must learn to use temporary refuges and internal boundaries to make space for writing. But I needed to learn that anyways, as surely as the forests need the regenerative effects of fire. Now there is room for aspen to fulfill their latent potential to populate these hills with golden autumnal displays, and for new magic to grow.