Tuesday, June 15, 2010

After the Fire

The day Charlie and I left home in our laden-down Toyota Tacoma for our sophomore year of college, a bolt of lightning made contact with a pine tree high on a dry ridge above a nearby valley, setting fire to thousands of acres of wilderness.

It was August of 1995.

And a significant portion of our childhood backyard--especially Charlie's--went up in flames. As we drove against the flow of traffic (gawkers and wild land crews alike) through Northern California's Sierra Valley toward the interstate and our route north, the late evening sky was an angry red. The sinking sun was entirely blocked out in clouds of smoke. Even with the truck windows up, the air hurt to breathe. Nearby residents were gathering along the roadside, watching the flames lick their way toward their homes and ranches. 

The next time we saw this same land, the mountains surrounding the valley were a bare, charred shadow of their former selves.

And then next time.

And the next time.

Here it is today.

It's coming back, inch by inch. (Even 15 years later, the saplings dotting the mountain sides cannot yet be measured in feet). The kids ask why there's only baby trees, and we try to explain to them that before they were born, all the tall trees, the ones Dad fished under and snagged kites in and climbed, were destroyed by wildfire. We try to impress upon them that they will grow up before this land can. That their children will ask them the same question, if they're lucky enough to visit. That wilderness does not bounce back like little boys do. It's a sobering thought. One that's hard to wrap the mind around.

Because mountains are supposed to be timeless. Childhood stomping grounds are meant to be etched on the memory, unchanged. But not like this. Not frozen in the act of loss...of mourning and slow, slow recovery. Not stranded, caught between the going away and the coming back.

But the fact is, they are. We are, when we return, and see that yes...the impact of the fire still remains. We become those college kids again, both anxious and excited to be leaving home, trying to outrun the thickening smoke and the whir of helicopter blades and the blinking lights of road blocks.

And while this sad side of timelessness is unnerving, when we look at these barren mountains, we are given something in return. Perspective. We see the past fifteen years as the earth sees them, instead of how we see them. Unlike in the closed-minded vortex of our own lives, time for this land has not flown by in a flurry of marriage and babies and school years and careers. It has not been recorded in toothless grins giving way to first steps giving way to lost teeth. Nor in graduations and growth spurts and each generation deferring to the next in the blink of an eye. No, time here has crawled by...painfully. Slowly. Each small stride a struggle measured in the growth of a blade of grass, a new tree, a return of creek water and trout and white-tailed deer.

You can see the scars. Those distant mountainsides used to be covered in trees. You can also see the growth. You can see the age brought on not by years, but by great effort. And it's an honor to be a part of it.

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