Ashes to ashes.
Now they are laid to rest. We watched them die their slow death. Screaming, unheard. Which, I ask you, is a sadder time? Witnessing then the swelling fatality or now the inevitable funeral?
Grief. When shall be the time of mourning? And how shall the mountains heal?
Two days ago I find a squirrel in the toilet of one of our vacant guest cabins. Bob lifts him out by the little scruff of his soggy neck and we are pretty sure we are too late. He is barely breathing. I tap his bony back to see if he’ll cough up water. He appears lifeless in my hands, cold and wet and limp. I hold him against me, and walk out into the sun. I sit there with the little guy to my chest until he starts to shiver. I think that is a good sign. It is something. Movement. Life. After a while, he moves his front paws and blinks his eyes. I wrap him in my shirt and set him in a safe corner of the yard. We are late for lunch. Forrest will be worried. What more can I do? When we return an hour later, we expect to find him there, again cold, this time dead. Instead we find the shirt empty.
I don’t know why I tell you this, or why I did this. I do not like ground squirrels. The tourists find them cute, feed the rodents, and leave. The squirrels remain much longer, devastate my garden, the flower pots, get into the cabins and make a mess. (Ending up in toilets has happened more than once before.)
I think you should know. Or maybe, I just need to remind myself. Maybe I’m just glad to finally share some good news. That squirrel lives.
Maybe it’s just today. Moods are fluctuating like the plumes of smoke. You can’t help but feel sad and tense and although everything looks the same from here, the eerie silence reminds you it’s not, and all you can do is watch and wait.
I’m feeling sorry for myself. Silly me. How selfish. I know. I try to tell myself. Get over it. This too will pass. Think of how darned lucky I am. I know. I know. I know.
We head down the road. My first time down the mountain since Memorial Day, best I can figure. I need to get some answers. Tourists are writing with questions. Their one week a summer away from Texas vacation is at stake. I should understand how much this matters.
It feels cold, or maybe it’s just me. There’s cloud cover, real clouds and smoke, both, you can smell and feel them in the still, stuffy air. Black sticks and ashen earth. Charred hillsides play a patchwork with untouched stretches. Wafts of something smoldering.
I don’t know what to think or say and I don’t want anyone to see me cry. Not even my husband. So I turn my head, don’t think, stare blankly as we drive on. I look out like it’s just a movie, passing by. Unreal. I can remain untouched.
We approach the road block. Keeping people out, and here we have been in. I can see from the side of their truck they are from Arizona. They are big men, yet soft spoken to me. Sympathetic to the inconvenience and loss this has brought to my family, home and business. That doesn’t really matter, I want to say. How do I tell them how I feel? How sorry I am at their loss, their colleagues, their bereavement brought so close to our homes as our bravest stand beside them? Life! My God, I know that is what matters.
I say nothing. I don’t know what to say. I know I will cry. My eyes swell and each look at me with such compassion and I can’t find the words to tell them “No, I am sorry for you… I have lost nothing that really matters,” though I wish I could. I look both in their eyes. Deep. I hope they feel it and know my silence is not enough. But what is the alternative? A middle age woman breaking down before them? My husband puts the truck in gear and slowly drives on and I roll up the window instead.
There are deer sleeping at the side of the road. Fire trucks from Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, northern Colorado. Finally, a familiar face, turns and walks away when all I wanted was a smile, a nod of recognition, the understanding that we all get through this best we can. I don’t get that. I think that’s what I came for. There’s nothing else I need.
I return to the mountain and mourn not only what so many have lost, but what I am left with.
It is not over yet. The road simply smolders, the raging path already burned its greedy swath of over thirty six thousand acres to the east and south of us.
Here I can almost hear the fat lady singing.
Here there are blue skies in morning, rain clouds pass us by in afternoons, the Milky Way dancing like tempting muses overhead at night as we step outside to brush our teeth (we have no bathroom here) and the only smell of smoke comes from the chimney of the old wood cook stove.
Here where the trees are not charred, only left to stand the eerie red your eyes still read as green.
Here we are left with the silent cry of dying trees.
There, a ghostly wail in plumes of smoke.
Some days it seems all you can do is not cry, or if I could cry enough, would my tears help douse the flames. But they do not, and my heart aches for the trees and all those who have lost so much and those that are giving so much of themselves to stop this wild burning.
What have we done? What have we been waiting for? Didn’t we all know they would burn?
Is a million acres of dead standing trees enough?
Will these fires wake us up?
Don’t you remember when? When the trees were still green here and we first saw those sprawls of dying, crying trees, the old pinon, down in Carson, New Mexico. And I, like you, stood around and did nothing more than watch as the death continued to spread until now I may not see flames and smoke from my front porch, but I am still surrounded by death. Someday, dare I say it, won’t this too have to burn?
The forest around me still stands. Not live, but standing. 90% of our spruce have died and over 15% of our Aspen. This part is obvious. But stop for a moment, and look closer. The damage is much deeper. Look at your cool, shady trail that is now in the sun. That spring that used to flow is dry and the bog you just walked across is now solid ground. And the saddest but hardest to see and I bet few have noticed: the moss on once sheltered hillsides is now exposed, choked by pale green needles fallen from dying trees, flaking off rocks in large dusty chucks when the wind blows.
Haven’t you noticed the change?
All it takes is looking. Nothing fancy. No special tools or skills. Right now, I don’t care about who or why. But don’t tell me my climate is not changing. It already has. And it’s not done yet.
This here is one mad mountain mama. Does anger help? I think it’s better than acceptance, doing nothing, brushing the bad stuff under the carpet and pretending it’s all OK. It’s not OK. So… do something about it. What? What can I do?
A month ago, I wrote a friend. Another woman who writes. She is also read. She is published. Big time and the real deal. People listen to her. I do. I ask for her voice, but she tells me I have to use my own. She is already screaming. OK, I tell her. I will try. I will speak softly, though few will listen. Most won’t agree. Some will be angry, and maybe a few might even be hurt.
But this won’t be about me. This won’t be about you. Right now, for just a moment, this will be about the trees.
The trees. I’m talking about the beetle kill devastation that has hit the entire Rocky Mountain region from New Mexico to Canada. I’m talking about seeing every stand of dark timber on every mountain surrounding my home turn from green to brown. I’m talking about seeing the Weminuche Wilderness forest die. I see it from my kitchen window as I sit in the comfort of my house with a cup of coffee and wonder why. This isn’t science. This just is.
“It’s natural,” they say with a stupid smile to a room full of yes-men shaking their heads in agreement.
Remember what they told us:
It won’t go over 9,000 feet.
It won’t go over 10,500.
It won’t burn as well as a live stand.
And my favorite, when in doubt, use this one, old reliable: It’s natural.
(Excuse me for stating the obvious, but I look around and say, no, the results of these beetles getting in two breeding cycles in one extended season year after year does not seem very natural to me.)
And above all, do NOT let the elephant out of the closet. Let us not mention climate change.
Instead, let’s wait and see. Push papers, have meetings, make plans and policy, change plans and policy, keep calm, try to maintain control and cover your ass. Leave it to a scientific study. An environmental impact report. A thirty thousand acre “test zone” they are watching to see what happens with beetle kill while we’ve just watched almost a hundred thousand acres in this part of Colorado alone show us what happens. Beetle kill burns. Thanks. I didn’t know. Pardon the sarcasm. I told you I was mad.
Don’t upset the public or stir the waters. Waters that are now being used to douse the flames and maybe then will wash down charred slopes and clog our rivers, silt the creeks and what will it do to the fish?
Sit on your hands and at the end of the day watch while a million acres of trees are consumed, first to beetles…
From a letter I wrote a month ago:
“The trees are dying. Not just a few. All of them. The spruce trees. All the way up to timber line. Entire hillside, thousands of acres, dying a slow death. The beetles are small as a grain of rice. Who would have guessed something so small could do so much damage that will last for generations to come?
The forests are dying, and we’re amassing miles and miles of curing fuel for an inevitable fire. And this is Wilderness. So we’ll let it burn.
Now the Forest Service is talking about starting the fire.* They have no idea how huge this will be. They never really know but it seems to be their job to speak as if they’re certain until they are proven wrong and then change their stance. They say these things safe from behind their desk while we are here living with it, in it, crying with the loss and now scared of what will happen next.
We use this wood to cook with and heat our home. I know how well it burns. I’m not sitting around looking at facts and figures and talking big and trying to ease the troubled mind of the public. I’m here living with it and it’s sadder than you can possibly imagine to be surrounded by such death, frustrating to hear the fabrications and incompetency around us by those denying the change has anything to do with the bigger picture, and horrid to think of what is going to happen, because something is going to happen, and it’s going to be more terrible than just sitting around staring at a bunch of dead trees starting to blow over and create a lovely pile of fuel across a half a million acres that is the Weminuche Wilderness.
Of course there is much more I could say, much I could share with you to give you a wide array of facts, figures, guesses and lies concerning the causes and creation of this disaster, and more important, so much I could show you just from my kitchen window without any words at all.
Can you help be the voice that these mountains are crying for and I am not strong enough to be?
There is a story here that must be written. Will you write it?”
My voice may not be heard.
And now, am I not too late?
*For the record, the Papoose Fire was started in the Weminuche Wilderness by lightning strike.