Call me dimwitted, because even the most obvious facts sometimes take a while to sink into my thick skull. It is late October, and although the days have been calm and mild lately, we have had a few autumn gales and we will almost certainly have a few more before deep winter. After every hard blow we walk our trails and find our way blocked by fire-killed trees that have fallen. All the trees here and for many miles around being dead and burnt – their blackened skeletal stems stark in ranks across slope and swale – one by one and sometimes two by two and sometimes in dramatic domino-effect jumbles, the charred remains of a mature taiga forest are falling down. Day by day, storm by storm, month after month, year after year, the trees will fall until they are – and this is what it took me a couple of years to fully grasp – all lying down. One by one and ten by ten gravity will call them home. Of course this is obvious, and a given, but it took me a few years to realize it. They will all fall down. Not some of them, not just the weak ones. All of them. My, what a mess.
And I have been surprised by this lately. Not sure why. After all, what had I thought a dead tree would do, if not fall down? Did I think the trees would stand upright for decades, slowly turning to an elegant silvery gray, and then somehow melt away at their butts and sink gradually and gracefully out of sight? Nope. Some might hang on for a decade or two or even three, but the soil around the bases of most of these trees is gone, and the roots and trunks of many of them are deeply charred. They topple down. They crash, they lie in jumbles, they heap themselves into thick piles that will, my friend Mitch likes to say, “stymie a moose.” In some places now, two years after the burn, it looks as though a tipsy D-8 Cat skinner has been wandering randomly across the hillsides, pushing up slash piles, clearing ground for a new airstrip or pasture.
There are no new seedlings of spruce pushing up just yet, and where the fire burned hottest there is still no new growth at all, but blonde rows of grasses and rich stripes of purple fireweed laced the less intense portions of the burn this past summer. (It is interesting that it took two years for the fireweed to appear. Pink Corydalis was the only prominent pioneer in the first summer.) Every so often old daydreams of Icelandic horses have revived. Maybe, just maybe, a horse really could make a living around here in these coming years.
When the most precarious burned trees began to topple down in the weeks and months right after the fire, I was seized by an urge true to my boyhood roots in small-town street-and-yard Illinois. The CBD (Call Big Doug) Landscaping mentality of my high-school part-time job: “It’s autumn and the leaves are down. Time to get raking and make the yards clean and neat again, and impose our tidy order on this unruly cycle, at least here in town.” Here by the Hoarfrost River my urge was not to grab a rake but to reach for hardhat and chainsaw, to get out there and buck and pile and clear. A laughable reaction really, in the face of the day-to-day realities of time and work, and the vast scale of the place, but the instinct is there and after every new windfall it surges again.
But no, one does not rake up the fallen leaves in an autumn forest, and after a wildfire one does not blithely set out to cut and clear and slash-burn the millions upon millions of trees that will now be tipping over and falling down. (In my layman’s calculations I easily get an estimate into billions, for this big burn alone, but I will hold back and stick with millions.) My urge is just a deep desire to combat the chaos, to do my small bit to restore the beauty and wholeness that have been obliterated. Tilting at windmills has been a theme around here for thirty years. “Cleaning up” after a forest fire falls squarely in that category.
The soothing sitting-room wisdoms of “nature’s cleanup,” “let it burn,” and “the wonder of rejuvenation,” like so many sitting-room wisdoms about wild nature, are all valid, and at some remove yes, they can be soothing. Reality is more chaotic, and at times it is horrific. (The string of starving wolves we have watched die slow deaths here over the past two winters come to mind as examples of not-so-soothing wildness. Likewise the charge of a senile half-blind grizzly bear on a November morning nine years ago — his hot sour breath and the look in his eyes and the sudden realization that it might be my day to die, or his.)
It has not been soothing, but instead more like jarring and jaw-dropping, to pause deliberately and squint across miles of rolling outcrop hills, and to try to imagine the scene before me going through the changes and successions that lie ahead. It is like trying to imagine the country under the weight of the last – or the next – wave of glacial ice. That is something I have tried to do from time to time, but I have never honestly conjured up a convincing image of the ice sheet, in my mind’s eye. This latest attempt to envision long change is easier, because the change is already well underway: the once-lovely green hills are black and jumbled, and the trees are toppling day by day. As if the lip of the next Keewatin ice sheet was visible on the far horizon, and on a calm day audible, rumbling and grinding down the valley.
My stilted efforts to conjure the changes that are coming to the scene before me are accompanied by a surprisingly deep sadness. This, like the falling trees, caught me off guard, even as it brought me close to tears the other day. “Heartfelt” is a maudlin word, but here it has its place. I can feel sometimes, right in my heart, that span of years, and with it comes the awareness that I will not be here to see this place return to any semblance of that mature, deep-rooted, spongy-lichened, taiga-forest integrity that we all recall from a long Sunday hike we took together as a family, just over two years ago. I will never see it come back to that. None of us will. That is gone, and all four of us will be long gone before it comes back to what it was on that memorable afternoon just before the lightning struck and the fire began to prowl the hills.
Once down, these dense spruce and tamarack trunks will lie in heaps for decades far beyond a narrow human time-span. Decay proceeds extremely slowly here in a country where our first old cabin – the one that was here from the late 1970’s – stood for nearly 40 years on unpeeled birch rounds laid crosswise right on the sand. When we took that place down, in 2004, to erect on its site this workshop that we have called home since the fire, the wood of those birch logs was as solid as it was on the day the trees were felled. Try that in a temperate latitude! Hell, in the Pacific Northwest an unpeeled birch round laid on the ground beneath a building would soften to mush before lunchtime. Charred wood being highly resistant to decay, the bark-free trunks that now lie perched a foot above the ground will still be here, lying in jumbles, when my children are older than I am now, just starting lap 60 around the sun. This is not sad, but it is not soothing Mother Nature Knows Best stuff either. More like the cold hard facts of life and death, more like the hot breath of a bear about to kill you. It gives new meaning to the glib phrase “a 200-year burn,” and gives visible and visceral meaning to a span of two centuries.
Again and again I turn from my reverie and stride down the hill toward home, rifle or chainsaw forever in hand, while a trio of four-month-old husky pups rockets around and leaps over and wriggles under the windfalls. Another generation of that boundless young-dog energy enlivening our walks down these familiar trails into another freeze-up season. Sad as it makes me some days, I feel fortunate to have been given this first-hand lesson in Time, and Nature, and the Real Deal. Not given, so much as smacked-up-side-o’-the-head by it.
“What emerges from the recent work on chaos and complexity is the final dismemberment of the metaphor of the world as machine, and the emergence of a new metaphor – a view of a world that is characterized by vitality and autonomy, one which is close to Thoreau’s sense of wildness, a view that, of course, goes well beyond him, but one he would no doubt find glorious. Instead of a vast machine, much of nature turns out to be a collection of dynamic systems, rather like the mean eddy lines in Lava Falls… They are aperiodic, like the weather, they never repeat themselves but forever generate new changes, one of the most important of which is evolution. Life evolves at the edge of chaos, the area of maximum vitality and change.” — Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.