Playing with fire

After a week of writing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we had to come up with an epiphany—a personal essay about something we’ve learned or realized on Semester in the West. We spent all of today reading them out loud to each other, and it’s been fantastically interesting to hear what everyone’s been thinking about. Here’s mine.

Playing With Fire

In Wallowa County, I saw a forest that wasn’t a forest. A century of fire suppression had created a dense understory, with Grand Fir shrubs blanketing the floor and threatening to overshadow the pines. With nature left to its own devices, lightning strikes would have reduced the green brush to ash, nourishing the soil and triggering a release of seeds from the seratenous cones of the lodgepole pines. In the forest, devastation gives way to new life. Nature is a phoenix, constantly being reborn and reinvented after each blaze.

Humans, naturally, are uncomfortable with fires. Fires leave charred landscapes in their wake, interrupting our serene nature walks with the intrusion of death. More often than not, people who claim to love nature means that they love lush riparian vegetation or snow-covered alpine slopes. Fires burning out of control threaten safety and aesthetics. We want the wild, yes, but we want it safe for RVs, families, wheelchairs, God and scenic photos.

The Forest Service has come to recognize fire is needed, but also knows that uncontrolled, it poses a danger to human communities. Current policy in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is to suppress all fires immediately unless they’re in a wilderness area. Forest management includes fuel removal and prescribed burns designed to mimic the effects of natural fires.

I saw several forests that had been treated to reduce fire danger during our stay in Wallowa County. Although they looked healthy, they concept of “managing” nature makes me uneasy. Past attempts to control nature and make it “better” have included hunting wolves to extinction in the lower 48 and building enough dams on the Columbia to make salmon passage nearly impossible. Underlying management is the assumption that we understand how ecosystems function, even though our knowledge is a process, constantly being changed, revised, updated and contradicted. Current strategies focus on restoring balance to the natural world rather than exploiting it for human use, changing us from blind destroyers to benevolent engineers. Though this outlook is an improvement, it relies on the unspoken assumption that we are separate from, different than and above nature. We have the power to bend natural forces to our will. We can put out fires, dam rivers, kill off and then reintroduce wolves. We are gods, and trees, bison, rivers, salmon and wolves are mere mortals.

Practically speaking, letting fires run their course is impossible. There is too much wood to let it all burn, too many people living nearby to risk a full-scale forest fire. Humans have sought to change nature and bend it to our will as long as we have existed, and controlling fire is no exception. But I see a separation in our current management that troubles me. A farmer, rancher or homesteader putting out a forest fire does so for immediate personal reasons—their entire livelihood will be reduced to ashes unless they act. They live with nature, aware of its destructive potential, but also know that it sustains them. The Forest Service putting out all fires as a matter of policy strikes me less as an act of self-preservation and more as a capitulation to the timber industry, which would rather not lose valuable board-feet, and to tourists, who would rather not see charred plant skeletons during their sojourns in Eden.

In the natural world, beauty and destruction dance dangerously around each other, opposing forces that could not exist independently. There are no snow-covered mountains without crevasses and avalanches. The sleek fur of a wolf is nourished by the blood and bone marrow of elk, slaughtered out of necessity and with indifference. The healthy forests which support thousands of reptiles, insects, shrubs, mammals and trees would cease to exist without fire. We cannot have one without the other. A farmer understands that the rains which nourish his crops today can bring floods which destroy his house tomorrow. A city dweller who backpacks during summer weekends may not understand that the blackened trees he sees are necessary to sustain the green forest he finds so beautiful.

Forested lands are managed for multiple uses, including timber, mining, grazing and recreation. I would ask only that habitat be added to this list, as an equal consideration. Natural communities have a right to exist, a right which must be weighed against the rights people claim to cut down trees, suppress fires and otherwise control nature for their own benefit. A healthy, functioning ecosystem includes periodic fires; if we suppress all fires, we deny trees the opportunity to thrive and animals the chance to live in a balanced ecosystem.

I do not believe fires should never be put out. People living in and near forests are understandably concerned about their homes, property and livelihood. However, people need to be realistic about the risks inherent in living by forests before they build vacation homes in the middle of wild areas. Fires can and do happen. Firefighters should not be expected to risk their lives for a house which was unwisely placed in an at-risk area, or for the future profit a private timber corporation hopes to make off of public lands. Some fires may need to be put out for public safety, but others can and should be left to burn.


The Oldest Tree on Earth

A few days ago, we got to go to the bristlecone pines groves high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These gnarled trees are the oldest on earth, with some dated to about 4900 years. Hiking around at 10,000 feet, I remembered a story I’d read a while ago about the oldest tree on earth being cut down after a researcher got a tree corer stuck in the tree. I did some research and talked to the ranger, and discovered that tree was another bristlecone in Great Basin National Park. Because that tree was cut, the oldest living tree on Earth is now here, in the Sierra Nevada, a mere two miles from where we were. Our task was to write something as we pondered the bristlecones, so here’s what I came up with.

The Oldest Tree on Earth

When I was nine, I read a story in Muse about a researcher who cut down the oldest tree on Earth. Trying to age the bristlecone pine, his tree corer had gotten stuck, and the Forest Service gave him permission to kill the tree to retrieve his equipment. When the tree had fallen, its age was finally revealed. Reading the story, I put down my magazine, fighting back tears as I wondered about the thing we choose to value.

Now, as I see these ancient trees for the first time, I realize the story I read tells more than I originally thought. Suppose the corer had gotten stuck in another tree, not quite so old, perhaps a younger sibling. The trunk would have succumbed to the same chainsaw, the thousand dollar piece of equipment saved from its entrails. No one would have seen fit to write an elegy for a tree only 4000 years old, not quite holding the all-important record. The incident would have been written off, forgotten. No one mourns the second-best.

Still, my mind tries to fathom the sequence of events that ranked a mass-produced piece of scientific equipment above one of the oldest trees on Earth, for surely the Forest Service was not ignorant of the age bristlecones live to. Where were the conservationists and concerned citizens offering to donate money to replace the corer? Where was the conscience of the student, the bureaucrat who once loved trees before he was trained to see them as a commodity? How do so many of us, knowing trees are alive, refuse to see them as living? Some loggers have sworn they’ve heard trees scream as they’re pulled from their roots, torn apart and hacked into pieces.

Walking through the bristlecones, I take pictures. Frame after frame, taking and taking with tears in my heart because I have nothing to give. I wonder what these trees have seen over the years. I wonder if any of them screamed when they lost their oldest brother. I want to apologize for hubris and capitalism, but it is not my apology to give, nor theirs to accept. I walk on, my heart heavy, and I hear nothing bul silence from the oldest trees on Earth.

Potatoes in Ontario

We’re in the middle of a writing week in the Eastern Sierra Mountains right now. Our camp is gorgeous, sandwiched between the highest mountains in the lower 48 and overlooking a valley of granite pillars that look like great climbing.

Our first assignment was to write a poem inspired by Richard Hugo’s Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg. We were supposed to take a town we’d driven through and write based on what we saw, inventing stories from a thirty-second glance. So, here you go:

Potatoes in Ontario

Potatoes move through here like the river
before it dried up and farmers found
themselves buying onions in the
gas station parking lot. Those tracks come from
Idaho, where thirty years ago
potatoes sold with pride at the local
farmer’s market. They board a train west
mixed into freight cars with the dreams of
migrant brown hands and a young boy dropping
coins into his piggybank to someday buy a tractor.

Haven’t you eaten these potatoes? Sliced
deep-fried packaged frozen in the plant
at the other end of the rail line. Can’t you taste
the desperation in them, the girl working
graveyard terrified of mailboxes, letters
from the Army and all she’s ever wanted
is to wear her grandmother’s white dress.
Do you remember the days before
food meant smokestacks, Hazmat vans parked outside?

The river used to know, the farms dried up
too. The only restaurant in town
serves stale toast with three kinds of jam made
from Iowa corn. Pregnant women
are advised not to drink the water.
The only chef is old and the only
dish he remembers is regret served
with a side of potatoes.

It’s inspired by Ontario, Oregon, which has a single Ore-Ida plant and not much else. I’ve driven through there three of four times, and every time I do, I start inventing people and life stories that revolve around that plant. So it was nice to get some of that on paper. More writings to come…we’re doing our first epiphanies this week as well.

Playing in the forest

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, California

Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of separation. The bristlecone in front of me would make the perfect fort, tree house or pirate ship for adventurous kids. As a child, I loved playing outside but got bored visiting national parks, where everything worth doing was fenced off. Ed Abbey didn’t learn to love the desert by reading about it on a taxpayer-funded National Forest sign.
And yet, we must preserve, so we stay on the trails. Perhaps there are simply too many of us to use the wilderness without harming it. Abbey wanted his deserts and canyonlands preserved, but not so thousands of other people could come raft down the Colorado. Even non-industrial tourism can be carried to excess. Even the most well-intentioned among us can do damage.
But I hope we never forget this, in our quest to keep ourselves separate from nature in order to save it—children need to play outside.

Camp life on SITW

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Big Pine, California, near Mono Lake
Out here, my body feels like my own. When I’m hungry, I eat and feel full—no deluding myself past hunger with a half-meal of potato chips, plain rice or the remnants of a two-day old stir-fry pilfered from the dining hall. Two hours later, my stomach remains calm—no mysterious pains, no unexplained bouts of diarrhea. I drink tea every day in such quantities that I pee like I’m supposed to—more than twice a day, clear and copious, making the dusty ground smell like it’s just rained. I sleep as close to the sun as I ever have in my life, and when it’s not too cold, my liner and sleeping bag feel more cozy and perfect than the most luxurious bed I’ve ever slept in. Even now, when I’m bleeding, I can barely tell—the cramps that have paralyzed me past the point of walking are completely absent.
Living outside, you feel everything. If it’s cold outside, you’re cold. If it’s warm, you’re hot. If it rains, you get wet. And it’s always dusty, a fine layer coating you, your clothes, books and even choking its way inside your nose, turning your boogers black for weeks at a time.
Here, small things trigger emotions. A single lump of brown sugar dissolving in my mouth or a particularly beautiful sunrise feels like heaven, or at least as close to it as I’m ever likely to be in this life. Similarly, heat or a side glance from someone can ruin my afternoon, causing me to become grumpy, brood and generally refuse to be happy. The good, of course, comes far more frequently and keeps me in a near-constant state of contentment and excitement, alternating between the two sinusoidally as the content of my belly grow and shrink. Out here, food is a constant source of joy. Food nourishes you, leaves you feeling more than just full. Food keeps you going, keeps you human, keeps you humble.

Thoughts while hiking near Reno, NV

It’s hot enough you can feel your breath evaporating the second you breathe out, and I’m still walking. We set off from a house outside of Reno, following no trail, wandering across the public lands that comprise 85% of Nevada. The day gets relentlessly hotter and there is no shade for miles and miles. The endless geology of basin and range is spread out before me, each hill identical, indistinguishable, insurmountable. I’ve moved past dehydration into madness, my steps zigzagging nonsensically through an ocean of sagebrush. I no longer try to preserve my legs; they brush through briars and thorns, so covered in scratches that they look white. Up and up and up, each step a fresh battle, willing myself to continue. I make promises I know I can’t keep—on top of this ridge is ice water, a cold shower, peppermint iced tea. Up, up and I break all of my promises, reaching the crest to reveal an identical mountain in the distance. The downhill should be relief, but my knees protest and it’s as much work to keep myself from running uncontrolled down the mountain as it was to walk up the rise. I find myself wishing once again for the slow trudge towards heaven, where the end is always just a little bit further. Here, I can see the full extent of what I have yet to accomplish. Down, down and there’s dust in my nose, in my eyes somehow despite the glasses, choking me, trying its best to consume me and turn me into a dry mass of uniformity. I push on, resisting with the knowledge that I am mostly water, some part water, at least enough water to separate me from the dust. Down, down, so tired I no longer care if I survive, one foot in front of the other and suddenly flat. No more slope, flat ground, just step, step, step. I see the house on the horizon. How far, I no longer care. It’s flat, and I step on through the dust and sagebrush, still crazy with heat and knowing that this, I could walk forever.

Biotic potential and existence value

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon

Today, we cut willows to plant by the creek tomorrow. Willows remind me of biotic potential. They’re the natural source of salicylic acid; they’re the reason humans discovered aspirin. I’ve always been a bit wary of drugs. I’ll take hardcore things for serious problems—horse pills of ciprofloxacin when I got sick in Ghana—but I’m not a fan of NSAIDs (aka non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) in general. I feel irrational, because I’d gladly take a tincture of willow bark to relieve pain. Chemically, there’s no difference. So why the hesitancy? Part of me just wants to be a hippie, and part of me is a competitive masochist who wants to push through the pain and let it wash over me. I had to re-evaluate this philosophy over the summer, when my cramps got so bad I couldn’t stand up and was on the verge of passing out at work. I took two tiny pink pills and magically felt better. I felt good, amazing, but it seemed like I was letting the pain win and forgoing the humility I was supposed to learn. It’s healthy to know we’re human. It’s healthy to feel out of control sometimes. To feel weak.
But humans don’t like to feel weak. We always want to be in control, both as individuals and as a culture, a civilization. The most common reason I hear for preventing species extinction goes back to that same willow. If we lost another plant, frog, insect or fungi, we lost their unique DNA. We lose the opportunity to study them, to reproduce and mass produce their compounds, We lose the cure for cancer, the keys to medical progress, the fountain of youth. All this and more, lurking unsuspectingly in the Amazon or the great trenches of the Pacific Ocean. How many lives could we save, if only we brought back the habitat?
This defense reeks of arrogance and pragmatism. We have a long and bloody history of assuming we’re the only species that matters on this planet. Even those who’ve gotten past that idea act as though we have a right, a responsibility, to manipulate nature as we see fit.
I want to cry foul. The rainforests aren’t here to cure our diseases. I think most of us know that. But to expect people to care about things for their own sake—how far can we get with that? We care about things almost perfectly based on how much we will be affected. Even Ed Abbey spoke of wilderness as a place for men to retreat from civilization, a place to wage guerilla warfare against a fascist government. People cry over our disappearing rainforests, so charismatic and colorful. People care about polar bears, pandas, tigers, wolves. Who loses sleep over endangered snails or spiders? Who cries for the lichen?
And should we care? It’s easier to say that a polar bear has an intrinsic right to exist. Does a tree have that same right? How far are we willing to extend it? Until it interferes with a human life? A human’s ability to make money? Or merely dislike and distaste? If the planet we make is one we can support ourselves on, does anything else matter for its own sake?
I want to say yes. I believe in those rights, at least until they interfere with human safety. But it’s so hard to see the world from the perspective of another species. I hope we can get there. Because we need to wake up, and I don’t want to live on a world of only us and the things we immediately need.