You must have an exalted mind and a burning heart in which, nevertheless, reigns silent stillness.Meister Eckhart
Some of my readers will recall a post I wrote a couple of months ago in which I had recently learned of the death of a close friend and had gone for a hike to try to figure it all out. (See Remembering Ronnie, July 26th of this year.) I am a hiker, and it is what I do, especially if I can get to the top of something, where looking down on the world from on high has always given me a renewed perspective.
On that day I ascended Mt. Bonaparte near my home in the Okanogan Highlands. If I expected that vista to bring me healing, I was disappointed, for this perspective, however lofty it might have been, was shrouded in smoke. I found this to be mildly amusing at the site of a lookout tower. From the lookout there was nothing much to look at except the vanishing ranges of mountains in the smoke of distant fires. It was fitting. There is not much that makes sense about the untimely death of a friend, and we can strain our eyes and hearts and minds, but the view out there will never quite give us the answers we seek. It will always be smoky.
Less than two weeks later, my husband and I celebrated the arrival of rain after several weeks of drought and record setting high temperatures. We hoped that the rain would settle the smoke, at least slowing down the many fires burning in the mountains near our home. Unfortunately August rain showers are usually accompanied by thunder and lightning strikes, and this one was one was no exception. The rain had stopped by the following morning, and already there were new fires burning, many of them, and in all directions.
We watched the next evening from our deck while Single Engine Air Tankers lifted up from Curlew Lake, their bellies filled with water, and headed northwest towards the Highlands. My dog Lulu cowered that evening as the planes flew so low that we might have reached up and patted their undersides. She barked and chased them away like intruders. The new abundance of smoke burned our eyes, making our daily walks a strain.
The fire had gotten started on the south slope of Mt. Bonaparte. I was told by someone that the historic structures on the summit had been preserved by “wrapping them.” Here I am very grateful to my son-in-law, Bill Sandlian, who is a wild land fire fighter and described the process to me as well as giving me additional details about the fire, including various links and photographs to enlighten my understanding.
It is not very often that technology moves me to tears, but in this case I felt a welling up of gratitude for whomever invented these heat reflective shields and for the fire fighters who put them there. Not only are they wrapped around structures like the historic lookout at Bonaparte Mountain, but this year they have been wrapped lovingly around ancient sequoia trees.
Speaking of tears, I made my hike in July because I was grieving. I am grieving still. The trees in the photograph at the top of this page now have most likely been transformed to charred memories of themselves. Optimists will remind us that fire renews the forest, creating fresh habitat for wildlife and opening up the landscape for wildflower blooms in a year or two. But the trees in that photograph were growing at an elevation of 7257 feet, where the growing season is limited to a few weeks out of the year when the landscape is free of snow. You and I will not see trees growing there again, nor will our children, nor will our grandchildren. Yes, I grieve.
The fire eventually merged with another one and has now burned close to 24,000 acres. Highway 20, the scenic route across the beautiful north country of of my home, was closed intermittently across Wauconda Pass. I happened to drive the route home after a hike in the Pasayten shortly after it had opened up, slowly, to make my way around emergency vehicles. It was late and getting dark. I looked to the north and saw the glow of red that spread across the northern horizon. It reminded me of sitting by a campfire, stirring the coals with a stick. This was quite a campfire.
As of this writing, the fire is ninety per cent contained. We have had several days of rain by now, and the smoke has mostly dissipated, though there are still pockets in the valleys that can be seen from the ridge tops. Fire season is not exactly over, but it is better. It is a relief to see clouds instead of smoke hovering over the mountains.
These days I carefully study the maps of fire restrictions and trail closures before I go for a hike. The fires started in June this year, and the dense smoke made hiking unhealthy for most of the summer, as it did for walks near home. There will never again be a time in my life when fire will not be a consideration when I plan a hike. I have lost some degree of innocence, and so have you.
I have always gone to the mountain trails when I am seeking healing, as I did that day in July when the sadness over my friend’s death was fresh and raw. I will go into the mountains again, and I will walk beneath charred trunks of trees and through new and radiant blooms of pink fireweed. This is how the forest heals, and so do I.