The world is always ending somewhere. It just depends on whether it falls in your line of vision or not.Akwaeka Emezi
It looked as though we might make it through the summer without any fires burning nearby. This scenario was unlikely, as heavy rains fell in May and June, causing the grass to grow tall, then followed the usual drought with hot temperatures in July and August. Reportedly the moisture content of the tall trees that surround us in the Okanogan Highlands is that of kiln dried logs. But one can hope.
On September 1st, almost as if it had been written in red on the calendar, I awoke to the blue haze making its way around the edges of the blinds in my bedroom. I knew the sky would be smoky when I pulled them up, and I was not incorrect. The sky became hazier as the day went on, obscuring the outline of the nearby mountains. It continued for the next couple of days, then got better, then got much worse for awhile. The fires are not under control, but the wind changes direction from time to time, giving us a reprieve.
The satellite views of Washington show smoke blowing across the eastern half of the state, from the northeast to the southern Cascades, like a thick layer of silver-blue frosting has been spread across the area. The fires are burning in the Idaho panhandle, in the far northeastern corner of the state, north of us in British Columbia, and in the beautiful Pasayten Wilderness, where it is hard to imagine there are any trees left to burn. Every year the Pasayten burns, causing annual closures of the Pacific Northwest Trail.
There is nothing to be done except to be careful with fire. Not even outdoor barbecuing is allowed. I have boxes ready to pack the long row of journals that I have kept since I was twelve years old should it become necessary to evacuate in a hurry, but none of these fires are burning very close to my home. Still, the boxes are a reminder that my home is at risk every summer, and that life is short and can go up in flames. Those journals give me a sense of immortality, a tenuous one but somehow important to me. I have a beautiful framed photograph of my dog Willie standing in a flower strewn meadow in the Bighorns. I will take that with me as well. I want to remember the way the world was before fires burned every summer.
Recently I read an article about “hunger stones” that have been found buried deep in the riverbanks of central Europe. The stones serve as a warning to future generations that if they are visible, crop failure is inevitable, and famine will follow. One of them, dated 1616, reads, “If You See Me Cry.”
Instead of crying I try simply to remember. When I cannot sleep at night, I try to conjure up images of the most beautiful places I have hiked, and often I go to Lakeview Ridge in the northern Pasayten, part of the northernmost route of the Pacific Crest Trail before crossing into Canada and the one place where the PCT and the PNT share the same route for a few miles. From the ridge the hiker looks west across the valley at the sharp peaks of the Picket Range in the North Cascades, so named because they look like the jagged outline of a picket fence. Below the ridge lies Ross Lake, nestled in the valley where the Skagit River once flowed freely. Along the ridge top are the dwarfed spires of subalpine fir and a few mountain hemlock surrounded by meadows of lupine, penstemon, and paintbrush. I try to conjure up every detail in my mind’s eye then imagine what it must look now with the hillside burning and the valley filled with smoke.
I envision myself someday returning to this sacred place when the flames have died and the ground is no longer smoldering, but the grass and fireweed have not yet grown up to cover the scars. I bury stones in the loose soil of the charred earth and call them fire stones. On one will be inscribed these words: “If you see me remember.”