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A journal from the edge of the Bear and Martinez fires.

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Local oases offer lush ways to retreat and rejuvenate.

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The Fire This Time

Passion and transformation, destruction and renewal in the forests of the Southwest: A journal from the edge of the Bear and Martinez fires.

Story and photos by Jesse Wolf Hardin

 

"fire... God's unfailing charity."

—John Oxenham

 

15 June 2006

A pall descends, as dark as the great unknown, as dark as any real or imagined terrors that might dwell there. From our home in the canyon, we can see a dense black cloud to the west, rising as if to meet the descending shade, its bulbous base glowing a sulfurous yellow as though lit from within. How incredibly beautiful, we think, and also how ominous and awful—filling us with awe. Driving out to the community of Lower Frisco, the wider valley makes it easy to see the wall of fire climbing sunward above Gordon Ridge two or three miles away. It lifts and leans towards the north, thankfully not shifting east yet towards us and the county seat of Reserve. As we watch its progress, the first word that comes to mind is "inferno," evoking Dante's vision of a punitive hell.

The Martinez fire rages near the author's
sanctuary and retreat center.

The flames are a brilliant red, the color of danger and traffic stop-signs, of the gaping palate of sharp-toothed predators, mushrooms too poisonous to eat and passion beyond reason—the color of the insatiable, in mindless search of fuel. Fire has no ill intent, so it can't be called "greedy." And yet it acts much like greed itself, growing ever larger with no hint of satisfaction, consuming more and more, faster and faster. Unless otherwise suppressed, it will not stop until there is nothing left to gorge on, when it will at last have starved itself to death.

Both my intuition and what I've been told leads me to feel certain we are in no immediate danger, but it makes sense to prepare for the worst. My immediate concern is for my family and the dozen or so women who braved the fire reports to attend a gathering here. If conditions become at all threatening, evacuating them will be the number-one priority. If not, it will be important they stay focused on their camp-out, on the insight and affirmation they are sharing with one another, on the croaking blue heron and the beavers slapping the river with their tails. Undo alarm or panic could not only ruin their week-long experience, but make any evacuation more difficult should it be called for.

We cannot afford expensive disaster insurance, and the possibility of losing everything we own hits us like a blow to the gut. What exactly will we take, if it turns out that we can only get one truckload of belongings to safety in time? It seems that we should concentrate on the practical items such as a tent, clothes, herbs for the liver, a mattress and cooking utensils such as would make our continued survival possible. But what about my books on earth and spirit, which are our means of helping the world—and our only source of income? Or those impractical items that are especially sentimental and impossible to replace with any amount of money, such as family photographs, original artwork and hand-carved Kachina dolls, the heirloom clock and table from Mama, the cowboy booties I wore as tiny grinning tyke? Should we bother with expensive stereos, when we may have no electricity to run them, no unmelted CDs to play, and no house to play them in? We gather what we can into piles, wrapping the more fragile items for what could be a rough trip out, then pause to look around.

What is most precious to us, we realize, cannot possibly fit into the back of an old truck. Certainly not the forest of riverside willows, flourishing where once there were none. Nor the swaying rows of 70-feet tall cottonwood trees that I personally planted 26 years before. The giant vines of wild grape, started from arm-length sections. The gnarly grandmother mulberry tree that was producing fruit long before I arrived. The hundreds of species of songbirds that build their nests among the willows and alders. The bald eagles and kingfishers that nest here. The deer who feel safest here, and the ringtail cats that join us in calling this their one and only home. It doesn't help to know that a century after a conflagration, this canyon could be just as stunningly beautiful, as verdant and teeming with life as it is right now. If the flames move this way, it will be a devastated landscape that we return to, harsh and blackened, devoid at first of all green.

With no phone here, we have to rely on our solar-powered satellite dish for contact with the outside world. The same Internet connection that makes it possible to announce our workshops and retreats, has turned into a vital lifeline. The Forest Service reports that flow in could be the only warnings we get if the fire changes direction, and emails would be one of the ways of appealing for help should we need it. I find myself giving thanks for the same technology that I have so often—and fairly—railed at, as well as for the supporter who covers the cost of our provider.

The Forest Service has sent some kind employees to check on us. They've offered their help, but we have only to think back to the big Los Alamos blaze for a reminder of what happens when the fighters' best efforts fail. Plus we shouldn't expect an isolated wilderness retreat center and botanical refuge to be as much of a priority as were the Los Alamos homes of government-employed nuclear scientists.

Our nearest neighbors live a full two miles away, causing me to wonder which of them I might be able to count on to come down and assist, as well as how I might be able to help any of them should their places prove more endangered than ours. People live upriver whom we deeply care about, a mix of ranchers and retirees, and a buddy who happens to be the local driller of wells. Against the backdrop of swelling black smoke, friendships really stand out, and concepts like community shine brighter than ever.

It's well after dark before a change in conditions sucks the smoke out of the canyon. Sitting alone up the hill, I can hear the women howling like wolves, and then laughing over some shared joke. From the ridge opposite them, a horned owl hoots in answer. It sounds, somehow, not like a harbinger of death, but the insistent statement of life. Even if the worst were to happen, we would not move away. We would camp near the river, where things would be first to grow back.

 

19 June 2006

It's near midnight, and the rhythm of the women's drums and flutes continues unabated. I walk the other way, to high ground where the distant orange glow is still visible. I think about all I know about fire, its mythic as well as ecological dimensions, struggling for a more balanced perspective. I feel all too subjective, too vulnerable, to easily let sink in the positive sides of this tremendous natural force, and I have to deliberately go over these in my mind. It is a very real danger, but not really an enemy. Early tribal peoples had good reason for considering it a spiritual power, and for seeing the way it served the people as nothing less than magical. Many of those cultures also observed the four directions, assigning each both a totem animal and a signature element. Not surprisingly, fire was generally regarded to be the element of the East, of life growing out of the fecund soil of death and the defeat of denial, of the sun rising on a world continuously renewed, of inevitable transformation.

It is the incessant transforming of energy that feeds the flames of ol' Sol, without which life in this corner of the universe would be impossible. At Earth's core, too, a molten fire lit billions of years ago continues to burn, heating the deep waters that rise to the surface as the hot springs we soak in. When new greenery sprouts, we note it is to the fires they turn for sustenance and growth, their floral faces tilted to the sun. The salads we eat, and any plant-consuming animal that we ingest, are provided through a mating of earth and fire as much as water and air. Lightning strikes an old dead tree and a blaze is kindled. Animals flee from it. Humans, for millions of years, rushed to try and collect it.

Whatever the result of its flaring, seemingly harmful or beneficial, it is always a guiltless agent of change: Anasazi fires kindled for warmth, with wood they found increasingly difficult to find. Grass fires deliberately set by generations of Apache, as one way to insure the fertility of the meadows. Fires lit in ancient Australia, driving forth the game that filled their larder. The fires of Conquistadors, which seared and lent taste to the flesh of goat and corn. Mongolian torches capped with crimson fire. Fires dancing with shadows cast upon the cliffs of six of the planet's continents. Fires in rock rings, in the tin stoves of ice-fishing northlanders, and in the fireplaces of houses equipped with thermostatically controlled heat.

A sculptor friend of mine from Santa Fe coined a term for a house's fireplace or woodstove, pulsing and throbbing in their own breathing rhythms: the "hearthbeat" of the home. It is the heart, found in the room where a family comes together around the promise of warmth, holding a living fire in its cast-iron chest. But it is also the fire we fear escaping its safe confines, swallowing our fragile wood structures in heated gulps, easily spreading to destroy whole neighborhoods. One rightfully fears the fire from the sky, lightning striking down the statistically unlucky, sparking events that can all too quickly level entire forests. Fires exploding on cue in our internal combustion engines, converting oil from the corporal bodies of prehistoric beings into noxious airborne gases. Fires lit by white-robed racists to drive some family out, by occasional dishonest home owners in order to cash in on the insurance, by the shivering homeless lighting trash behind a convenience store. The Indians coveted the early
colonists' guns, calling them "fire-sticks." And of all the things in the world that scare us, we perhaps fear most the atmosphere itself set ablaze by a thermonuclear warhead, hundreds of times more powerful than those set off above devastated Japanese cities in 1945.

In the psychological sense, it seems the cycle of destruction and rebirth often gets its way long before what some call the "judgment day." The lives we bind so tightly come apart wildly when they come apart at all. Carefully mended and tended psyches unravel when we least expect it, responding to the disorientation of an increasingly vicarious and abstract society. The rootlessness of modern generations, the loss of tradition and impounding of elders. The retreat to drugs and alcohol, into facile entertainment or constant activity. The dominance of future and the past at the expense of the present, the repressing of emotion and rejection of adventure. In the process one feels "burned"—homes, careers, families and identities sometimes going up in smoke. What psychotherapists call a "nervous breakdown," primal cultures considered shamanic transformation, the necessary total consumption of one's old form by the purifying fires. Beneath the ash, the ash of certainty, lies the miracle of seed.

"From ashes to ashes," the conventional eulogy reads. And in-between are birthed ever new forms, ever new manifestations of spirit and bundles of atoms—the flooding of the hottest plain with life-sustaining rain, and the steam that rises as clouds where death meets life and fire meets water.

The very best fires, I know, burn not outside of us but within. It blazes away in the eyes of lovers and explorers, stokes the hearts of the brave, and melts the ice that collects above the lip when we turn a ship's prow into forbidding seas. More than the wind swelling the sails, it is the fire of the heart that pushes one onwards towards the many faces of the unknown. There was a fire housed in the hearts of those who defended their homestead caverns against the encroachment of giant cave bears, and that still sparkles in the pupils of children calling upon hesitant adults to join in their play. "She was all fired-up," folks might say about someone, meaning that she has no shortage of energy, and that there is "no stopping her."

My partners check in with me between workshops, wanting to hear the latest on the burning forest. They too seem to burn, but with desire and persistence, determined to make their gathering the best it can possibly be.

 

22 June 2006

Today, thunder shakes the mountains and lightning commits its horrifying mischief, but there is no moisture to dampen the dry, heated ground. What rains down is ash, the remnants of devoured juniper and pine boughs first carried high into the sky. Some of it still glows, leaving trails of orange where they fall through the air. Smoke has rolled in like an acrid fog, obscuring my view of the gorgeous orange and purple cliffs a half-mile downriver. It comes not from the 6,000-acre Martinez fire (now, together with the Wilson fire, dubbed the Reserve Complex fire) that passed so close to our west, but from the Bear fire 20 miles to the southeast, covering 40,000 charred acres as I write this, and continuing to grow. I read about a half-dozen other burns, including one near the Lake Roberts development above Silver City. Plotting them all on my map, it seems as if the entire Gila bioregion is on fire.

It's the last day of the gathering, and I drive the women's gear out while they walk and enjoy their last moments in the canyon. The 10-mile drive to town is like never before. The usually empty road is lined with green-painted vehicles, with Hot Shot crews resting in the shade. Water trucks stand by to help protect homes, and tired state policemen stand in the heat manning roadblocks. No nonessential vehicles are being allowed past the old sawmill, in order to keep the lanes clear for firefighters' vehicles. The courthouse has more people in front of it than they had for the anti-UN rally, and an official stands atop a truck across the street reading a prepared statement to a throng of nervous citizens. I notice a large number of firefighters clogging the waiting room of the Reserve clinic, waiting to be treated for smoke inhalation, cuts and bruises. These are some of the heroic ones whose job it is to stand between the private cabins near Willow Creek and the flames that seek to swallow them.

The smoke they choked on comes not only from small trees and fallen slash, but also from old growth ponderosa and fir hundreds of years old. Giants that would usually survive a fast-moving brush fire are igniting like Roman candles as I write this, largely because of decades of woody buildup on the forest floor. This kindling, piled at the bases of the big trees, exists thanks to the well-meaning but misguided policy of complete fire suppression—and the unfortunate efforts of equally well-meaning conservationists like myself who once pushed for "zero cutting." It was believed that careful selective thinning could have approximated natural conditions, employing locals and increasing biodiversity by creating meadows and encouraging the kinds of plant species that make ideal wildlife forage. Instead, it is the flames that claim the timber the loggers coveted and forest-loving environmentalists had hoped to save.

Scientists and Forest Service administrators are in agreement now that fire is a natural and essential component of the ecosystem, as much as the deer and its predators, as much as those trees and the fungi that help pass nutrients to their roots. The mistake was in thinking that we knew more than nature, and more than the Native Americans who had for so long used wildfire as a beneficial tool. Our relatively recent shift in understanding is more important than ever, given that degree of woody buildup during what is likely to be an increasingly difficult drought cycle. Climatological research indicates that in the last 50 or so years we likely came to the end of a long wet and cool period, and that we may be entering a 500-year period of hotter and drier weather. This prediction is based on ice samples, tree rings and mineral evidence, measuring natural cycles without taking into account the likely Greenhouse Effect that we hear so much about. That effect could contribute an additional percentage to overall
global temperatures, and to the American Southwest in particular. As it turns out, what we call drought conditions are actually the norm for this region, with the previous few centuries having been the exception rather than the rule.

For these reasons and more, the care of the Southwest's rivers and watersheds will be more important than ever. Whatever reduces erosion-resisting grasses and live plant cover will have to be controlled for the sake of the relatively few rivers and streams. The underground water table will need to be maintained, by the elimination of invasive water-hogs like the exotic salt cedar, the cutting or burning of unnaturally pervasive juniper and piñon, and the prevention of any future large-scale industrial use. Thick "PJ," as these stands are called, need to be treated the way the Apache once did, with deliberate controlled or "use" burns. The Forest Service is doing well, letting those areas burn when the conditions are right to keep them from getting too hot, and setting some themselves when the opportunity is ideal.

So far I have heard of no private buildings being lost, though that could well have changed by the time you read this. As such, it is true blessing. The long swath that was "PJ" to the west of us will undoubtedly benefit, with an abundance of grasses and wildflowers. It will serve, as well, as a fire buffer for at least the next 10 years. And the springs in Saliz Canyon are likely to start running with water again. The Bear fire is another matter altogether, taking out way too many old trees, and continues to be a threat to property.

One is never completely safe, of course, and that is part of the lesson of this crimson summer. Security lies not in legislation, nor even in courageously manned fire-lines, but in the secure knowledge that whatever comes, we will deal with it. And whatever happens we will still know ourselves as home.

I return to the canyon to find most of the smoke has once again blown out, leaving just enough to give the last rays of the sun an impossibly yellow glow. The volcanic cliffs I love so much, the trees I have worried so much about, and even the river are bathed in gold. Gilded and blessed.

In the Northwest and other parts of the world there are certain coniferous trees whose pods open only after being ravaged by a quick burn. Like those stubborn cones, it often takes a firestorm to expose in us the seeds of our potential. I intend to give my life to this place, to see that our Animá Center can continue to host folks for deep connection and life-changing realizations, to try and keep this restored sanctuary so it never burns down. At the same time, I hope to one day learn how to welcome—like those tight-fisted cones—the release of flames, the heated passion of fire and change.

 

Jesse Wolf Hardin is the author of five books on
nature and sense of place, as well as the just released
Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts: Twists & Tales of the Old West
(Shoot Pub., 2006).

He cohosts wilderness retreats and events at the
Animá Center mail@animacenter.org.

 

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