A Song for the River

In the mountains of southwestern New Mexico, a seasoned fire lookout watches as his beloved forest and his personal life burn, and he tries to imagine what will arise from their ashes.

Philip ConnorsA Song for the River | Cinco Puntos Press | September 2018 | 28 minutes (5,578 words)

By sheer dumb luck I happened to be facing the lightning when it struck: a livid filament that reappeared on my eyelids when I blinked. A blue puff of smoke bloomed skyward from the top of the ridge, superheated sap boiled to vapor in an instant. It dispersed on the breeze so quickly I wondered whether I had imagined it — whether, having become at last clinically pyromaniacal, I had willed the tree to catch fire and conjured the evidence to prove it.

I reached for the field glasses where they hung from a hook in the ceiling of the tower, an instinctual move made without looking away from the spot of the strike. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, focused on the ridgeline. Waited. Remembered to breathe. Waited some more. Nothing amiss. Nothing new or different along the contour of the hill.

Then it happened: the slightest rupture in the continuity of the view, a light white fog that ghosted the length of the tree and twisted through its branches, only to disperse again on the breeze. This smudge of smoke confirmed that I hadn’t been hallucinating — that indeed a bolt from the clouds had lit the tree on fire, and I had been witness to the genesis. I set the binoculars aside, crouched behind the peephole of my Osborne Fire Finder, and waited for the smoke to puff again. When it did, I aimed the crosshairs through the viewfinder and noted the azimuth to the fraction of a degree.

This fact in hand, I turned to my maps and compared what they told me with the topography surrounding the smoke, noting its relation to the nearest prominent feature on the landscape, a small but unmistakable peak. Confident I had pinned the fire within a single square mile on the map, I called the dispatcher with my report: lightning-struck snag, narrow column of light- colored smoke, compass direction from me expressed in degrees azimuth, location by township, range, and section. The Silver Fire: named for nearby Silver Creek.

This one appeared poised to go big and stay awhile.

The conditions of the forest where it occurred foretold what the fire became; or as we say in the business, fuel structure aligned with weather to offer high spread potential. All the ingredients for a conflagration were in place. For the sake of cattle forage  and stability on the watershed and a pleasing view of dense green trees from a tourist highway and a dozen other excuses that taken together amounted to outmoded and contradictory dogma, the surrounding country had been starved of fire — every new smoke suppressed as quickly as possible — going back a hundred years, an astonishing feat of military technology and human hubris. The result was an overgrown, unhealthy patch of forest further stressed by the realities of climate change. Thousands of dead white fir trees, killed by beetles a decade earlier, sprinkled the surrounding hillsides, and fuel moisture in the living trees had been sapped by years of substandard snowpack and above-average temperatures.

The weather forecast predicted the trifecta of hot, dry, windy conditions in the days ahead. All available smokejumpers had been dropped on two other fires earlier in the afternoon, so none were still on call for the initial attack. Despite being well outside the Wilderness, the topography was too steep and thickly forested for helicopter landings, so the only option for suppression was to send an engine crew whose members would have to hike cross country from the end of a bad dirt road, a trip that took four hours, drive time included.

For two full days I had a grandstand seat as my colleagues performed their suppression efforts — first the ground crew scratching a containment line around the fire, then air tankers dropping fire-retardant slurry from above. The containment line didn’t hold because big conifers kept toppling and rolling downslope, starting new spot fires below the crew, who had no choice but to flee for their lives. I stayed in service with them past midnight that first night, scanning their radio traffic on the tactical channel, eavesdropping on their progress and offering a communication link if they needed one, but I was of no use to their doomed efforts.

The next day’s repeated slurry drops didn’t hold because the fire had grown too hot, actively burning through the sundown hours when agency planes were forbidden to fly for safety reasons. They offered an impressive spectacle by daylight, two alternating bombers flying low over the ridge, first one, then the other, load-and-return from the aerial fire base all day long. The red-tinted mud unfurled in translucent streamers, dispersing into the treetops like a poison mist, but every drop of it — 50,000 gallons of slurry, plus another 30,000 of water — was for naught. It was one more run at the old game, putting out fires with emergency money in liquid form, but the rules of that game had been written in a previous century, under conditions that no longer applied. A hotshot crew sent to scout the country for containment strategies reported back that there were none that didn’t risk injury or death.

On the fire’s second night, I stood in the meadow on top of my mountain and watched the flames rupture the dark like lava spewing from a fissure in the earth. The slow-motion momentum of a natural catastrophe exerted a powerful spell: the sight menaced and titillated in equal measure. Even after I called out of service for the evening, I couldn’t step away for more than half an hour before returning to the tower and staring some more. The fire had spread over seventy acres. The question now was whether the entire length of the Black Range would burn, or if some portion would be spared.

Late in the morning of day three, a running crown fire took off in the canopy as the wind pushed the flames upslope toward the crest of the range. Two hundred acres burned in the span of an hour, trees torching like Roman candles in flame lengths of 100 feet. Mesmerized, I watched the smoke — first white, then darkening through various shades of gray, finally culminating in black — rise skyward like the plume from a muddy geyser.

The order to evacuate came just after lunch. I was told I had forty-five minutes to grab the possessions dearest to me and lock up the facilities for a departure of indefinite duration. A helicopter would soon spool up to pluck me from the peak and deliver me to the trailhead, where my truck was parked directly in the path of the fire.

I hauled my gear out to the Marston Mat helipad — typewriter, box of books, backpack full of clothes, cooler of perishable food, a few other odds and ends — and made one last walk around the mountain, noting the various man-made flammables. Among them were the aspenwood hitching post I had just rebuilt, the picket fence around the propane tanks, the sign welcoming visitors, the old log cabin. Whether any or all would remain when I returned was an open question.

Two hundred acres burned in the span of an hour, trees torching like Roman candles in flame lengths of 100 feet.

Oblivious to the drama playing out five miles south, hummingbirds clustered at the feeders I had hung for them. They drank my simple syrup mixture, chittering and whistling, flaring their wings to mime dominance or dislodge a seat at the table. The syrup would be gone in a day or two without me around to replenish it — but the fire would force the birds to find new feeding grounds anyway. They would move on. They would survive.

Soon the distant buzz of the chopper made itself heard, a  low percussive hum that gathered strength until it roared over the meadow. The grass bent beneath the force of the rotor like seaweed swaying in the tide. Two helitack personnel ducked out the side door and loaded my supplies, a perfunctory job, performed wordlessly. It was a humbling and even sort of sickening feeling to board the machine for the flight out. More than a hundred times I had come and gone from the mountain over the years, mostly under power of my own two legs, a few times by the legs of a horse. To leave by the magic of internal combustion was as dispiriting as it was novel, almost equal parts elation and despair, with a side helping of guilt given my devotion to non-motorized Wilderness travel. The point of the work is early detection: the sooner you spot a fire, the more options you give firefighters to manage it. When you’re airlifted by the whirlybird, their options have dwindled, and so have yours — to none but run.

Over the course of eleven summers, I had sat in my mountain minaret and marveled at the harshness and beauty of the view, but to see it for the first time from a bird’s perspective astonished me anew. As the chopper rumbled along the crest toward the trailhead, I looked out the window upon a forbidding landscape, east-west canyons dropping sharply from the top of the divide, each of them cradled by shark-fin ridges and brutal bluffs — a forest of Douglas fir and white pine on the high peaks, pockets of aspen on the north-facing slopes, ponderosa on the south aspects, here and there a piñon pine. The smooth white bark of certain aspens still showed cowboy dendroglyphs carved almost a century ago. Amid them stood gnarly survivor trees whose bark had been corkscrewed by lightning. Others were marked by the scars of old ground fires at their base. A few of them had been almost like friends to me, sources of wonder and comfort. Their cool breath. Their proud bearing. Their highly individual shapes. Being among the most rooted of life forms — challenged by changing climatic conditions, unable to flee more immediate catastrophes — they were uniquely vulnerable organisms, which only added to their beauty. I tried to fix them in my imagination even as I bid them goodbye.

When we landed at the pass, I stepped from the chopper and removed my flight helmet to watch the smoke rise and spin like a cyclone to the south, a vortex of unimaginable heat. Ash fell like flakes of snow on the hood of my pickup truck, and the growl of the fire could be heard more than a mile away.

I joined the Black Range district ranger and three firefighters standing on the edge of the paved overlook, none of us quite capable of articulating the awe we felt at what we saw and what it meant for a forest we knew well and loved. I reminded myself that the mountains had always known fire, were in fact born in a cataclysm of fire, during a great volcanic explosion in the Eocene Epoch, an event orders of magnitude more dazzling than even the most spectacular wildfire.

Created in fire, the mountains would naturally succumb to it for renewal and rebirth. June 7, 2013, happened to be the day they did so.

***

When I first became a lookout, during the fire season of 2002, I was as green as they come. About the only thing I knew for sure was which end of the binoculars to attach to my face. No one offered me a primer on the necessity of burns for maintaining the health of fire-adapted ecosystems. No one told me that the Gila National Forest was smack in the middle of a highly flammable swath of the American Southwest, although I would learn soon enough. At the time I didn’t care much about fire. I mostly marveled at the fact that I had stumbled into a paid writing retreat with beaucoup views. I studied the maps and listened closely to the voices on my radio. I wanted to be good enough at the essentials of the job to keep being asked back.

The next season changed my relationship with the country — or rather gave me the beginnings of one. Throughout the summer of 2003, I sat in my tower enthralled as the Dry Lakes Fire meandered through the southern portion of the Gila Wilderness, scarring nearly 100,000 acres in the end. At night spots of open flame glowed on the horizon like bonfires at a reunion of nomadic tribes. By day an observer plane kept in contact with ground crews, monitoring the progress of the burn from above. On my two-way radio, I heard talk of how the fire was “backing slowly off the ridge tops” and “burning nicely in the pondo” and “doing exactly what we want it to.” The smoke was beautiful to behold, a vast conglomeration of lazy white gossamer pennants rippling in the wind, and the language used to describe it unfailingly affirmative. The sunsets were bonkers, the mornings redolent of campfire. I was astonished. I was hooked.

Every autumn thereafter, when the fire season was over, I would visit a fresh burn scar somewhere in the forest’s 3.3 million acres, poking around in the char. Far from being barren hellscapes devoid of life, as I had imagined, the burn scars quickly became magnets for birds, small mammals, black bears, deer, and elk. It was true that the disturbance to the land left an eerie calm at first, since anything that could run, fly, burrow, or slither away did so, but the initial post-fire rain jump-started a whole series of complex interactions, beginning with the formation of new communities of mosses and fungi in the uppermost layer of soil. Wood-boring insects found new homes in standing snags. Woodpeckers and sapsuckers pecked away at the flourishing insect life. Rodents emerged from their burrows to thrive on the regrowth of seed-bearing forbs and grasses, fattening into targets for hawks and owls. Elk and deer foraged on the leaves of replicating aspen. Bears found sustenance in new little colonies of raspberries and gooseberries, and in acorns from resprouting oak. For some forms of life, of course, wildfire signaled the end of the dance. For others, it represented the first notes of a new song.

In 1978 the Gila had announced that, for the first time in any national forest anywhere in the US, an area of 30,000 acres in the Wilderness would be allowed to burn in “prescribed natural fires” if the conditions were right — a belated recognition that the land had burned for millennia, with no paramilitary force in place to stamp out smokes until the first years of the 20th century. At the time it was a radical leap to think of that much of the forest being allowed to burn in one fire.

Thirty-four years later, and a decade into my education in the combustible realities of the Gila, an area ten times that went up in smoke. During the autumn of 2012, I hiked into the southern fringes of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire scar, which I had watched burn for several weeks that May and June from my tower thirty miles away. I had inhaled its downwind smoke, even peered through the scrim of it one evening directly at a solar eclipse, sans protective eyewear — the smokescreen was protection enough. Having spread across nearly 300,000 acres, the fire became by far the biggest in the recorded history of New Mexico. The smoke plume on the day it blew up, when a high-wind event pushed two separate fires together into a roaring monster, resembled nothing I had ever seen in nature, an angry aubergine band smeared across my northern horizon like a brushstroke from the hand of a demented god.

The burn had been cold twelve weeks by the time I had the chance to backpack up Little Dry Creek, then on toward the high peaks of the Gila Wilderness. The landscape seemed to pulse with color under gray, monsoon-season skies. Rain fell each day, and fog swallowed the better part of every afternoon, but the color palette remained vivid. Whorls of red and gold and silver from various minerals in the soil runoff decorated the rich black mud in the creek bottom. Dead needles on standing conifers shone a brilliant orange where trees had succumbed to the heat of ground fire. Torched snags, some on the ground, some still rooted like candlesticks — casualties of a raging crown fire, the flames having jumped straight from treetop to treetop — loomed eerily skeletal through the mist. Here and there, eruptions of green poked through the blanket of black: oak sprouts on south-facing slopes, aspen shoots already hip high on north-facing slopes, New Mexico locust scattered amid both. Wildflowers bloomed in manic profusion from big patches of bare soil, impressionistic daubs of yellow, purple, red, and blue. It was all very beautiful — and still I couldn’t help but feel the loss.

For some forms of life, of course, wildfire signaled the end of the dance. For others it represented the first notes of a new song.

Our long 20th-century war on fire made big burns such as Whitewater-Baldy so outside the norm they felt like wounds not just to landscapes but also to the human psyche. Partly this was due to the time scale at work. Stand-replacement fires, the kind that burned with high intensity, killing all the living trees across a wide area, had been the rule for the spruce-fir belt in this part of the world. But they tended to happen in any given place just once every hundred years at most, making them outside the course of normal events in a human lifetime — and almost unheard of in the Forest Service era, post-1900. They also tended to be confined to discreet patches of forest, a few hundred or a thousand acres, whereas the Whitewater-Baldy Fire burned at stand-replacing severity over numerous contiguous patches of as much as 5,000 acres apiece.

Even on the Gila, which stood at the vanguard of letting some burns do their thing, we still suppressed more than 90 percent of all new smokes each year, out of an excess of caution and adherence to institutional habits. We wanted it to burn “on our terms,” we sometimes said, so when it came time to let loose some fire on the land, we found it easiest to let the mid-elevation ponderosa savannah succumb to flames. It had always burned more frequently than the spruce-fir higher up the mountains, and the big open areas of grass guaranteed easier ignition, faster spread, and sizeable burns, even as fire intensity rarely got out of hand. In the ponderosa there wasn’t enough heavy fuel to let it get out of hand, and containment lines representing the “maximum manageable area” of a burn could be built by improving existing trails across the ridges and mesas well in advance of fire reaching them, and lighting backfires at strategic moments as the main fire approached.

Allowing fires to burn in the high country took much more patience. They could be slow to take hold in the cool, shaded timber that was snowed in half the year, but the bureaucracy did not reward patience when it came to wildfire. Agency protocol demanded that decisions on whether to suppress or let burn be made quickly upon detection and the easiest thing to do in the high country was to drop a couple of smokejumpers or fly in a helitack crew to fell a few trees and scrape a quick line and call it victory. This foreclosed the risk of a dry spell setting in and combining with a wind event to set the dense spruce and fir to torching with ungodly flame lengths and eruptions of black smoke — the sort of fire-prone to light up the switchboard in the supervisor’s office with calls from a terrified public.

Playing with fire held risks, of course, but so did suppression.

The impulse to fight fires had stunted the evolution of an ever-changing mosaic of areas that were lightly or partially burned in the mixed conifer and spruce-fir. Such a patchwork of forest in sundry phases of recovery from fire, with occasional open meadows and plenty of aspen pockets mingled among the conifers, represented an insurance policy against a megafire. Ask any lookout on the Gila, and she could rattle off a list of fires by name — a dozen or a hundred depending on length of service — that, if allowed to burn, could have helped create the mosiac of forest types that would have prevented Whitewater-Baldy from blowing up as big as it did.

Another way to think about it is that every single fire ever suppressed in the Mogollon Mountains made Whitewater-Baldy a little bit bigger and a little bit hotter than it would have been otherwise. Others have said it before me, and I have elsewhere borrowed their words, but it’s worth saying again: we thought we were putting out fires when in fact we were only putting them off. Later in the autumn of 2012 I visited the burn scar of the McKnight Fire, just northwest of my lookout. For decades it held the record as the state’s biggest fire: 50,000 acres of the Black Range high country, ignited by the spontaneous combustion of sawdust at a logging operation in 1951. At the time it was judged an appalling and irreversible catastrophe, and many in the Forest Service hoped that with rapid detection and overwhelming suppression we would never again see its kind. (Rapid detection and the deployment of more than 700 firefighters made little difference to its final size, but no matter.) Six decades later, with its brilliant display of fall color, this scar was a vivid teaching aid in ecological succession, the process by which one forest type replaces another in the aftermath of a major disturbance. Here and there a standing snag rose like an iron spire, a reminder of the forest that was. Aspen and oak in subtly varying shades of yellow painted the top of the range, encircling remnant islands of unburned conifers. Beneath the aspen — the major colonizing species on the high peaks — young conifer reproduction had begun, on its way to taking over again if the country stayed free of fire for another twenty years. In the limpid light of a New Mexico autumn, the whole top of the range appeared to tremble with a magic aura, a technicolor dream coat of saffron and copper and gold.

Most of those lovely leaves and nearly all of the young conifers would burn and run black through feeder streams of the Rio Grande before nine months had passed, in a fire I would spot when it was nothing but a single smoldering tree.

***

When its growth ceased, four weeks after it began, the Silver Fire had moved across 138,705 acres, or 214 square miles. It lived on through the rains for an additional week or two in scattered stump holes, burning in the roots of trees it had already consumed aboveground, sending up smoke signals from the underside of the Earth.

My boss granted me permission to return to my mountain in the final week of July. “Don’t get too depressed up there,” he said. “Remember, a big fire is just the birthday for the next forest. It will be green again before long.”

It was a peculiar hike in, that first time back. Much of the walk was lacking in living vegetation. It made me feel a little vulnerable to move through the landscape, visible as I was from a distance. Then I remembered the burn area was still under a closure order: the country was entirely mine, for a little while anyway. No one would see me but the birds. Still, it felt spooky to be so exposed in a place where the forest had once provided the shade of an intermittent canopy. Now there was no proper canopy, just a bare etching of black branches against a pale blue sky. On a trail I had hiked so often I could make my way along it in the dark, I felt as if I were having the inverse of a déjà vu experience — traveling through a familiar place made newly strange.

The view to the south, where the fire first got up and ran, encompassed a stunning tableau of destruction, a 10,000-acre patch of forest transformed into charcoal: a century of accumulated biomass reduced to blackened stalks overnight. It had the naked look of country whose soil structure might unravel with one hard rain. Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I thought, as my fireproof Nomex pants accumulated streaks and smudges from burnt branches and fallen logs. I was slowly taking on the camouflage offered by the country — becoming, step by step, one with the char.

Three-quarters of the way to the top, big stands of intact forest appeared where the fire didn’t climb into the crowns of the trees, thanks to a mid-June rain that moderated fire behavior for a weekend. That pause helped preserve my immediate environs far better than I had dared hope, in part by allowing a window of opportunity for a burnout operation. With the smoke and flames tamped down by higher humidity, a helicopter was able to maneuver in close enough to drop ping-pong balls juiced with potassium permanganate and glycol in a big circle around the lookout. When the balls hit the ground they ignited the surface fine fuels but spared the trees above, robbing the Silver Fire of continuous fuel — fire fought with fire. Standing in the middle of the open meadow on the mountain, rejoicing in the sight of the cabin and tower standing unscathed, I could hardly tell there had been a burn in the neighborhood at all. The peak still wore its cap of pine and fir, and the meadow grasses were luxuriant from the rains.

As I made my initial survey of the facilities, something caught my eye in the grass, something bright green and gently quivering. I bent close and studied it: a mountain tree frog. I had heard its telltale croak on occasion, late in previous seasons, usually around the pond on the flank of the mountain, but I had never seen one up on top. I sat down near it, as unthreateningly as possible, and tried to remain as still as it did for the next half hour, my compatriot on an island of green, each of us breathing but otherwise motionless.

It thrilled me as much as any wildlife encounter I had ever experienced, probably because it contrasted so starkly with my pessimistic assumptions of what I would find on my return. Despite a decade of visiting the aftermath of big burns, seeing how quickly the regrowth came, I had arrived expecting only the funereal this time, probably because the changes hit extra close to home. My attachment to the landscape surrounding that mountain had arisen from an ongoing intimacy with all its moods and weathers and creatures. It had been cemented by a fondness for certain special places I had come to think of as sacred, places whose beauty had offered me a lifeline through more than one kind of loss: in the beginning, the death of a brother; more recently, the end of a marriage. With the forest reshaped, I had feared another in a suite of losses whose accumulated weight I struggled to bear.

Scorched earth was now the ground we inhabited if we lived in or near the forests of the American West.

Many of us who lived in and cared about the American West felt that sense of mounting loss, felt it in our physical beings — our reason for living here rooted in the physical, after all, both the land’s and our own. We liked the look and feel and smell of the mountains and we liked to test ourselves in them, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, horseback riding, fly fishing, elk hunting — you name it, there was something for everyone, and big chunks of public land on which to do it. But landscapes we loved were being transformed on a scale that was hard to absorb; entire mountain ranges were burning up. For a hundred years we mostly kept the scorch at bay. We became expert at deploying shock troops in the war on fire, bringing the hurt to an elemental force we convinced ourselves was unnatural. As a result, we cultivated a public belief in the idea that our forests were meant to remain forever dense and green, timeless and static. Just as we awoke to the rude fact of our mistake, the fires became bigger and more intense than any we had ever seen, even in places like the Gila, with a decades-long history of aggressive burning, though not quite aggressive enough. Scorched earth was now the ground we inhabited if we lived in or near the forests of the American West. We often wondered how long it would take for them to “recover” from being burned. Too infrequently did we recall that a charred forest was itself in recovery from having been kept artificially green, by a war fought in our name, and paid for by our tax dollars — a war it seemed would never end, although the battles were often rearguard actions now.

In “Lifetimes With Fire,” Gary Snyder wrote: In 1952 and ’53 I worked on fire lookouts in the Skagit District of the Mount Baker forest, northern Washington Cascades. Crater Mountain first and then Sourdough. Those were the first jobs I’d held that I felt had some virtue. Guarding against forest fires, finally I had found Right Occupation. I congratulated myself as I stood up there above the clouds memorizing various peaks and watersheds, for finding a job that didn’t contribute to the Cold War and the wasteful modern economy. The joke’s on me as I learn fifty years later how much the fire suppression ideology was wrong-headed and how much it has contributed to our current problems.

I knew that feeling of self-congratulation. I had once bailed on a career in corporate journalism because I came to detest its narrow range of acceptable opinion and its attitude of deference to officially constituted power. With a few vivid exceptions, it mostly served to normalize sociopathic greed and endless war. I wanted no part in buttressing either. Instead, I ran away to a lookout tower in the world’s first Wilderness and even managed by sheer happenstance to land in a place with an enlightened attitude about fire. I bathed in my sense of good fortune and felt a little smug every time I thought of my friends toiling away at their computers back east, feeding the bottomless maws of the content machines. But the joke was on me as I learned our enlightenment had come too late to prevent huge, abnormally destructive burns in the age of rapid planetary heating. I had arrived seeking freedom and found more than my fair share, the nearest thing on Earth to my own private utopia. True wild in the 21st century was a rare vintage indeed, but I had tasted it. The price was my attendance at what came to feel like a wake for the Holocene.

The miracle of concealed combustion — of the sort found in jet engines and coal-fired power plants, the sort upon which our entire way of life was built — once did us the favor of drawing a discreet curtain between our appetites and the immense heat that made their satisfaction possible, from morning commute to bedtime calibration of the thermostat. The effects of our ongoing resurrection of the Carboniferous, everywhere visible — vanishing glaciers, megafires — no longer granted us any such courtesy. Having exhumed oil and coal from the bowels of the Earth and torched them in world-altering quantities, we now inhabited the space between their origin underground and their destination in the atmosphere: the surface of a planet on fire. From the taiga along the Arctic Circle to the brushlands of Australia, the world was burning up. It wasn’t merely my vocation that made me think this a fact best appreciated from a high place, the higher the better. NASA satellites, for instance, showed smoke from the Whitewater-Baldy Fire visible from space in May of 2012. The plume blew several hundred miles across the borders of six states, as far north as Iowa.

In the southern Black Range, the old, green forest lived only in remnants and memories, and some of the memories were mine. It was a sobering thought, the idea that my mind, if I lived another forty years, might become one of the last repositories on Earth of how certain stands of old growth looked and felt and smelled in a place once called “the wildest Wilderness in the West.” At first, I wondered whether the fire would deform my connection with the country — whether it would inflict a wound that would forever disfigure my passion for it. Instead I found I loved it more than ever, indeed felt an obligation to continue my annual mountain-sitting retreat for as long as I felt physically able, years into the future I dared hope, in order to see what the place would become, what capability for resilience it possessed, if only we could leave it the hell alone and let it burn.

Ecologists would find plenty to keep them busy in the years to come, cataloging transformations, tallying losses and gains, but any sentient human with an interest in actual science could intuit that more would be lost than gained. As the planet went on heating, the spruce-fir and mixed-conifer forests of the Southwest would continue torching off, destined to pass into legend and lore. Perhaps the amphibians that called them home would one day vanish too: a mountain tree frog at 10,000 feet in the Black Range had nowhere higher — and therefore nowhere cooler — to move to escape warming temperatures. This plot of ground was its final refuge, unless it found a way to hitch a ride on clouds.

It would fall to the poets among us to work up a lament for the unmaking and remaking of our forests, a lament that at the very least accommodated, perhaps even found ways to celebrate, the taste of ash and the color black.

***

From A Song for the River, by Philip Connors, published by Cinco Puntos Press, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Philip Connors. All rights reserved.