Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash

Brilliant Forests, Burning

BRITISH COLUMBIA is burning, like so much of the West — and like so much of the West, Seattle is smoky, streets dim and Victorian, mountains hazy, particulate levels exceedingly high. Particulates: the particular bits of burning things, the things burning being the Northwest’s forests, the forests and their beings.

Which are first of all trees: snags, sprouts, saplings, old growth, monoculture third-growth firs. And spruce needles, bigleaf maple twigs, alder catkins, yellowing green cottonwood leaves, hemlock heartwood, root tannins of yellow cedar, pitchy upright alpine fir cones, resin blisters of western white pine, the hands-breadth bark of old Douglas firs. And farther east, the puzzle pieces flaking off ponderosa pines impervious to fire to a point — and then past that point ponderosa needles, branches, limbs.

And smoke is the claw marks in aspen trees climbed by bear cubs, and black scars in white bark of birches where elk scratched their antlers. It is mycelium-laced snags sprouting witch’s butter and artist’s conk and varnished red-brown reishi. It is the orange punk of ancient western red-cedar stumps. The spring green of bitter cherry saplings. It is whole alder leaves, blackened and untouchably delicate, swirled up, blown south, crushed finally by air.

The haze between the hills is black-tailed deer hair caught in salmonberry thorns, chickaree middens and the stumps that held them and the chickarees, too, when the fire trapped them. It is empty shells (brown-spotted, pale blue) in Swainson’s thrush nests in curving Douglas maple trees. It is flame-orange northern flicker feathers fallen in sword ferns, and the sword ferns. It is licorice fern, deer fern, maidenhair fern, bracken. It is dry and dormant mosses flash-charred into dust.

The dust in our lungs is lettuce lung and lungwort, pimpled kidney and peppered moon, frog pelt and freckle pelt, forking and beaded bone, ragbag and tattered rag, antlered perfume, sulphur stubble and common witch’s hair. Blood-spattered beard. False pixie cup. Devil’s matchstick.

The weird redness in the few beams of sunlight is the berry seeds from black bears’ scat. And the berry bushes: huckleberries red black blue, serviceberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, blackberries, black raspberries, dewberries, elderberries, snowberries, gooseberries, mooseberries, kinnikinnick, salal. It is cow parsnip and lady’s slipper, columbine and bleeding heart. It is the foxglove and fireweed of clear cuts, and the trillium and wood violet of old forest glades. It is the medicine of devil’s club and corn lily.

The rasp in our throats is slime from stones in small streams turned to steam. It is the rust of broken culverts beneath old logging roads, pressure-treated posts holding road signs and trail signs, the grasses and oxeye daisies that grow in gravel roads. It is the tarred wood of bridges. It is melted asphalt.

The orange tint to the moon is the burnt bones of long-dead wolves, the flesh of whole voles. It is the black-and-yellow millipedes that smell like almonds when scared. It is the leaves a mountain beaver dried and stacked like hay for winter. It is the pearly eggs of slugs. It is spiderwebs and spiders, iridescent flies. It is thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes. It is weasels and martens and fishers, Pacific tree frog, giant salamander, old and particularly slow-moving lynx.

All of them burning, rising, floating, flying, settling in our lungs, on our skin, on lawns, skyscrapers, and lakes. A film in our water glasses, grime on our windshields, dust on our backyard tomatoes. Hundreds of miles from where they grew, these forest particles become part of our place. There is no line, now, if there ever was, between there and here, burning and breathing, their life and our own. O

 

Becca Rose Hall lives near Seattle with her daughter and directs Frog Hollow School, a writing program for children. She was the Lighthouse Writers 2019 Emerging Fiction Fellow and recently finished a novel.

 

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