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. Read Hall’s Lay of the Land, “Brilliant Forests, Burning,” in our Summer 2020 issue here

 

Comments

  1. Such beauty and horror exquisitely portrayed.

  2. Oh those baby soldiers, all in a row
    burnt without the incense above.
    arm sized stems, embers aglow
    food for the feller-buncher’s glove
    lives cut short no water within
    no room between for flowers to grin
    miles of toast and dry dusty soil.
    we cannot walk between those baby trees
    now, just embers, smoke and memories

  3. so brilliantly tragic, naming what is lost, so we might remember. so we might even notice!

  4. I second all of the above and would add, read it aloud. Make the time and space to read it aloud. The language, the sounds…

  5. The engrossing embodiment, the naming of specifics, the horror and the beauty all exist here. Much appreciation for bring tactile reality to this phenomenon.

  6. This one really hits hard. From where I sit in Tucson, Arizona right now I can see a sky hazed over, a sun turned eerily and beautifully red, from the smoke carried to our desert skies from some 600 fires burning across California. I’ve read this melodic listing of life vaporized and carried through the sky out loud to myself a couple of times in recent days. Both the familiar and strange common names of plants and fungi roll off my tongue like smoke it seems. I’ll return to this piece often.

  7. This is beautiful, poetic and clearly written by someone who is totally at home in the forest. Her language is so rich, it’s “nonfiction” poetry. And the connection drawn between what is lost and what is breathed is a bridge far beyond what most can comprehend. Thank you for making it so real.

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