A frame of a person stands in front of a large uprooted tree, and that person looks like he is a giant flame, with orange and yellows. The forest in the background is green and wet.
Photographs by Pete Eckert

The Long View

Ecology of a body out of balance

I. Heart

SICKNESS WORKS LIKE THIS. There is something foreign in the body. A virus, a bloom of bacteria, havoc of single-celled organisms in the gut. The immune system blitzes what is unwanted—cells suffocating others that shouldn’t be there, purging the respiratory or digestive systems, amping up a fever to shatter a virus to bits. You feel sluggish, drained, exhausted. Then the body rids itself of the unwanted, or medicine pitches in. You get better, or you die. Don’t forget this part: the binary we’re taught of disease.

Autoimmunity works like this. There is no foreign attack. There is no external threat. There is only DNA gone askew, the body tripped up, attacking itself, fatigue of a fight without truce. Confusion. Antibodies spilling into the bloodstream. A body forgetting it belongs to itself.

If my breastbone were an alpine table, this all would have started cupped in the ridges of my ribs, those soft basins heavy with bad water. Something went wrong in the bedrock—could be the Swedish heritage, could be the Basque. Maybe there are tailings wedged in the talus, leaching bitterness the color of a favorite sunset.

This is how my body feels, an ecosystem misreading itself, rooted back to exhaustion and granite pressure. I’d place the first sighting, that pinpoint on a map, beside my heart, the dome over my lungs. Name it solid, constant. Name it a tiredness that holds me down when I want to run. Name it by feel, by years of knowing something is off. The pressure tightens across my breastbone. When I breathe in, it strikes like lightning.


I’ll tell you a secret. I’m afraid of nature right now. Not of bears or tumbles from cliffs, not of windstorms or mountain lions or wildfires scorching trees to matchsticks. I’m afraid of the looming unknown that has nothing to do with exploration or discovery. I’m afraid of the mess.


Of course, we’ll start with glaciers. They’re melting. You know this.


At the end of the last ice age, glaciers sauntered back north, exposing mountain ranges they’d gnawed to hills and marshy basins. These lowlands seeped full of meltwater, forming today’s Great Lakes. If you drive far west from this region, some of the first snowcapped mountains to thrust up from the plains are the Beartooths. Most people, weary from the flatness of the Dakotas, promised Rocky Mountain majesty, stumble from RVs to watch shaggy goats from the roadside. Snowfields drip near year-round, faster and faster these days.

Glacier National Park gets most of the press for glaciers in the Lower 48. Glacier just won’t be Glacier without glaciers, people say, weighing the loss of a namesake as much as the great slabs of ice themselves. But the Beartooth Mountains have glaciers tucked against their flanks as well. There are hundreds, both cirque and rock glaciers, more than Glacier National Park. Of all the glaciers in the Northern Rockies, the Beartooth Range holds 15 percent of them.

I wish I could say I’d touched one of those melting bodies like I have in Glacier National Park. From a distance, sure. My dad and I scattered our family dog’s ashes with a smear of peanut butter in the long and bare valley below Sky Top Glacier, watching wild geraniums flash in the wind of an approaching storm. One morning, I saw the biggest black bear of my life between slats of lodgepole beside Silver Lake, fed off Grasshopper Glacier, both of us with nothing on our backs but the gray magic before dawn. According to one study, Grasshopper Glacier lost something like half its area and 90 percent of its volume in less than a century.

The Beartooths’ largest glacier is Castle Rock Glacier, curled on the plateau far away from threading trails. It’s taken to the high country like a wolverine, jaws that break stone, an aversion to being seen by anyone except higher peaks. But it’s starving fast. Between 1952 and 2003, the glacier shed sixty meters of thickness. That’s over an arm span’s worth every year. That’s the closest I ever want to be to a bear.

Glaciers are defined by density, not age. The longer a core of snowpack sits in a cirque, the more it settles on itself, forming sandpaper horizons just like soil. Snowfields that aren’t quite dense enough to be called glaciers can still be hundreds or thousands of years old, and there are even more of these in the Beartooths, many unnamed, sprawling, and dripping thin. Come summer, their meltwater follows tourists back east, slipping at ease with elevation, onto the Great Plains to dampen corn and soybeans and wheat, and more often, to join ceaseless April rain and drown them.

Up on the Beartooth Plateau, scientists walk across earth pressed down like an animal had bedded there. Glacier lilies knit the slope, stretching into this uncapped ground for the first time in hundreds of years. You know the story. The ice is going, going, gone.



II. Eyes

BELOW THE PLATEAU, in the dry timber, someone flicks a cigarette butt onto a cut slope matted with cheatgrass, or dry lightning splits a hollow snag. The lodgepoles catch with a disturbing hunger. The air is saccharine with huckleberries and disease.

On a clear day, the view from the top of Lolo Peak, leaning over the Missoula Valley, extends nearly forty-five miles in each direction. That’s over six thousand square miles of vista, several mountain ranges, valley bottoms wrinkled with generations of snowmelt. In summer, fires burn in the peaks in and around Glacier National Park, smudging the view to the northeast like someone has swiped their thumb down the ragged backbone of the Missions. I’ve shed the belief that nature is a blanket healer, but somewhere in that shift I told myself distance would do the trick. I’ve never stopped peering toward the most distant thread of horizon.

Maybe I smelled the smoke then. Maybe that smudge found its way into the rim of my eyes too, and I took it for altitude or strain from too long focusing on my boots on rough talus. I’m better at the long view. How the mountain spoons its north summit, trips like a corduroy skirt all the way down to the golden cottonwood valley. Never mind the sting of tears; the view up here is just that good. Never mind the smudged glass, two pictures millimeters from aligning, like those songs where the singer layers their own voice a quarter second behind. The pieces don’t quite meet. They never do anymore, but I only notice if I’m looking for everything to make sense.


In July 2017, a glint of lightning finds dry pines and takes to Lolo Peak. The fire begins about a mile west of the summit, and from there continues to sweep across ridges, wrapping around the mountain in a shawl of flame. Winds gust, shift, sweep embers high into the copper sky. The cinders land on the next bluff over, tearing into fir and lodgepole and old giants of whitebark pine. The fire swarms higher, higher upslope, lapping into columned stands of subalpine larch.

Flames reverse, spin, and tumble downslope. On its eastern side the fire eyes the Bitterroot River and closes the highway, and on its southern flank it paces the edges of Lolo Creek. Pilot cars lead traffic into the walls of smoke, high beams dimmed to a child’s night light, the whole surrounding world shut in sepia.

Two homes burn down in the fire. Three thousand people are evacuated, told to grab what they can and leave. Sheriffs’ deputies weave up ponderosa-pillared drives, knock on front doors until someone opens. They have to leave. This is no disaster to wait out.

There’s no easy answer when it comes to wildfire in the West. Remember, nature is messy. Nature feeds on entropy, continual chaos, disturbances like wind and flame and flood to stack baselines back into an ecosystem. Lodgepole pines have serotinous cones sealed in resin that will only open after the parent has burned to a charcoal skeleton. Larch layer bark thick enough to insulate their living rings from flames, all while depending on the fire to scorch a clean slate for seedlings below. Slopes are charred to black dust one year, then splashed with willow and fireweed and alder the next. Elk herds flock and grow fat on the green.

Which is to say there’s no one reason the Lolo Peak Fire sprawled across almost fifty-four thousand acres, consumed those homes, took one human life—a firefighter trying to beat back the spread. The whitebark pines have held their branches high for hundreds of years, waiting for that lightning strike. The subalpine larch kept their tough skins. The lodgepole pine crowded thick above self-pruning Doug firs. Some of their cones opened to a dim understory; some stayed closed like a wax seal on a love letter. Decade by decade, small fires were put out. The fuel load grew and grew.

We learn that fire is bad. We learn that trees are timber, a product grown and harvested under the Department of Agriculture. We learn a black bear cub with blistered paws stumbled onto a fire line in New Mexico. We learn to protect forests without listening to the whitebark, the lodgepole, the long-leaf pine, the black-backed woodpeckers. We learn we’re not as powerful as we think, so we turn the other way, build another watchtower.


My rheumatologist recommends starting hydroxychloroquine. My diagnosis is still a working diagnosis, she says, but the drug should help. The fatigue will lessen, she tells me. The muscle weakness, chest tightness, lightheadedness. Brain fog lifting like the morning after a rainstorm, the kind that scrubs the forest floor of needles.

Somewhere in my vessels and lobes and lymphocytes is a rankled lie. The main theory of autoimmunity goes that the immune system catches wind of a foreign threat, attacking whatever it first comes across—a hip joint, a kidney, tattered collagen. The body is exhausted because it is fighting. The body is exhausted because it’s being attacked. The catch is that it’s all the same energy source, one ecosystem caught in chaos.

Hydroxychloroquine works by scrambling the narrative of self-destruction among immune cells, clamping what’s gone haywire. Scientists don’t know exactly how or why, because the drug was originally created as an antimalarial with a later bonus of slowing progression of systemic autoimmune diseases. Instead of a clamp, though, I see a curtain. I want the hundred-mile view to sift sense from static. You can’t unravel a why without its echo, but then again, I’m running out of sick days, and I’d like to keep my kidneys.


One maybe at the expense of another, or maybe, in a slow and bluebird spin atop some rocky peak where lodgepole knot their pitch-kissed cones below, there are too many maybes, and the horizon smudges regardless.


The drug carries its side effects and risks double-fold: gastrointestinal distress in the short term, chance of cardiomyopathy and retina damage in the long term. I go to the optometrist with a Post-it note of names tight in my palm—visual field test, fundus autofluorescence imaging, spectral domain optical coherence, multifocal electroretinogram. In the visual field test, small dots light up a dome like a bleary sun through wildfire smoke.

Autoimmune diseases are variable and chronic. They are a fire on the horizon and a fire at your feet. I take the words my doctor gave me and stare at the view ahead—maybe kidney failure, maybe myositis, maybe pericarditis, maybe pleurisy, maybe cancer. Maybe remission or stability; there’s a good chance of that because we caught it early, after all. Or maybe blindness from the medication. One maybe at the expense of another, or maybe, in a slow and bluebird spin atop some rocky peak where lodgepole knot their pitch-kissed cones below, there are too many maybes, and the horizon smudges regardless.


III. Blood

WHEN I CHECK into my rheumatology clinic, a receptionist hands me a clipboard stacked with papers instructing me to check off how severe my pain is and how difficult it is to tie my shoes. There’s a poorly photocopied sketch of a skeleton, hands and feet blown out of proportion so it’s easy to circle individual digits and tarsals.

This is the beauty my dad taught me of maps—one point here, and here, and nowhere else. I think of the Continental Divide ambling west of my hometown of Helena, MacDonald Pass in the heart of winter, only a half dozen lodgepoles dimmed to rusty needles. Back then, it was probably toes dipped in frostbite. I remember the pain like fire, and I remember the ease of localizing it, a numbness then hot iron clamp around my toes and nowhere else. Beyond that place, a white and moldable world domed in the bluest blue. Pines stacked their shadows as far as I could see, so what was one more toe throbbing like a coyote’s cry in the backwoods?


I’m not looking for quick fixes for problems I can circle on a diagram of my body. I’m gathering evidence of a much larger system falling apart.


Now the points are clear, fierce red welts on my fingers and toes. One winter night, the brush of sheets is too much. Toes swell to cherry tomatoes, throb angry and razor-stiff. I hobble to the freezer for the release of frozen peas even though I figure cold won’t help in the long run. Stagger on my partner’s arm even though these feet have hammered through dozens of hiking boots and running shoes, pushed through sprains and splinters and bursitis and blisters. All miles they’ve known are crushed into this single step.

In the very beginning, overbearing fatigue finally sent me to a rheumatologist in a tweed suit who gave me the first name—celiac sprue. Just stop eating gluten, he told me, and you’ll be all better. I did, and as the weeks of adjustment added up, I found my energy buoying back up from some previously unknown depths. My digestive tract, blunted for years by antibodies churning out after my immune system mistook gluten for a foreign invader, softened and flattened to a normalcy I’d forgotten.

I wish that had been it. I wish the tweed-clad doctor had been right, to just stop eating gluten and all my problems would be over. But I also wish he’d ordered more tests like I asked him to when I returned six months later with symptoms creeping back in, or looked closer at my elevated and speckled antinuclear antibodies, which usually point to something more complex than celiac disease alone. His diagnosis was an easy fix, but not the whole picture. Not by a long shot.

When I go back to doctors’ offices, more and more often, they find something new. Another dot on the map—vocal cord dysfunction, chronic iron-deficiency anemia, reactive airway. I’m not looking for quick fixes for problems I can circle on a diagram of my body. I’m gathering evidence of a much larger system falling apart.

The piece that breaks you doesn’t have to be a smoke plume wide and dark as an anvil or a glacier disappeared. A fire started on MacDonald Pass but never torched the eastern slopes that bunch in dry pine all the way to a few blocks from my childhood home. Every year, the snowfields that crest the pass make hollows twenty feet deep, just as they did twenty years ago when my family came up here to dig caves into the snow. I haven’t lived long enough to miss what flakes never fall.


In my later years of high school and early college, I spent summers tallying the slow creep of noxious weeds, foreign invaders to the Rockies, plants with steel-clamped taproots and bitter waxed leaves, and no environmental immune system with the ability to barrage the hell out of them. Despite my love for all green and breathing things, I learned to toe my boot into ashen rosettes, guillotine heads of daisies that decades ago someone brought from Europe, thinking they’d go nicely beside a white picket fence.

This isn’t about foreign invaders, though. We’re talking about puzzle pieces suddenly flipped belly up, numbers of every sort on the rise. An innocuous black beetle worming and gnawing into a tree’s living body. The mountain pine bark beetle didn’t come from anywhere except where it already is, evergreen shoulders of the Rockies, old as rainbow trout and sagebrush. Still, we use the words invasiondiseasedepidemic. It’s easy to lose sight of the long view, the circumstances that trick notions of belonging.

Mountain pine bark beetles feed on a tree’s cambium layer, its living tissue beneath rough bark. This is the soft flesh that transports water and nutrients from the roots up the trunk and into chlorophyll-packed needles, which in turn send sugar pulled from sunlight to all those hardworking cells. The beetles wriggle through gaps in the pine’s armor, then chew their way into this soft vertical highway, carbo-loading and boring roadways of their own.

It’s hardly a symbiotic relationship. But it’s one tested by millennia, a cyclical back-and-forth where sometimes the beetles come out on top, sometimes the pines. Feeling mandibles chewing on their tissues, the tree pumps the boreholes full of pitch, akin to blood to a wound. Sticky clots force the seed-size beetles again into open air. Most of the time. Sometimes there are too many beetles, a tree already weakened by heart rot or drought. Its system can’t drive the beetles out fast enough, and they continue to gnaw loopy burrows and pockets for milk white eggs.

If a pine loses this battle, it’s not because the beetles managed to consume all its cambium. Rather, it’s strangulation. Too many tunnels around and around the trunk until all the vessels carrying nutrients and water gurgle to a halt, until the roots invested in good granite earth are flushing their riches to nowhere.

But the pines have one final advantage over the beetles—they know better how to tough out Rocky Mountain winters. Come first hard freeze, the bark beetles start wiggling themselves into their woody caves where they’re sheltered by the tree’s own tissue. In their insect vessels, blood washes full of antifreeze, so that as the temperature eases into deep winter, the beetles dream in a chilled hibernation.

Up to a certain point. Below minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit, the antifreeze starts to fail, and beetles freeze in earnest. Long stretches of these cold snaps have been regulars to the Intermountain West as long as pines and their beetle predators. When temperatures cascade this low, bark beetle populations face massive die-offs. Millions of lodgepole and ponderosa will greet the next spring mostly unburdened by their gnawing pests.

The problem is it just doesn’t get that cold anymore. Or if it does, it’s a short burst. Rarer are the weeks-long stretches of bitter cold that send moose browsing in backyards, or before the bark beetles have time to nestle in their dens of sawdust. The pines’ circulation systems can only do so much to drive out the insects. Without the aid of deep cold come wintertime, they begin to succumb, smothered to bronze.

I grew up in the sweetness of ponderosa bark and citric tinge of lodgepole pitch. And by the time I became aware that the environment is a dynamic thing that people can meddle in, all these forests of pine were blushing the color of rust. By the early 2000s, winters stuck to their mild trend. Lodgepole woods sweeping down from the Divide were all the same age class, their parents hauled away decades ago in booms of timber and mining. No great fires had raced through the diseased trees, and when bark beetle populations peaked, they found thousands of acres of underprepared pines and hardly enough cold to curb their numbers.

It’s a messy destruction, all these timbered slopes the color of smeared blood. Too many tipping points, too few nights gaping a cold you can taste. The beetles know only their hunger for sweet strips of pinewood. Who can fault them for knowing their place in the frosted web, for a greed that was never theirs in the first place?


“At least you have a name now,” a friend offers. “It’s like there’s been something huffing and pacing outside your house. And now you can name it, know what to expect. You open the door, and there’s a bear on your front porch.”

Systemic, the whole scope. Lupus, from the same word in Latin, named for the triangular markings of a wolf’s face. Erythematosus, from the Greek eruthēma, meaning “reddening.”

A bear, dark and round as the new moon, tracing some invisible path up-valley to a glacier’s fringe. Bears are like humans, rare mammals that walk on the heels of their feet. Fight or flight varies individual to individual, and in all my years wandering in their footprints, I’ve never met a bear who showed any intent in harming me. This metaphorical one, with all her bluff charges and blows from claws meant for grubbing, is the first.

I find another new word—chilblains. Inflammation of vessels in the fingers and toes that causes a backlog of blood, hence the cherry-tight swelling. It often pairs with Raynaud’s syndrome, a disease of swelling in arteries of the extremities, which often tails lupus. Welts rise white and tender. Skin glosses and continues to balloon. I learn the trigger is exposure to cold.

I greet the first cold snap of the year with wool socks and stubbornness, even as the joints in my feet ache with that iron-hot gnaw. I won’t call it determination, which hums of a hollow valor. Running in winter promises relief from a body hellbent on dragging me downward. My newest technique has been to fight fatigue with fatigue. Here, now, is a reason for my heart to race, for muscles to tense, for my body to crave repose. I step into the cold well knowing that it might just spin me deeper into exhaustion, that by evening all I’ll be able to do is hobble through a reddening clamp. Every forced stride, I map these roots: dams in my vessels as well as the pines, a brokenness whose name is too tangled and cavernous for one breath. I am running out of unmeddled timberland.




IV: Lungs

THIS SHOULD BE the point where the story stumbles to climax. Where I tell you about another fire, and the July day when a thread of lightning split onto the steep hillsides south of Beeskove Creek. How for a moment I was consumed with an unborn grief picturing the Rattlesnake Mountains, a gentle blue rise north of Missoula, charred to scuffed obsidian. Or how, days later, not a quarter mile into a work hitch as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service, my muscles gave way to this blurry mourning, my windpipe dammed two desperate breaths, and I thought my heart would stop surrounded by fat huckleberries.

But these moments are always staggered. In stories we can wrap them up, drawing lines between points as if there’s no havoc of topography between them. In the simple way of things, here’s how it happened: two days before summer solstice my rheumatologist gave me a name meaning “wolf” that rattled my future to shards, and one month later the place where I’d learned to love my self and body caught fire, and five days after that all this emotional weight churned alive, spun into every rivulet keeping me alive, and became a physical weight that knocked me to earth. In this story, the Rattlesnake would char with a necessary cleanse. The purpose of breakage would be to reassemble a new and complete whole. The answer would be melded with finality.

In reality, I have only chronic mess. An electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, pulmonary function test, cardiac echo, dozens more vials of blood—only to find no solid explanation. After two years with no known crumb of gluten near my mouth, a second endoscopy shows the villi of my small intestine still moderately blunted and hoarding lymphocytes. Despite the title of lupus christened on my charts, my labs are ambiguous, and it could just as well take the form of Sjögren’s syndrome or vague mixed connective tissue disease. The hydroxychloroquine churns my stomach, but I swallow a pill every morning with breakfast, counting down the months until its benefits are supposed to kick in.

But this is not the simple way of things. Not even close. If this is the final destination, a mountainside searing for the sake of metaphor, a body twenty-six years old trembling with certainty of death, then we are already lost. Fatigue burns to malaise to a curtain sodden with mud. A beetle wriggles through sawdust damp with January rain, and all it takes is one more rusted pine for the word epidemic to bloom. Chemicals gum the retina but so does every stencil of smoke on my horizon, tick marks of flare to a gathering fever. I’ve watched the reddening creep across my cheekbones, counted groans in a cold house as my feet swelled and throbbed in self-made frostbite, felt a borehole come full circle around my throat. I cannot explain the depth of this terror, a body choking itself. I cannot explain the depth of this anger.

In the Rattlesnake, the Forest Service bulldozes indirect lines atop Sheep Mountain, fells century-old Douglas firs and ponderosas for helicopter drop sites, rallies in hotshot and type 2 incident crews from across the country, and drains bucketload after bucketload from Beeskove Lake. The total dollars spent racks up to over 4 million. Then, after a few weeks, the incident crews pull out, the hotshots switch to rehab, and the Beeskove Fire, which never threatened structures and did little but meander dreamily toward the wilderness boundary, is left to burn naturally.


Humans, my dad sometimes says, are the aliens. The sickness. And it’s an agreeable perspective when you watch species after species ticked off the extinction list, the Amazon blurred in smoke, seabirds tarred over their feathers, ice plateaus of Antarctica sloughing into open water only to crumble the permafrost banks of Newtok. Still, I think of corn, which is functionally barren without human hands. I think of the wildfires that soothed the Rockies long before my ancestors arrived here and changed all the names, fires ignited by people who knew fireweed and willow are good for elk and larch seedlings nestled in the dark loam. I think of the four years I spent working and wandering the Rattlesnake Mountains, a quiet cut of wildness, where my purpose was to smudge human footprints while sawing the trails clear for our wonder. I think of autoimmunity, which holds in its vocabulary the words relapse and remission, but not malignant or benign.


I cannot explain the depth of this terror, a body choking itself. I cannot explain the depth of this anger.


It comes back to the words. A felled tree, a decision made in a windowless room where ten years of spoils are worth it because you’ll be dead in fifty. A misinterpretation of a holy book, toxic slag tainting groundwater and the voices who drink it silenced. A white blood cell deep in marrow suddenly struck with twisted purpose. Words strung together make a narrative, which is a weighted invisible, a thunderhead poised below the horizon, a city founded on the myth of a nurturing wolf, its namesake carved in haunts of white marble. It has no body except for the one it inhabits.


Once, this place knew glaciers. 

The day after I thought my heart was going to stop itself, I sit for twelve hours on the hood of a Forest Service pickup turning back joggers and mountain bikers as they reach the Beeskove Fire closure. Every so often a string of hotshot buggies or fire rigs comes rolling through, churning sepia dust into the slatted limbs of ponderosa and fir. Otherwise, the hours are long and quiet. There’s no smudge of smoke to be seen. Sea-jade algae flourish in fungi’s elbows. A parade of ants steers clear of lingering diesel fumes. 

The ranger district picked this spot for the closure because it’s the branching point of various trails, a solid stopping point three miles from the trailhead and another three from the fire itself. But there’s a grandness here too. The ants, I’m sure, know it, as do the lichen, the pines, the dark-eyed juncos, the lupine. Epochs banded in silt and clay beyond where the wind can reach, glints of quartz like starlight. 

Glaciers shaped the valleys of the Rattlesnake Mountains during the last ice age. They left behind cirques, hanging and U-shaped valleys, including the main drainage of Rattlesnake Creek, which gathers itself in the shelved woods below the wilderness’s highest peak and drapes downslope like a fishhook. A millennia ago, it was only a cropped ravine, a fissure where ice pried with fingers of hoarfrost. The glacial tongue grew fat on long winters and followed the oldest rule of gravity. Like a bear to a grubbed log, it dug headfirst into the earth, breaking horizons free of their planes. Humus churned to bedrock, obsidian-glossed fossils reintroduced to the cold and oxygenated air. Season after season the glacier slipped from high-hanging lofts down its self-made passage. Then, having plowed a rim of sediment two hundred feet high at its front, it stopped, and warmed, and melted to the nurseries of bull trout.

I spend all day perched at the base of the glacial moraine terminus without giving it much thought. The sun’s passage through bunches of pine needles feels long enough, and there’s a weight still gnawing at my chest fit to align itself with the glacier’s ghost. This is before all the serious tests, before I wheeze my lungs’ atmosphere into a glass chamber, before I watch the valves of my heart flit open and shut on an ultrasound monitor. I return to work because my heart’s still thumping, because that seems to be the black-and-white point of decision. A moment of free fall, of stubbornness.

Autoimmunity works like this. The self and the other blur. A sturdy branch of lung tissue turns to a knotted virus, a forest of villi clearcut from the inside, beetles thick as sable blood. A bear, hungry with her promised winter, moves through the morning crepuscular. Take the long view, wind-struck on a summit and exposed to every direction. We forget the land has horizons that have nothing to do with hope. Here is a story, one thread on top of another, ash of the oldest trees and bones of a free-roaming bison. Poison and fencing and flagpoles and oil. All those words of possession and salvation. I’ve panned for silver linings and found only chaos, wept these questions whose meanings dart quick and brief as hummingbirds. How can you hate a broken body? Shout through the thinnest air of the alpine and the echo returns cuffed by snow and whitebark pitch—the same way you can hate a broken world.

Maybe it wasn’t grief that tumbled me over, but the shock of all that beauty as it calved to disconnect. I’m not buried yet. Maybe there is strength in the mess—not how my lungs once rushed like Chinook winds, but the way this absence hangs between my ribs, a moraine that didn’t slough away, a glacier gone, a quiet fire in its place.


Help lay the foundation for future issues of Orion with a generous donation today.


Sarah Capdeville worked as a wilderness ranger for five seasons and is a graduate of the University of Montana and Chatham University. She lives, writes, and daydreams about crosscut saws in Missoula, Montana.


  1. Your writing guts me, Sarah. The body personal and collective, cell to cell, fire to ice, heart to lung …
    Warmly and best wishes,

  2. Brilliant, heartbreaking, poetic capture of her pain and sheer grit! I am stunned, beyond my ability to express this desperate, loving, tragic and inexorable chrystilline capture of a great writer’s pain and fury. I wish i could take away some of her anguish.

  3. Tthank you for the gift of her soul in Orion!

  4. “We forget the land has horizons that have nothing to do with hope.” Beautiful! Thank you for this vivid picture of autoimmune disease. As someone with rheumatoid arthritis, I have trouble getting friends and family to understand the level of exhaustion I experience daily. Best wishes in your fight!

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