Fire and Water
I had always thought that when I died, my children would scatter my ashes under the pines beside Davis Lake, where we have camped for twenty years. But it’s all ashes there now. Wildfire flared up along the road behind the east campground. Driven by 25-mile-an-hour winds, the firestorm charged across the road and ran hard and fast through miles of lodgepole pines, torching the manzanita and exploding into the crowns of the trees. Fire crews pulled back and let it burn; what else could they do with the fire roaring around them?
For two weeks, heavy smoke and unpredictable winds closed the roads into Davis Lake. Helpless, I watched on the Internet as the fire expanded, red spots encircling the lake until the whole map was blotchy red. But as soon as fire crews cleared the trees that had fallen across the road and removed the barricades, I headed for Davis Lake, driving the Cascades Highway through a healthy forest of ponderosa pines.
Car windows down, I can smell the thick beds of pine needles, warm and sweet in the sun. Ponderosas rise from meadows of green grass, blue sagebrush, currants already turning orange. Then suddenly the color is gone. For miles in front of me, all I see is a blanket of white ash stuck through with tree trunks, broken and black, and the shadow of a raven swerving between spars. A thin line of smoke rises from a smoldering stump. I pull onto the side of the road, step out into ashes, and listen.
I had loved the sound of Davis Lake in the spring. I remember waking early one morning, years ago, under pines at the edge of the lake. As Frank and our little ones breathed quietly beside me, great blue herons flapped over the marshland, croaking. Red-breasted nuthatches called from the pines. Coots splashed in circles, and sandhill cranes clattered on the far side of the lake, leaping and flapping their wings in a clumsy dance. I remember how the frogs shouted that morning, filling the air like a cheering crowd. In a pine far down the lake, fledgling eaglets begged without ceasing, a scraping sound like pebbles against steel. I had settled deeper in my sleeping bag, warm and grateful.
But now the silence is so complete that I brush my ears to be sure I can still hear. Finally a raven calls. A single grasshopper scratches in black stubble. The wind lifts slender whirlwinds from the ashes. But without pine needles to make music of the wind, even the whirlwinds are silent. I stand with my head back and my eyes closed, trying to understand how it could be so suddenly gone—the green singing life of this place.
I’m a philosopher by trade, so I should know how to be philosophical about loss. The world is in flux, and change is the only constant. Forests are no exception; they grow and burn and grow again. I know this. Everybody knows it. Almost three thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus acknowledged the necessity of change: You can’t step into the same river twice, he said. But why not? I want to know. Why can’t what is beautiful last forever?
Everything has to change, Heraclitus answered, because all the world is fire and water in constant conflict. Fire advances and is quenched by water. Water floods and is boiled away by fire. And so people wake and sleep, live and die, the fires of their spirits steaming against the dampness of their flesh. Summer changes into winter, as sun gives way to rain. The mountains boil up from the seas, and the seas come into being and pass away. Forests are reduced to ashes, and from the ashes rise new forests, damp and shining.
How easy it is to write these words, so good in theory. But in fact, the only thing rising from the ashes today are the whirlwinds. A pickup rumbles to the side of the road. A man steps out, inhales sharply, then turns to his buddy. “Look at those huge big dirt-devils,” he says. The two of them stand without speaking, watching ashes lift in thin spiraling threads and flatten against the sun.
One August evening maybe fifteen years ago, Frank and I crouched on the beach with our children, thrilled and terrified. We flinched each time lightning struck the forested ridge three miles across Davis Lake. A thunderous crack, a flash of light that turned our eyelids blue. Then a flame flickered on the ridge and a thin tendril of smoke rose into the air. Lightning struck into the forest again and again until the hillside was dotted with little flames, each with its trail of smoke, like candles on a birthday cake.
The moon rose, flaky and red. As the lightning moved slowly away over the lava ridge, flashing silently above the eastern plains, Frank tucked the children into their sleeping bags, then sat by the tent, watching across the lake. I launched a canoe onto water that pooled red around my bow. Every pull of my paddle spun off a ruddy spiral and vibrated the lake into red and purple ripples. I could smell smoke and water, damp algae on the shore. Gradually, as I rocked in my boat, black clouds drifted over the face of the moon, and water licked in the reeds. Soft rain fell, ticking on water that faded from red to gray, and one by one, those little fires went out.
Water won that round. But I knew that fire’s time would come.
For eighty years, lodgepole pines have grown up thick as doghair on the flats around Davis Lake. A person deliberately laying a fire in that forest couldn’t have done a better job than the trees did themselves. Pile kindling under each tree—stacks of downed branches, hard and silver and scratchy. Sprinkle the kindling with dry pine needles. Drape branches into the kindling so any ground fire is sure to climb the tree. Let the forest bake in the sun and the drying wind. Then all it takes is a spark—dry lightning, a Bic lighter, an ATV.
Lodgepole pines need to burn. It’s the earliest science lesson I remember.
When I was growing up in Cleveland, somebody mailed my father a shoebox crammed with lodgepole pine cones. Although he had never seen a lodgepole forest, my father had read of these western trees in biology books and the journals of Lewis and Clark. So as my sisters and I jostled around him, he spread the cones on a cookie sheet and baked them in the oven. We watched through the oven door, marveling as the cones bloomed like roses in the heat, releasing papery seeds.
My father handed each of us a seed, and together we admired this wonder: how the cones stay on the trees for years, tight as fists, until fire warms the resin that holds them shut and they release the seeds to replant the burned-out forest—a forest made in just such a way that the very fire that destroys it will create it anew.
So I can understand the battles between water and fire, cycles of living and dying, the urgent necessity of death, all of us designed to die—just exactly that—everything we love designed to die, as the lodgepole pine forest is made to burn. I can understand this in my mind, but how will understanding ease this loss?
Davis Lake has always been a lesson in the cycles of living and dying. One year, the water in Davis Lake rises so high it floods into the trees. In a year like that, the whole valley shimmers—a gleaming bowl, alive with trout and mayflies. Another year, the water is so low that the creek winds almost a mile across a playa to the clouded eye of the shrunken lake. Fishermen call each other to find out the lake level. “Where’s Davis Lake this year?” they ask. It’s always a disappointment when the lake’s too low to launch a boat, but the water always comes back.
Snow falls on the mountains above Davis Lake, melts, and trickles through the porous rock, making its way—maybe in a matter of months, maybe in a year—through the mountain to the springs that feed the lake. But as water pours into Davis Lake, water flows out through the lava dam and lake bed. Canoeing over shallow water, you can see the funnels, the “suck holes,” my family calls them, where water spirals into cracks in the lava, like water down the drain. This terrifies me, to float above the place where water drains into prehistoric darkness and a silence unbroken and complete, as if the silence could suck a person down before she’s ready to go.
You can say that it’s all a natural process, that the appearances and disappearances are all the result of cycles working themselves out over time. A lodgepole pine forest isn’t merely the place that shelters my tent; it’s a process of growth and change—trees transforming themselves to ashes to green seedlings to barren spars to seeds on the wind. The lake isn’t only a place where my children float with blue dragonflies. It’s a stream of water that flows from light on the mountaintops to the long, dark caves, emerging into the blue lake and plunging into the dark again like a serpent that has no end. And what is a human life but a new arrangement of molecules that once were stars?
You can say that it’s something particularly human: this tendency to misunderstand natural change as unsupportable loss. You can say that sorrow is part of the same arrogance, the same self-centeredness that leads humans to measure time by the span of their own lives, to define what is real by their own needs.
If I could step outside my own life span and purposes, then maybe I could make myself believe that the difference between a natural disaster and a natural cycle is only a matter of time. Aldo Leopold advised his readers to think like a mountain—on that timescale. A mountain wouldn’t mourn the loss of a forest any more or less than a human mourns the leaves that twist off an oak in autumn.
But how can I think like a mountain? Tell me: Does a mountain feel its scree slipping to its feet, or hear sand sliding ceaselessly down its flank?
All the back roads into Davis Lake are closed by barricades and striped tape. But the assistant fire manager for the Deschutes National Forest, Gary Morehead, agrees to drive me in. I pull on the yellow, fire-resistant suit he hands me. Then he shoves his truck into gear and steers it around the first barricade.
We follow a dusty track through a landscape of black tree trunks stuck at every angle to the ashes. Here’s where cats bulldozed a clearing in the forest, Gary tells me, a safety zone where firefighters could retreat if the flames turned on them. Here’s where the force of the fire-generated wind snapped every tree and sent it crashing into flames. Here in the ashes of the campground is a fire ring, solid and ironic, and the bent frame of a lawn chair, tossed on its head.
The fire created a wind so fierce, Gary says, that it threw a canoe into a tree, and drove flames against it until the canoe melted over the branches. The fire vaporized two spotted owl nests; too young to fly, the young owls surely died. And the firestorm sucked the eagles’ nest out of the tree.
I trudge along the edge of the lake. Where, in ashes turned violet by the ferocity of the fire, is the place where I lay on pine needles with our newborn son, pointing out yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees? I want to find the shallow reed bed where Jonathan, grown into a toddler, waded after minnows; before we could convince him to leave the water, his legs were streaked with leeches. I wanted to find the place where Erin wove tule reeds into a little cubbyhole, crawled in, and read Dr. Seuss, tracking the words with her finger. Could it be here, in this empty space, that Frank and I drank wine at a picnic table, talking about our kids gone off to college, until stars popped out spangling in the pines like lights on a Christmas tree?
One year this ground was covered with toads. Another year, it was baby garter snakes and buttercups. Now, the ground is covered with black stubble burned right to the water. I stand beside the cove where Frank and I rode the canoe back to shore on a windy day. I remember the cool wind, the bucking canoe, the exhilaration, the wheeling eagles, but all I can see is the lake calmly reflecting the devastation of this place, just sitting there, as if all that life—all those precious, irreplaceable times—hadn’t roared into flames and vanished forever.
I ask Gary if we can go to the headwaters of Ranger Creek, where I remember a spring that flowed out of the mountainside and made its way through flowered meadows to Davis Lake. He’s reluctant to go there, not sure if the place has been secured. But he circles the truck around the yellow tape and brings us slowly through the ashes to what was once a willow flat at a bend in the creek.
I’m surprised by what I see. Stumps are still smoldering, two weeks after the fire. But already, new grass has grown four inches high, green as frogs. The willow thickets have burned down to blackened stubs that reach up like a hand extending from the ground—the black fingers as short as my own. But inside each hand, as if spiraling from a wound in the palm, is new growth, the coiled leaves unfurling. There are birds here, osprey, soaring over the water, watching for trout.
The springs surge from the barren ground into a burst of green, shimmering and miraculous in that field of grey. Trees have fallen over the creek and burned in from both ends, but between the banks, the tree trunks are intact, shading the water, shaded themselves by tall green rushes. Wherever water reaches into the ashes, plants grow—rosy spirea, cinquefoil yellow as buttercups, and sweet bracken fern.
What is this world, that it has all these things—the dead and dying forest, the charred bones of young owls, and water pouring from the earth, ancient snow finally emerging from darkness and flowing into the great expanse of blue? What is this world, that life and death can merge so perfectly that even though I search at the edge of water, I can’t find the place where death ends and life begins?
I am standing here, in all my color, the blue veins in my elbows, the reddened skin on my knuckles, my fireman’s yellow suit; standing here in all my noise, the breath in and out, the wind flapping my collar. But some day my children will bring my ashes, grey and silent, to be caught up in a dirt-devil that makes no noise at all. And where will the color be then, and the sound of a person breathing? This silence, so hard to understand.
In Heraclitus’s world of constant change, don’t we all yearn for some pause in the river, an eddy, where the water slows and circles back upstream for a long, calm time before it rejoins the flow? This is what Davis Lake was for me—a quiet circle of the seasons, a place where the world seemed to come to rest. A place my family could return, year after year, as the cranes returned, as the water returned, and the yellow blooms of the bitterbrush. The constancy of the lake had reassured me, the reliable circle of life. But in this greening place of ashes and springs, I begin to understand that time cannot move in a circle, coming again to where it was before. Time sweeps in a spiral, going round and round again—the cycles of the seasons, the flow of the cold springs, the growth of a forest or a child, but never returns to the same place.
And shouldn’t I be grateful for this? That birds will nest in the Davis Lake basin, even though that particular pair of owlets will never fly again. Trees will grow beside the creek, as my grandchildren will grow on the green-banked stream. Willow thickets will tremble with morning ice, the songs of red-winged blackbirds, the slow unfolding of next year’s dragonfly’s wings. And we who love this world will tremble with the beauty of the spiral that has brought us here and the mystery of the spiral that will carry us away.
This essay was published in Open Spaces magazine Vol. 6, Issue 3, 2004.
Kathleen Dean Moore’s newest books about the moral urgency of action to save the world’s life-supporting systems are Great Tide Rising and Piano Tide, a WILLA Award-winning novel.
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