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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Growing a Forest

I remember being in Mrs. Dewell's fourth grade class at Dewey School. One of our projects that year was to write letters to Smokey the Bear; in return, we each received a packet filled with treasures (stickers, junior forest ranger badges, coloring books). At about the same time, my Girl Scout troup learned about building, and safely extinguishing, campfires. After all, according to Smokey, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires!"

Over the years, I imagined careless smokers tossing out their butts, which would land squarely atop a pile of dried leaves and twigs. There would be just enough breeze to gently fan the flames, that would then completely wipe out a forest and every living thing in it. I imagined someone walking away from a smoldering pile of leaves in the Fall just as the breeze picked up and carried burning embers to do their damage as far as the eye could see. Paranoia took over each time I stood, warming myself, at a bonfire. Anxiety brought on heart-pounding shortness of breath as I imagined these relatively small fires raging out of control.

You see, I believed Smokey the Bear. I believed his words of warning and fought back the desire to pile kindling and strike a match. But I know there is now another truth, as well. Not all fires are caused by humans and their carelessness.

My sister and I were traveling cross-country in 1994. In a Wyoming storm, as we drove down the Interstate, we watched a bolt of lightening make its way from the heavy clouds to the field at the side of the highway. Our jaws dropped as we watched a huge patch of dried grass and brush became a ball of flames. A fellow traveler stopped along the road, and appeared to be making a call (back in the day, neither of us had a cell phone yet, nor knew anyone who did have one!) for help.

Long before humans ran around being careless of their surroundings, giving little thought to their impact on this Earth, there were forest fires and brush fires, started by none other than Mother Nature herself. Granted, people can take action to extinguish fires, or at least attempt to contain them. But human intervention makes little impact sometimes...............the fire spreads too far or too rapidly before anyone can take action.........the wind pushes the fire along faster than water can be brought in to halt or slow its progress.

The first photo above is Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. You can clearly see the scarred hillsides from the fire that claimed the mountainside several years ago. The second photo (stolen from my sister's blog, and taken from an entirely different location--sorry, Kathy!) shows the miraculous beginnings of the forest as it regrows itself.

My recent trip to Montana and Glacier with my sister was not the first time I had seen the ravages of a forest fire. On that same cross-country drive in 1994, before witnessing the lightening strike, we drove through Yellowstone. A major fire in the late 1980's left a good deal of the mountainsides scarred, with the damage still appearing fairly fresh. It was during my recent trip to Glacier, however, that the miracles taking place in the wild, truly hit home. Free of human "intervention", interference, or invasion, this Earth has the ability to be self-sustaining!

Kathy and I drove one morning through the burned out area that is visible in the top photo, climbing high enough on the unpaved road to get a panoramic view down the mountainside. Tall, and still appearing strong and solid, the bare, blackened trees stand. The floor of this burnt forest, in sharp contrast, was a lush green carpet that looked like a thick velvet carpet. The ground was a solid mass of young pine trees, looking to be between 12 and 18 inches in height. In many places the roadside was filled with color: yellow, pink, purple, deep red, white, perriwinkle, and fresh Spring-green. Even at the end of the first week of September, in that Northern location, and at higher altitudes, the wild flowers still turned their faces to the heavens.

I have read that, during a fire, trees react in a way that is designed to protect their innermost layers: beneath bark and outer layers, the tree twists, as if trying to make itself as small as possible in hopes of surviving. I believe this. And I believe this gift of creation is the trees' intelligence. I keep a twisted, gnarled piece of tree branch helps me remember my own resiliency.

The little hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I think about how many years, decades, even a half-century or more, those pinecones lay dormant on the forest floor---or underneath it---waiting, waiting, waiting.............


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