The Impermanence of Trees
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the forces of nature to both destroy and renew us. As the headlines have been about the hurricanes and flooding in Texas and Florida, as well as the intense wildfires ripping through the Pacific Northwest, it’s been terrifying and sad to see people losing homes, fearing for their lives, or on edge waiting and trying to prepare. Of course, people’s lives, the ones living there and those who are trying to help, are the utmost priority but I am also saddened at the beautiful natural places that might be lost.
The forest fires in Oregon and Washington this summer have been going on for several months, and for a while, they haven’t seemed as bad as other summers (or at least not as close). There were a few days of red haze in the Willamette Valley but mostly days of sunshine as I happily explored trails and climbed in Washington and Oregon. But this week that seemed to change as fires intensified, spread, and new ones were started.
On Saturday I drove with a friend out east towards the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, which has had several closed trails due to wildfire and we saw first-hand from our car windows a fire that was burning just off of Hwy 20. The smoke intensified and even in the car, it felt like we were choking on ash.
We continued on to where we were camping for the night, at the trailhead of the PCT to try to climb Three Fingered Jack the next morning. The forecast called for changing winds and better air quality, however, after waking at 4:30 a.m., it was obvious that it was not the case.
We tried to hike for a few miles, hoping the smoke would lift at dawn, but the sun couldn’t even break through the thick haze. We went back down through the sandy trail that winds through burnt trees from a forest years ago. This forest is slowly recovering with brush and small trees, but it is still a haunting place to be.
I know that forest fires, at least those caused naturally, can often help a forest be stronger. I know that nature will recover and the forests that are burned will be renewed. It is a natural process, but still…as someone who finds comfort in trails and trees, it is sad to see it on fire or destroyed.
When I was back home on Sunday, in heartbreak, sadness, and anger (since this fire was caused by reckless kids), I watched as the story about the Eagle Creek fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge unfolded. By the next day it had jumped to the Multnomah Falls area and across the river into Washington where homes were evacuated. These are trails I hiked when I was in AmeriCorps and helped to lead wildflower hikes. These are trails I have shown to friends and family and trails I have hiked with my dog. This is a place that contains memories and magic and now, at least in my lifetime, will never be the same.
Trees have always been special to me, a source of inspiration, seeming to be permanent, lasting, and strong. When I was in 4th grade, our class helped with a tree planting day and as a reward, we all got a tree to take home. I was so excited to plant that tree on the south side of our house. I would water it in the summer, worried it might die as it struggled through cold North Dakota winters, and watched it slowly grow through the years. It seemed to shoot up a few years later, and it soon was twice as tall as I was. I would sometimes just go sit by it on summer nights, feeling so proud that I had a part in creating it. I could watch it get stronger and I found comfort in knowing that it would live long after all of us were gone, and maybe someone else would one day grow up and sit by this tree.
When I was thirty years old, a lot of stuff happened with my parent’s which resulted in my father selling the home I had grown up my entire life in. He sold the land to the power company, and sold our house to a couple who would move the house to another piece of land miles away. No one would ever live on the land again. After our house was removed from its foundation, I drove out alone one summer evening to see it.
I walked to the edge, looking down into a crumbling concrete basement. It was a place I had spent endless hours playing ping pong in the winters, playing Barbie’s with my sister, and roller-skating. Now it was just a hole of concrete and I felt nothing but an empty sadness. My childhood was already gone but I knew my memories would live with me, even if this house no longer existed. But then, I looked up, towards what used to be the south side of our house, and I realized something was missing. My tree was no longer there.
It had seemed to me the people moving the house could have removed the house from any other side, but they had brought their equipment from the south side, and probably without much thought, sawed down my little tree into 3 or 4 sections, which they left by the edge of our property. I walked over to where my tree’s remains were, and sobbed uncontrollably, as if it was a death of a close friend. This tree would not remain as a reminder of the days of my childhood. There was nothing left. Nothing was permanent.
I have spent many days planting trees in Washington while in AmeriCorps, I have planted a few trees at my house as an adult, and have spent many days hiking in awe of beautiful trees: giant redwoods and sequoias, elegant pine and douglas firs, dramatic madrone trees, and golden leaves of maple and birch.
Forests will be rebuilt, trails will be restored, life will renew. But, like many hikers and nature lovers, I have my own special places. My favorite forests, favorite trees, secret spots to jump into a cold stream or lake, and trails I long to return to. I hope these will still be there for me, and whoever else one day finds peace in them. These are the places we should do everything we can to protect for the next generation.
Everyone deserves a chance to witness permanent beauty. Sign up to do some trail maintenance, donate to your local trail groups, educate others about our forest, or maybe just plant a tree. It might not last, but, then again, maybe it will.