In the Mountain Shadows, Only Skeletons Remained…

What’s left of a house that was partially burned. The homes and trees once surrounding it have been reduced to bare remains. And yet, life marches on.

In the mountain shadows, only skeletons remained. The corpses of trees, homes, and countless wildlife—the burnt offerings to a fire god whose hunger never yields—still keep silent vigil from this place on the cusp between plains and mountains.  But like a Phoenix rising from its own ashes, life reinvents itself; a new creation, of nature and of man, is reborn. Life, like the fire that tried to extinguish it, also never yields….

Burn scar left in the wake of the wildfire, close to the source of the fire that burned more than 18,000 acres.

I watched helplessly as the city I not so long ago called “home” burned, turning day into night, turning homes into ash. Friends packed up suitcases and found temporary shelter. They rescued pets and a few precious belongings, leaving their homes just as smoke consumed the oxygen from the air surrounding them. There was little else in their power to be done to stop the record-breaking warmth, the long-standing drought, and the shifts in wind that ultimately fed the fire that would break the line between wildland and city, destroying more than 300 homes in addition to thousands of acres of forest.

That was in June. Only last week was I able to revisit this place and see the changes the massive wildfire had burned into the familiar montane landscape…

Juxtaposition of foothills: The closest ridge line has been scorched, yet the one behind it is unaffected.

As the tragedy unfolded, I had shed many tears, had spent many hours feeling impotent against the looming disaster that darkened these places I consider to be part of who I am: the city and the mountains surrounding it which had taught me that home is where we belong, not necessarily where we’re from.

But I had steeled myself in the meantime. More unfamiliar communities had seen their own disasters since—other wildfires, hurricanes and floods, devastating drought (which has a stronghold even where I now live), and even those disasters of completely man-made invention. (Though I had also once been a resident of one of these cities ripped by such disaster, and had even been a student at a university so affected, they were never “home,” and the events didn’t feel nearly as personal.) I had felt only acceptance when I first scoped out and found the parts of the skyline that had been blackened; but as I drew nearer, as I reflected on those torturous days in June, the wave of emotion returned. The place seemed sacred, and a sense of humility in the shadow of it rattled me.

But where there had been tragedy, there was also hope. Not only did I see thousands of burned stumps where conifers once stood tall and concrete slabs where families found shelter, but I also saw signs of a community fighting to rebuild. Families were outside celebrating the unusually warm November day. Reconstruction was already underway on the plots where homes had been annihilated. Signs proclaimed the community’s commitment to stand strong against this recent adversity.

Here in the US, today is Thanksgiving. I think it’s easy to fall prey to cynicism in the modern world. We too often get caught in the trappings of a society defined more by our relationship to technology than by those with other people. But while disasters logically should be what defeats our humanity, they are instead the opportunity for us to be reminded of how brave and resilient humans (and all of nature) can be. Today I am thankful that in the eddy in the wake such disasters, hope still spins. In destruction are the elements of new creation.

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