Monday, November 25, 2019

Incendiary Ghosts on Morrell Creek: The Dark Shimmering of Creation

Larch Snags on Morrell Creek
A world can burn and burn and yet remain a garden of green.  This remarkable truth, know to all who live in ecosystems sculpted by their very flammability, was in full display this summer along the national recreational trail to Morrell Falls in the foothills of the Swan Range of Montana. Spreading along this very route, the Rice Ridge Fire, which commenced with a lightning strike on July 24th of 2017, resisted being quelled for nearly two months.  Throughout August it continued to burn, blanketing the surrounding mountains in acrid smoke, until over 46,000 acres had been consumed.  Then fire became megafire, growing mightily in early September to scorch an additional 100,000 acres in a mere two weeks.

Now at every step hikers finds themselves surrounded by the charred snags of lodgepole pines, along with a sprinkling of those of larches and firs, all of which had succumbed two years earlier.  Yet everywhere one looks to the earth lying underneath this sobering scene, one finds it festooned with colorful blossoms, as fireweed, lupine, salmon berry, hare bell, hyssop, wild hollyhock, wild licorice and a host of other plants are putting newly-available sunlight to good use. This is especially true of the fireweed which has shown up in droves to reclaim blackened soil still peppered with carbonized bits of wood.

Fireweed among the Snags
The luminosity of fireweed, its neon blooms shimmering with psychedelic intensity, is compelling as it overtakes a forest seemingly in ruins.  "Neon," at least to this writer's eyes, is the particular shade of hot pink, as it has been named by those who worry about such things on the internet, that more or less matches the distinctive and showy color of a fireweed's distinctive and showy raceme of flowers. In this particular case the descriptive term turns out to be an apt one.  The fireweed's inflorescence literally glows from within, even when fully-exposed to sunlight from without.  And when the angle of one's gaze is such that a conical clump of flowers is silhouetted against the background of a charred stump, the effect is doubly electric.

To be among these and the other colorful colonizers who are embroidering a heavenly scene on the drab remnants of forest burned to the quick is to experience what Deborah Bird Rose has characterized as the shimmer of creation.   The nature of life is to be lively.  In the environs of Morrell Falls and the two small lakes lying directly below it, this liveliness now shows up as what one writer for a local newspaper characterizes as a "landscape under revision."  But as witty and catchy as this phrase might be, I would advocate as well for a "landscape re-envisioned." One is eager to walk in these environs not simply to satisfy one's curiosity about how forest succession occurs, as the fabric of an ecosystem is woven anew in the wake of its recent immolation.  One also is called upon to behold how what is now emerging offers itself in a wholly other light, indeed, in one that shimmers.

Deborah Bird Rose speaks of this shimmering as a translation of sorts of what the Yolngu People of Australia characterize as bir'yun, a "brilliance" that is also "a kind of motion," indeed one that "grabs you" and "allows you, or brings you, into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world."   Yet another translation of shimmer might be that of the Hebraic "chavod," the glory of creation, in which the heavenly shows through the things of this world and leaves them resounding beyond their own means to account for themselves.  In shimmer, Rose argues, it is made clear that a forest is not simply a contraption of "gears and cogs," an elaborate mechanism that somehow keeps itself, in spite of firestorms and infestations, well-oiled and running.  That would certainly gain our admiration, but only as a well-crafted tool might. Such admiration in turn would be forgetful of how the forest is iridescent with the creative dynamism of the diverse agencies of diverse living things, with for instance "the ancestral power," as Rose would put it, of lodgepole pines and fireweed as they renew old ties, the pulsing of life in one living kind communicating its energy to another.  Gifts are piling up all about us.

 A Landscape under Revision

Ancestors I
But it is not only life that shimmers.   Death in its own fashion does too.  And it is this latter possibility that fully claimed me on two successive July evenings as I walked among the forests of charred snags left in the wake of the Rice Ridge Fire.  As night descended and the visible world moved back into the shadows, the outlines of a multitude of carbonized trunks and their leafless branches, only dimly registering in the eye, nevertheless came alive with intimations of their former lives that would not let me be.  One might say that I had been visited by ghosts.  Indeed, more accurately, I was the visitor, as the ghosts were arrayed all around me. The power of what these trees had been, their decades and centuries of rambunctious life before succumbing to fire was for that moment undeniably palpable. The ancestors were speaking.  One had the sense that one was being addressed, that a forest that once had been green and living was now revisiting its haunts on its own behalf, reminding those who tread here now of what had been offered up to the flames for the sake of the coming generations.

Everywhere one turns in a more-than-human living world, the invitation to liturgy abounds.  This is to say, one is invited to offer one's prayers, one's thanksgiving and veneration on behalf of all those other living kinds who contribute to the very possibility that one is offered for at least the brief moment of one's all-too-human life one's own place under the sun.  The fires of one summer might leave the earth smoking and blighted, its waters smudged with soot, but this in turn only insures the emergence of a garden green and shimmering in the next.

Ancestors II
Ancestors III

Ancestors IV

Ponderosa Pine Unfazed by the Fire

Morrell Falls