I've been lucky enough to spend the past several days in paradise, which for me is the rough, unforgiving backcountry to southeastern Utah. Everyone has their own idea of Eden, shaped by individual as well as cultural ideals. These can shift and evolve due to circumstance, inclination, and, sometimes, tragedy. I haven't always appreciated pinyon/juniper/sagebrush country as much as I do now, with its howling winds, exaggerated temperature fluctuation, and fascinating and/or deadly fauna.
Of course you've heard a lot about the massive fires Arizona has recently endured. The state is not alone in its devastation this year, nor are large fires a new phenomenon. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chedeski fire scorched a giant swath of ponderosa forest along the magnificent Mogollon Rim, displacing its inhabitants and visitors, both human and non-human. In such a tragedy lost recreational opportunities are of course a lesser concern, but still painful to thousands of Arizonans, including my family, who for generations looked to those beloved woods for an accessible and restorative respite from heat and city life. It was that fire that sent me farther afield for summer "R&R", to Utah and elsewhere. This year, sadly, both the pristine northeastern forests and the magnificent southern Arizona desert foothills have taken a terrible, simultaneous hit from fire. News coverage understandably focuses on the tangible human devastation, calculated in terms of evacuations and homes and businesses damaged and lost.
It is the intangibles that are more difficult to capture in any tragedy. My attachment - or anyone's - to a region and its unique natural and human features is a messy, not-always-logical jumble of impressions and emotions and memories and facts and lore that bubbles to the surface periodically as we spend time there or as events unfold. Residents of Alpine and Greer and Sierra Vista and Hereford must grapple with both the physical and emotional pain as they sift through the rubble and view the blackened land.
The rest of us much watch and stew helplessly from a distance, offering assistance as well as we can. Occasionally, underlying tensions explode for all, as with the furor over John McCain's recent tone-deaf comment associating the Southern Arizona fires with illegal immigration. Indeed, the area where the fire started is undisputedly a heavily trafficked corridor for drug and immigrant smuggling. One might reason that midsummer seems an odd time for people to start fires in the scorching border desert. Still, it may have happened. It's not the logic that rankles, it's the appearance of political opportunism in the face of loss and sadness and ruptured memories and dreams. Now, as my state and others recently affected by natural disaster attempt to recover, it seems we should address the intangible as well as the tangible injuries with tact and kindness as well as donations.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.
Image of Utah desert courtesy Flickr user Jim Dollar.