Standing outside, late, in a charcoal forest

by Alan S. Kesselheim

When my bladder provokes me out of the cabin, the Montana night is deep. The door closes behind me. I step down two stairs to the frozen, scoured ground. It is warm and breezy. The wind sounds like river current moving among the black stalks of tree trunks. An acrid hint of fire is in the air, as much a taste as a smell. The fire is more than a year dead, but its scent lingers.

I stand near the fence, naked but for boxers and moccasins, and savor the breeze while I pee. The moon is nearly full. Its light flickers across the rumpled foothills through the gauzy film of clouds.

Earlier in the day, we drove up Bridger Creek Road, right to the front door of this Forest Service cabin. Midwinter, but the road was clear of snow, only icy here and there. Inside the cabin, the air was stale and cold, more frigid than outdoors. We unloaded gear from the car, started a blaze in the stove, and pulled on boots for a walk up the ridge.

The snow was intermittent and thin, dry and crusted. Even where it had drifted it lay only a few inches deep. The five of us fanned out and worked up the slope, occasionally using faint game trails or old four-wheel tracks left from the fire-fighting, but mostly feeling our way across the denuded country. The forest stood blackened and stark around us, like a thin coat of fur on the land. None of the trees had survived the Derby Mountain Fire of 2006, a conflagration that consumed more than 200,000 acres of southern Montana.

In fact, this was the epicenter of the blaze. Derby Mountain raises its bulk out of the foothills only a few miles away. The swaying boughs of ponderosa needles, the dense, prickly whorl of juniper branches, the rustle of aspen leaves, all memories, old expectations of forest.

When the tip of a branch brushed across our clothing, it left a fine charcoal line. Halfway to the ridge our coats and pants were striped with black pencil marks. The soil was seared and loose, sandy, mixed with ash, sterile-looking. Even the rocks crumbled underfoot, crystallized bonds undone by the intensity of heat, erosion on fast-forward.

And yet, here and there, impossibly, a dried clump of green grass or the browned remains of a flower, hints of recovery. The blackened bark of trees had been worked at by woodpeckers, nuthatches, prying birds hungry for insects. Flakes of bark were chipped away, rows of holes drilled, and the true, nut-brown color of tree revealed beneath the husk of black. There too, stamped in the dirt and across patches of snow as I sidehilled, the tracks of deer on their way somewhere -- to water, to shelter, to food.

If there is a good thing to say about charred forests, it is that the views are revealed. Through the aisles of black the descending foothills, the distant broad swath of the Yellowstone River Valley, the sere sweep of prairie to the north, and more ridges and mountains clothed in the fur of burn. Denuded of vegetation, views in every direction, dramatic, yet skeletal.

At several points we could look back down to the cabin, our van parked out front. Around it, a thin girdle of live trees, a small island of ground and structure successfully defended against the blaze. I imagined the hot winds beating against water hoses and foam, the engulfing roar of flames, the breath-sucking heat, the people and vehicles making a stand to save a little, nondescript cabin with its woodshed and outhouse. Nearly 600 firefighters confronted the blaze, at a cost of more than $15 million. Yet, even in this thinly settled country, some 50 homes and buildings succumbed.

Higher on the ridge, clustered together on a small rocky summit, the wind clawed its way up the hill, tore at our clothes. We held our hats against it, made a quick survey, before clambering below the skyline again.

Now, shivering, I turn away from the breezy, moonlit night and return to the warmth and greater darkness of the cabin. I squeal the stove door open, throw in blackened logs already burned once, but now keeping us comfortable through the winter night. Back in my sleeping bag, warming up, I listen to my family breathe around me and to the muffled popping of wood in the stove box.

I think about the drive in to the cabin through miles of burn, a valley full of black. We passed several structures that had been consumed to their foundations. Most of the structures, however, had been saved. At every home site or ranch building, the same circle of living trees, a tight noose of survival where the fire had been beaten back, where possessions and shelter had been preserved at awesome cost and significant risk.

I thought, too, how these islands symbolize the way it will be for some time, how, in fact, it is a reality we already live with. Everywhere, these days, we carve out and defend habitable oases in an ocean of destruction; not just within the hot fury of fire, but among the gathering detritus and lifeless zones accruing from all our insults against nature. There we are, safe for the moment, looking out across the panoramas brimming with our legacy.


Alan S. Kesselheim is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. His latest book, written with Susan Wicklund, is This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor (Public Affairs).

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