Somewhere south of Moab Photo by Dallas Hyland
I love the cool blue light of the morning in the summer when the world is sleepy and peaceful – or at least seemingly so. Before the dazzling sun shoots its rays over the horizon and casts everything in golden light the bluish hues make the green of my yard greener, it makes the red of the peaches bundled on the tree deeper, and the colors tug at the lid of my heart, prying open the chamber where hope is found.
A new dew-covered day awaits. Between sips of coffee I inspect the progress that the work of my hands have begun and look for pests trying to undo it. My garden harkens back to memories of my childhood where the garden was a place of wonder my mother invited us in to. The earthy smell, the deep, rich soil, and the sweet flavor of the food our hands helped grow implanted the taste of a kind of pleasure found nowhere else. The sight of small plants pushing through the soil still thrill me and I watch them grow with eager anticipation like a child on Christmas Eve.
I drag a hose across my yard; the zig-zagging pattern that takes me from the garden on one side to the grapes on the other is now set in habit. My feet count out cadence across the cool, wet grass as I inspect the lawn, the sunflowers, the fruit trees, the pumpkin and zucchini, and even the ponderosas. I scan the ground for snails, my tiny nemesis. Only one snail today but its maddening presence sends me into a tizzy. Where do they come from?
I notice, to my chagrin that the weeds are back, springing up as fast as I can pull them and my mind wrestles with the allure of using pesticides. But there is something cathartic in pulling weeds, in feeling the roots struggling to hang on to the soil slowly break free in your fingertips, and know that the precious water and minerals will surely go to the vegetables inching their way toward the sky. The pride and joy that comes from toiling in my garden is a strange thing. It is a fierce protective feeling that translates into a deep love for this little patch of earth I call my own.
My world has been reduced down to a small acre lot that takes constant care and upkeep. It is a full-time job. I think about all the money spent on plants and seeds and water, and all the hours spent watering, fertilizing, and weeding and then marvel at the nagging politicians and citizens calling for less spending on our public lands.
I think of the millions of acres managed by a small cadre of range technicians, soil conservationists, physical scientists, and law enforcement officers, among others, whose thankless job it is to do the job of an army, with the budget of a non-governmental organization. I think about the money I have spent on my one little acre and multiply it by millions and gawk at the pittance national land managers are given to manage the Nation’s gardens. The scale is hard to wrap my head around.
Wendell Berry said of the Peruvian fields tended by Andean peasants in The Gift of Good Land, “It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to see how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little, they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch – picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. The prime characteristic of the native, pre-Spanish agriculture was its concentration on each individual plant, which accounts in large part for the great varietal diversity of the native crops.”
As my mind ping-pongs between the panoramic and intimate my yard lights up with the first touch of the sun, long strands of light stretch across the yard, glowing against the parts still cast in shadow. For one sweet hour nothing existed but my labor, the words I dug out of my limited vocabulary to capture my thoughts, and the solid land under my feet.
These days I measure my life not only with coffee spoons but in cool mornings and sultry evenings with my hands in soft, warm dirt. I measure my life in handfuls. Though I wish my days were filled with travel to exotic places, mountain tops, crags, and beaches, like so many I see, the earth I work anchors me to this place. As much as I long to put my feet on our Nation’s lands and taste again the wild solitude and peace they provoke, the work I do at home translates to an appreciation for the work so needed, done by so few and with such meager resources and support on our public lands.
Wes Jackson said, “…the cause of waste is alienation from the land: where there is alienation, stewardship has no chance.” We love what we invest in, what we pour ourselves into, what we give in time, sweat, and work – whether it is a career, volunteering, parenting, gardening, tending relationships, or investment in the land. When we give in this way our love bubbles over into a fierce, protective love.
As we consider our values and haggle over the economy, we would be wise to remember the origin of the word economy which is the order of households and that economic health should be judged by the health of households, both individual and communal, both on a small scale and a large scale, both personal and national, and that we have a part to play in it. E pluribus unum; out of many, one. By being little and aware of the details of our own individual lives we begin to grasp and understand the complexities of the large-scale and see how our small yet significant place in it, working in concert with our neighbors, communities, and citizenry, intricately shapes the fabric our society.
We ducked out of town the day before the election. Our votes had already been cast and it was just a matter of waiting for the results to come in. It was the perfect time to do some field work and get a break from the rancor of politics. Autumn in the desert means cool, brisk mornings and warm afternoons. We got to Kelly Dam in the afternoon when everything was coated in buttery sunlight and found quickly that our sweatshirts were unnecessary and only made us hot walking the 100 acre burn site to check ponderosa mortality, canopy spread, and to redo photo plots.
The lonely sound of an airplane overhead accentuated our solitude and isolation and made the crunching twigs and pine needs under our feet sound thunderous in the otherwise silent forest. We talked very little.
The forest was adorned in hints of reds and oranges that cast the world around us in soft hues of amber and gold in one last hurrah before being extinguished under winter’s embrace. The heads of blue grama grass make an airy blanket of curled feathers suspended in air a foot off the ground held aloft by their long stems. They and other native grasses are luminescent in the patches of sunlight cast against the patterns of shade in the forest. The curly-q tufts of grass at their base shimmer in the light like flames – streaks of red, orange, and yellow imitate a running ground fire in a trail of light that disappears into the shadows. I am mesmerized by the play of light and vegetation in their game of charade, mimicking other seasons and events.
Some patches of the burn site show no sign of fire and are thick and unruly while other sites reveal intense fire behavior with burn marks 30 feet off the ground and are more open and clear. The fire jumped around and missed spots. The kill rate is higher in some places than in others, noticeable by the fallen trees on the ground. It bothers me, my mind wanting uniformity. It’s a mess in need of more fire.
Many of the dead trees are still standing. I knew the trees were dead if they had no needles, but I had no idea you could tell by the presence of woodpecker holes. Trees decompose much like bodies, leaving clues by what is decomposing them. When a ponderosa pine dies, wood borers are able to move in and feast on the carcass and in turn provide a delicious bounty for opportunistic woodpeckers; predator and prey. The tree thus bored and drilled into is like a standing stack of wafers that crunches and crackles like pressed potato chips when leaned upon. Those are the ones to watch out for; the widow-makers.
We pull off a large piece of the outer bark on one tree that looks like Swiss cheese and see trails etched in the wood by the beetles that had been there. I lean in to smell the dead tree but the life that left with all the needles took the butterscotch scent with it. I am disappointed. I walk to another tree black from fire but still alive and lean in and inhale. The sweet scent lingers in the pockets between the outer bark and inner softwood. I feel like a dog sniffing something it can’t quite get to, sticking my nose in as far as I can. My olfactory senses salivate. I want to take an ax to the tree and cut a slice of pie out of it and breathe it in – take it with me. What is the tree trying to attract anyway? I wonder if this is what it’s like to be a honeybee, intoxicated and distracted by fragrances.
We head to the next plot, a meadow of sage surrounded by ponderosa. Sage is not a particularly beautiful plant especially when it makes up a meadow. Without contrast to bring the features of the plant out the eye scans over the patches of dirt and muted blue grey as if staring out to sea; the eye sees everything and nothing. Like most desert plants its allure is in its scent which rises to our nostrils as we walk through it. The fire didn’t like the sage, clearly struggling to burn through it. We pushed the fire to do its job but it was an unwilling worker. Large circles of blackened stumps stood out in the otherwise monotonous carpet of blue. Strangely, the grasses did not creep into the open spaces but stayed bunched up close to the unburned sage. I was told it might be due to drought. I wonder.
We move to the next photo plot in the ponderosa stands. The fire did its job here. Several fires did their job. The area is how one pictures a forest when they don’t know better. There is not a lot of understory plants or dead trees lying on the ground. It is clear and open, the trees majestically swaying in the breeze overhead, the ground covered in rust colored needles so thick it’s squishy and soft to walk on. The sun is getting low on the horizon and so the light casts through the trees to the ground in sunflecks that set the forest aglow. It’s enchanting.
I have a hard time focusing on my work; my mind is camping in this clearing and relaxes into a day dream-like state. I think this, this is how it should all look; the man-made forest garden. I catch myself, the irony, but I can’t help it. It’s captivating. I am in awe. Fire and people did this. How many other places, small pockets of beauty in remote places just like this, were created by people?
I understand now why fire is man’s best friend – I see it – man has always been in awe of the raw power and grace of fire. And why shouldn’t she be? It enabled people to see what is otherwise hidden, to see what might be sneaking up in the shadows; it enabled people to move quietly when hunting, it brought game, and it enabled cooking the game and staying warm after being satiated. Fire meant survival. I had to drag myself away from East Fork, the pull to stay was so strong, but nightfall was coming and it was getting cold.
With the shorter days of winter upon us, it was hard to know what time it was when I first woke. It could be 3am or 6am. It was too cold to get up and find out. I decided to wait for signs of the sun. Then I could be sure. I drifted in and out of sleep, cozy in my sleeping bag. My face is the only part of me exposed, the air is cold and invigorating, accentuating the warmth of my cocoon. Contentment oozes through me. It’s peaceful and serenely still. The sun creeps in like a cat and before I know it, the sky shifts from dark to light and the curtain opens on the next act.
I bundle up and make a cup of coffee. We get a fire going and create a pocket of warmth against the encroaching cold. The morning, like a cathedral, impresses us to silence. Our breathing comes out in steady white puffs. I breathe out just to see it, a kid again. I don’t have a mircrowave so I drink my coffee faster than normal and have to make another cup. As the air warms and light touches the earth, the forest awakens. We watch a flock of chatty birds dash in unison from trees to meadow and back again, down and up, over and up and down again. It’s a symphony of motion. I am motionless, a statue, the watcher. I hope for a deer or coyote but don’t see one. They know to stay clear.
Our destination on Election Day is Mt. Dellenbaugh. Our thoughts are far from politics. The trail is mellow and meanders first through a ponderosa stand, then up into the rockier ground inhabited by pinion and juniper. We watch our feet and make our way in silence, occasionally looking up for reference. Eventually the trail pitches up onto a rocky outcrop that gives glimpses of the view awaiting us from the top. The last quarter mile up to the summit is the most strenuous part. We scramble up onto the rocky point and look around at the unobstructed 360 degree view before us. I see fingers of canyons stretching toward us from the Grand Canyon but the Colorado River is hidden from view. I struggle to imagine anyone hiking from the river to where I was standing, let alone to St. George, and yet that is exactly what three men on the Powell Expedition were desperate enough to attempt.
We drop our packs and sign the summit register. “Nov. 8, 2016 – Escaping the election,” I write, and then look around for some good rocks to sit and rest against. I find two shaped crudely like a chair and slide down on them and eat my lunch. I can hear the wind up above my head. The sun is warm and pleasant. And then suddenly the wind drops out of the sky and washes over me. The leaves on the oak next to me shiver and I do too. I look around and wonder what obstacle suddenly made the wind drop to ground level. The wispy clouds above are shaped in curvy, white waves against the sky and I realize the wind is flowing like a river and I am in the current. Of course I didn’t bring my sweatshirt.
I look out across the landscape and notice ponderosa stands sandwiched into long strings by the sea of juniper and pinion trees crushing against them like ice floes against Shackleton’s ship in the Antarctic. They don’t look as abundant from this vantage point and it surprises me. The bumpy carpet of green stretches as far as the eye can see, broken periodically by open clearings of what I guess are private or state lands. If I look closely I can tell the difference between the juniper and pinion, the juniper being an ever so slightly yellow green, the pinion more blue green. Juniper trees rule here.
After our short lunch we take our photo plots – north, south, east, and west. We finish and then hypothesize about the strange colony of lady bugs inhabiting this rocky spot. Hundreds are huddled together in cracks, but many coat the rock surfaces in what appears to be sun bathing. They fly around periodically and land on us and our gear. I wonder, do lady bugs fly south like birds? Do they hibernate like bears? Do they survive the winter here? It’s strange to see their cheerful little bodies far from a quaint garden up in such a hostile environment. But what do I know. We throw our gear back in our packs and sling them over our shoulders, sending the daring few lady bugs that ventured to check out the colorful new objects flying through the air.
The drive back to St. George is roughly three hours, three more precious hours of repose from the political sporting event in full swing back home. There was no rush to get back; the results would come in with or without us. The landscape was indifferent to our leaving but we weren’t. We brought the tranquility back with us to replay in the convening hours and days thereafter. What sweet bliss those two days of escape provided before the results were known and the knowledge washed our ignorance away.
Somewhere south of Moab Photo by Dallas Hyland
Teddy Roosevelt and America’s first Forester, Gifford Pinchot, believed that conservation was a cause vital to the United States’ remaining a land of equals. Acting on that belief, they did the unthinkable – they set aside large swaths of the American landscape as public land, designating National Parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, thus protecting both land and resources from the rich and powerful, the industrialists and capitalists who would “not leave the land as it is, who would only mar it.”
It was anathema to their class and status, both coming from wealthy and privileged Eastern families. The issue wasn’t necessarily class warfare; however; and it wasn’t just a battle for land or money, though those certainly played a part. It was a battle between two different mentalities sprouting from the same root that came to a head over deeply held yet conflicting American principles: the right to property and the right to liberty.
In order to have true liberty, or free-will, one must be on equal footing with everyone else. Inequality diminishes liberty. If one’s right to vote is contingent on owning property and there are laws that say certain groups cannot own property, then those groups are not on equal footing with their fellow countrymen and hence their free-will, or liberty, is hindered. This is an example of unequal treatment under the law in that some are granted privileges while others are excluded from them.
Equality is inherently an issue of access: access to an education, to vote, to own property, to employment, to knowledge and information, to the internet, to medical care, etc. The list goes on and on. Not having access to any of these leaves people in the dark ages.
Unfortunately the principle of property rights has been used as a tool to deny access to others for centuries and its use for those ends is still pursued today. The thing to understand about owning property; however, and this must be emphasized, is that property rights imply the freedom to act. Having title to property amounts to legal proof of ownership; property rights, on the other hand, amount to the owner’s possession of rights to perform certain physical actions on that property (1). In other words, property rights allow or restrict actions depending on whether you are the owner or guest of the property.
When public lands were created and given to the American people, what we got possession of was not the physical land, but the rights to perform certain actions on those lands. We were given access and equal footing with everyone else who was given those rights. It was a radical idea that rivals colonial America’s win against Britain for most unbelievable success story in American history.
But success can be short lived. The same forces working against Roosevelt and Pinchot are alive and well today. The same mentality is trying to take our property rights away, be it to the states, industry, or private citizens. The people pushing this agenda are not only trying to take public lands, they are trying to wrestle away our possession of property rights, and thus access and freedom to perform physical actions on those lands. If they succeed we will lose more than the ability to hunt and fish, to hike and bike, to backpack and kayak; we will cease to be a nation of equals and this is why:
Not everyone will have access to the pristine, natural beauty found on public lands. Places outside the noise and clatter of cities with clean air and water; places of spiritual significance, solitude and space will belong only to those who have access to them. Our ability to escape to cool and quiet alpine air to heal from an angry and violent world or to walk in the footsteps of past generations in places unchanged for hundreds of years will be gone or off limits, open only to those with the money and property rights to be there.
It’s not a partisan issue, though it is the GOP pushing this agenda. If you don’t like the presidential candidates, remember what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do and imagine the opposite. Remember also that 80 percent of Congress is up for re-election. They control the purse strings that can fund or starve management of our lands, as well as the pen to pass laws that undermine or enhance our access to them.
Holding lands in trust for future generations was a great moral issue 100 years ago and it’s still a great moral issue today. Right now, even if we do not own a house, we have property rights to land that grants us access to engage in a host of physical activities where we can feel as at home in them as anyone else.
Most of our public lands exist in the West, and the West has always been synonymous with freedom – freedom to enter what the Irish officer in the British Army, William F. Butler described in 1872:
“The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie-ocean of which we speak. In winter, a dazzling surface of purest snow; in early summer, a vast expanse of grass and pale pink roses, in autumn too often a wild sea of raging fire.
No ocean or water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets, no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie; one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the creator.”
So long as the public keeps vigilant watch over the land, deep pockets of the powerful will not prevail. But keeping watch entails more than using the land for recreation, it presupposes a duty to act as sentries and guardians ready to sound the alarm when under attack. It would be a mistake to assume that our public lands and our access to them will always be there. Nothing in politics is written in stone. In this arena, those who care the most, win.
(1) Foundation for Economic Education, Gary Pecquet. Private Property and Government under the Constitution.
In the High Country News Op-ed, “Wildfire has become an uncontrollable force,” by former wildland fire dispatcher Allison Linville, she asserts, “Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire – toward fires that no one can understand, predict, or control.” It’s an interesting if not emotional assertion that deserves a response.
While I appreciate Ms. Linville’s opinion and even agree with some of her points, the statement that wildland fire has become a here-to-fore unseen and unprecedented phenomenon that no one can understand might be true of green firefighters and the public, but it’s not true of seasoned people within the wildland fire community. That being said, suggesting that people are able to control a wildfire to begin with is to state an idea loaded to mislead and confuse.
In order to understand this, one must have a wide historical perspective, some understanding of wildland fire management practices, and be cognizant of linguistic subtleties; taking care that the meanings of the words we choose to use convey the right mental picture within the context that they are being used. Educated opinions form from a composite of facts, voices, and history; if not, they amount to little more than breakroom conversation.
In her article, Linville asserts that decades ago a large fire was 500 acres. I’m not certain where she is getting this idea from. More than 100 years ago the Peshtigo Fire in 1871 burned 1.5 million acres and killed between 1200 and 2500 people, and the Big Burn in 1910, the largest wildfire in history, burned 3.5 million acres that spanned three states, including the pan handle of Idaho. It killed roughly 90 people, mostly untrained firefighters. While these fires are not the norm, they certainly provide a mental backdrop for what agencies could face in any fire season.
But the size of a fire only tells a small part of the story. What made the Peshtigo Fire and the Big Burn so terrible was the intensity and behavior of the fire. They were virtual wildfire tornadoes. According to Linville’s article, a homeowner in California described the fire there in 2015 as a tornado. She then goes on to say that what everyone needs to understand is that we have no model for this kind of fire – but we do, it’s in our history.
What made the fires 100 years ago so large and tragically memorable had more to do with the loss of life due to settlements in heavily forested or wilderness areas, irresponsible or ignorant industry practices, and climate. I suspect the danger of many of the fires today are a result of some of the same things – the most significant being homes in the wildland urban interface surrounded by trees and grass, compounded by drought.
In terms of wildfire management, a lot has changed in the last 100 years, but not much has changed in terms of what we cannot control – climate, topography, and weather. Fire has not found a new way to burn or to kill. The only thing we can control is how we engage it – and that has changed significantly over the decades.
When Ms. Linville talks about controlling a fire, whether intentionally or not, she gives the illusion that we can control a fire. Saying we can control wildfire is like saying we can control the wind. We have found ways to make use of the wind, to “harness” it as they say, but if it doesn’t blow, we can’t go and turn it back on. The same is true of wildfire. We can try to use it, work with it, and attempt to coral it; we can try to cut it off, smother it, or protect people and structures from it, but we can’t control it.
In certain circumstances we can try to manage it by letting it burn and digging line and using the wind to try to determine where it burns – but the conditions for doing that must be right. The thing about wildlfire is that it has the manners of a wildlfire.
Therefore, how we choose to engage wildfire is determined by what we know about its behavior in given weather and terrain based on knowledge and experience. But how we engage it is also determined by politics, culture, and public sentiment – all of which are as dynamic and unpredictable as wildfire.
Because of those things, wildland fire “management” is ever evolving – changing with the ebb and flow of public sentiment, running effectively or hindered by policy and budget changes, and adapting with new perceptions, new science, more knowledge, and on-the-ground lessons learned. But management is a loaded word with many meanings and must be used with care, especially in the context of something so wily and uncontrollable as wildfire.
First, fire managers manage people not fires. They manage how people attack, monitor, and engage the fire. Fire management involves decisions about how to fight a fire, whether to suppress or to contain, what to let burn and where to let it burn, and how to do all of that while being safe and dealing with uncontrollable factors like weather. It’s a hard job no matter how you slice it.
Second, no matter how you try to “manage” a fire, it’s not a pet. There are a lot of moving parts that you have no control over and that can blow the best laid plans to pieces. Managers do the best they can with the knowledge and experience they have, the tools at their disposal, and all within a set budget. It’s an inherently hectic, busy to the point that most people can’t understand, and complicated machine. Given how complicated and dangerous it is, they do a phenomenal job.
Like the fire triangle, fire management can be summed in three objectives: 1. Life first (firefighters and the public), 2. Protect structures and infrastructure, and 3. Incorporate a whole landscape approach to managing wildfire by containing or manipulating the wildfire and using it like a tool to meet scientific standards that define a healthy ecosystem. Sound impossible? It pretty much is, but the wildland fire community comes pretty damn close.
We have to be careful with the words we use. Suggesting that no one knows how to manage wildlfires today is patently false. From ground pounders to seasoned fire managers, they know how to fight fire. What fire managers don’t know how to manage is public ignorance, overly simplified opinions, dwindling budgets, and whimsical politics. As for predicting or controlling wildfires, no, there’s no real way to do that. That’s why it’s called fire fighting.
I can’t speak to 2015 being the worst fire season on record, though it wouldn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the assertion that somehow no one can manage it. Fire seasons getting longer and worse, if they really are, has more to do with climate change than knowledge or tools, which again is exacerbated not by firefighters, managers, or weather, but by those in Congress (backed by citizens) who dismiss science and cut or manipulate budgets to push agendas or to control politically expedient outcomes.
Perhaps it’s our perception of wildfire that needs to be managed, in conjunction with being cognizant of where and how we live, in order to understand not only what it takes to protect from it, but how to benefit from and use it. That requires humility, taking some time to learn, having the ability to listen, and keeping an open mind.
Our relationship to the land is constantly evolving; our relationship to wildfire should be no different. Fire is among man’s oldest tools. If we can learn to work with wildfire it could be one of the greatest tools at our disposal on a landscape scale, doing quickly and cheaply what would take agencies decades in man power and labor and millions of dollars to accomplish.
There is a need to protect life, a need to protect fragile landscapes that have not adapted to wildfire, and there is a need to fight fires born of human carelessness; but beyond that, wildfires are as natural as sunshine, rain, and wind. It wouldn’t hurt us in many instances to let it do what it does best because many landscapes are cleansed and rejuvenated by it. To interfere in that process beyond watching, learning, and taking precautionary measures is to meddle in something we’d be wiser to leave alone.
Prediction and control are fickle and illusory words typically shown for what they are with hindsight and history. They should be used with care and defined clearly within the setting or context in which they are being used in order to convey an accurate picture, as well as to teach, explain, and to elicit understanding. Otherwise they will make fools of us all.