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.