We went up towards a ranger station I’ll redub Indian Richard, and the vulgar among you can go wild. (My very Ute friend says the correct name with a certain wry satisfaction.) The road goes through a national forest that had extensive fires. I’ve seen quite a few of those on TV in my California years, and I’ve seen smaller ones up close — the forest fires in the Santa Cruz mountains always get controlled pretty quickly, as these things go.
But with miles and miles, and none of it belonging to anyone, and access so hard — these huge forests are sometimes left to burn.
Caveat emptor: I might have to wax lyrical. There was no way a photograph could do any of this justice, especially from my elderly little iPhone, so I’m left with words alone to draw these pictures with.
Here’s what the California coastal ranges look like normally (except the redwoods; those are temperate rain forests. The inland highlands are much drier, almost arid.) Tawny pelts of grass stretch over the flanks of hills that roll, or sometimes tumble, over knuckles of exposed rock — mottled grey, often fractured in angular planes, puzzle pieces of multicolored lichen covering them, incredibly decorative in the wild and apparently pretty useless for anything commercial, so they’re left to mark turns in rivers and roads.
Those wide tawny pelts are speckled with live-oaks, dark acrobatic limbs twisted in double-jointed abandon, leathery little leaves shaped more like holly, so dark a green they look nearly black against the lion-colored hills.
Occasional stands of cottonwood soak their feet in little streams between the hills, such a bright lively green that they look fey and fresh, too tender for this terrain — but there they are, just the same.
Manzanita twists long dancer’s limbs in dark red tights against its own rich green foliage. It clutches clusters of indigo berries like little nosegays. I can’t get enough of the manzanita. It grows everywhere: in the chapparal, in the woodland, on the edge of the dry lands.
Up on the wooded slopes, jack-pine and maple grow side by side, the jack-pine in big fat perfect shapes, long swooping arms holding long swooping needles. The maples are petite by comparison, appearing to shrink shyly in the shadow of the large-gestured pine.
The woods are never as dense as the Eastern forests, so undergrowth is rife. Poison oak (my personal favorite, hah! ;-p) and scrubby whatnots are simply everywhere. You get breaks of sweeping grasses or areas buried in pine needles hiding roots and vines underfoot, but there’s always something to stumble over.
And that is what first penetrated the overall stunned feeling of seeing such huge forest fire remains up close. The ground was utterly clear. It was covered in a perfect layer of… nothing. There was nothing underfoot. Nature didn’t even bother with a broom. There was nothing but neutral surface, a sort of grey to greyish beige, a noncolor in a monochrome land. Oddly, there were huge astrocytes of white among the grey, straggling stars splashing the grimness with a weird dash of style.
Everything was shades of grey and beige. The trees that had burned the hardest, had been burned to their purest form: no decoration, no hiding, just pure form. More beautiful than the hardest freeze of winter for absolute pared-down revealment. Their trunks had the color and sheen of raw graphite. The stark black of their flayed branches against the cooling sky was absolute.
The jack-pines’ branches and surviving needles told a harrowing story of scorching wind and searing holocaust, limbs twisted against themselves and needles curled into cupped hands as they tried to escape. The live-oaks that still had leaves clenched them into little fists at the ends of thier branches.
But already there were signs of the future creeping up on the recent past. Deer paths and rabbit trails shot through the bleak perfection, loud fawn-colored ribbons laid across the grey velvet. Where maples and the occasional sumac had survived the first blast of heat, the leaves withered afterwards and dropped, golden, on the clean ground, a touch of warmth and — though I saw that they were really just dead — looking exactly like the promise of life.
And then there were the anomalies, those random moments of wildfire charm: a perfect green-and-red-and-indigo manzanita surrounded by total monochromatic devastation, radiant and queenly though no more than 5 feet high; a green maple gracing a stand of tortured jack-pines with unshattered elegance.
The maples consistently kept their heads; somehow, surrounded by much taller jack-pines totally scorched, it seemed they had lifted thier heads and one or two limbs out of the way, and somehow were likely to have kept a bit of green there.
At the last moment, just as we crossed from the last great burn into untouched woodland, a flash of silver — not grey, but sparkling, living silver — danced into view. A fat and sassy squirrel pirouetted on a twig too small to hold it, flirting and twitching in lively activity, a visual shout of life on the edge of the stillness.
I’m still digesting. Both my friend and I have been quite harrowed recently, and he might have chosen that road for a number of reasons. It’s an interesting lot to think about, and the images are burned, as it were, into my mind. I only wish I could do it more justice. Nature at her most natural is far beyond this language, though.