Fine Particles of Brilliant Forests, Burning

As catastrophic fires continue to rage across the west coast of the United States and the wetlands of Brazil, we republish a lament from our 2019 'fire issue' for all the wild lives burned in the forests, alongside another it inspired  from the Australian bush fires.
Becca is a writer, mother, and the director of Frog Hollow School, a writing program for children in the Seattle area. Her work appeared recently in Orion and Mutha Magazine/ Rosalie is an Australian ecologist who has worked in nature conservation for 30 years, involving research, university teaching and offering professional development courses.
British Columbia is burning like so much of the West and like so much of the West Seattle has been smoky, the streets dim and Victorian, the particulate levels exceedingly high. Particulates: the particular bits of the burning things, the things burning being the Northwest’s forests, the forests and their beings.

Which are first of all trees: snags, sprouts, saplings, old growth, monoculture third growth firs. And spruce needles, big leaf maple twigs, alder catkins, yellowing green cottonwood leaves, hemlock heartwood, root tannins of yellow cedar, pitchy upright alpine fir cones, resin blisters of western white pine, the handsbreadth-thick bark of old Douglas-firs. And farther east, the puzzle pieces flaking off of ponderosa pines, pines that are impervious to fire to a point – and then past that point ponderosa needles, branches, limbs.

And the smoke is the claw marks in aspen trees climbed by bear cubs, and the black scars in the white bark of birches where elk scratched their antlers. It is mycelium-laced snags sprouting witch’s butter and artist’s conk and varnished red-brown reishi. It is the orange punk of ancient Western red-cedar stumps. The spring green of bitter cherry saplings. It is whole alder leaves, blackened and untouchably delicate, swirled up, blown south, crushed finally by air.

The haze between the hills is blacktail deer hair caught in salmonberry thorns, chickeree middens and the stumps that held them and the chickerees too when the fire trapped them. It is empty shells (brown-spotted, pale blue) in Swainson’s thrush nests in curving Douglas maple trees. It is flame-orange Northern Flicker feathers fallen in sword ferns, and the sword ferns. It is licorice fern, deer fern, maidenhair fern, bracken. It is dry and dormant mosses flash-charred into dust.

The dust in our lungs is lettuce lung and lungwort, pimpled kidney and peppered moon, frog pelt and freckle pelt, forking and beaded bone, ragbag and tattered rag, antlered perfume, sulphur stubble and common witch’s hair. Blood spattered beard. False pixie cup. Devil’s matchstick.

The dust in our lungs is lettuce lung and lungwort, pimpled kidney and peppered moon, frog pelt and freckle pelt, forking and beaded bone

The weird redness in the few beams of sunlight is the berry seeds from black bears’ scat. And the berry bushes: huckleberries red black blue, serviceberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, blackberries, black raspberries, dewberries, elderberries, snowberries, gooseberries, mooseberries, kinnikinnick, salal. It is cow parsnip and lady’s slipper, columbine and bleeding heart. It is the foxglove and fireweed of clear cuts and the trillium and wood violet of old forest glades. It is the medicine of devil’s club and corn lily.

The rasp in our throats is slime from stones in small streams turned to steam. It is the rust of broken culverts in old logging roads, pressure-treated posts holding road signs and trail signs, the grasses and oxeye daisies that grow in gravel roads. It is the tarred wood of bridges. It is melted asphalt.

The orange tint to the moon is the burnt bones of long-dead wolves, the flesh of whole voles. It is the black and yellow millipedes that smell like almonds when scared. It is the leaves the aplodontia dried and stacked like hay for the winter. It is the pearly eggs of slugs. It is spider webs and spiders, iridescent flies. It is thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes. It is weasels and martens and fishers, Pacific tree frog, giant salamander, old and slow-moving lynx.

All of them burning, rising, floating, flying, settling in our lungs, on our skin, on lawns, skyscrapers, and lakes. A film in our water glasses, grime on our windshields, dust on our backyard tomatoes. Hundreds of miles from where they grew, these forest particles become part of our place. There is no line, now, if there ever was, between there and here, burning and breathing, their life and our own.

Becca Rose Hall

 

Requiem for Nature

during the Blue Mountain fires in Australia, December 2019 

We read in the local Australian media that the air is toxic, and the pollution levels are dangerous to our health. We read about the microscopic dust and PM2.5 particles. But what are these particles? 

They are the koalas caught in the burning tree canopies, too slow to escape. The few remaining native animal species that have been able to survive in our colonial-transformed environment. 

The smell of the smoke is the 100 species of eucalyptus trees awarded World Heritage for their outstanding diversity. Along with the living laboratory of Blue Mountains ecosystems formed across millennia. Maybe too the Wollemi pines that avoided extinction for 100 million years.

Our smoke-induced headaches are the 20,000-year-old rock art destroyed in the flames. The Aboriginal sacred sites and songlines of the Dharug, Darkinjung, Gundungurra, Tharawal, Wanaruah and Wiradjuri people. 

The pink-red glow of the sunset is the burning peat of the upland swamps that formed over thousands of years, serving as sponges that hold precious water on top of the escarpments. It is the endangered wildlife that live in the swamps, the Blue Mountains water skink and the giant dragonfly.

The sick feeling in our stomachs is the burning of the few remaining pure-bred dingoes. It is the bower that the satin bowerbird built so he could dance for his females, surrounded by painstakingly curated blue objects. 

The sting in our eyes is the eastern spinebill, tiny birds too vulnerable to survive the heat. The echidnas engulfed in flames with nowhere to hide.

Our tears are the moisture from the wings of the newly-hatched cicadas that just emerged from their seven-year hibernation. 

All of them burning, rising, floating, and settling in our lungs. Their lives have become part of ours more than ever before – we denied our connection and we can deny it no longer.

Rosalie Chapple

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 15 (PDF)

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

Read more

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