When you can’t see the trees from the fire in the forest

Kings Canyon NP_feistyharriet_2016

Earlier this summer I took myself on a detour-road trip on my way to San Francisco for a wedding. As I drove through King’s Canyon National Park I was stunned and terribly saddened by the devastating damage from a recent forest fire. The photo above was taken at the end of May; there should be carpets of green covering everything, tender new shoots and leaves everywhere. Instead, everything was charred and dead, it seemed like the fire had consumed as far as I could see. However, when I got out and started exploring, there were thousands of wildflowers peeking up through the ashes and burned stumps. Maybe they stood out more to me because of their charcoal background, but in that setting they were absolutely vibrant in a way that could only exist with the fire scars surrounding them.

Sequoia National Park_feistyharriet_2016Later that day, in Sequoia National Park, I wandered for miles through the giant trees; there was a particular little spot where most of the trees had been gutted and scarred by a forest fire (or twenty); it seemed like every tree had gaping black gashes on it’s body. Yet, even with so much lost to the blaze, these trees continued to grow, putting out new branches and needles. I read at the Ranger Station that some Sequoia trees had survived dozens of forest fires in their hundreds of years in the forest. They have adapted to be able to absorb the flash-point heat of a quick-moving fire, and some even need that heat in order for their seeds to germinate. I spent a lot of time in one particular grove, trying to capture these giants with burned out canyons rising twenty or forty or sixty feet up their bodies, charred bark to their heart, deep enough to swallow my length of my arm.

Sequoia National Park 2_feistyharriet_2016

And yet, the forest continues to grow; the forest is healthier because of the fires. The necessary adaptions and evolutions of the trees in order to survive for hundreds of years is the reason places like Sequoia NP and Redwood NP exist. Sequoia trees are some of the oldest, largest, and strongest living creatures on earth, able to withstand heat and cold and fire and drought and earthquake and any other kind of natural disaster (or man-made disaster) that has been thrown at them for thousands–literally, thousands of years. Those trees are thriving, with the yawning black cracks likes badges of honor.

This last little while as I’ve been both reeling from my own personal fire, and also feeling sorry for myself (yes, I’ve been wallowing), I had forgotten about these trees; I’d forgotten how long I wandered among their burned trunks, putting my hands in the scars and trying to wrap my head around how they were still alive and growing and expanding. I had forgotten. I’m not sure what jogged my memory, but I’m glad it did. Everything may be on fire, but it won’t always be on fire. The flames will die out, the smoke will clear, and the coals will eventually stop smoldering. And yes, I’ll probably carry some scars from the experience, but I am a fucking Sequoia: a fire cannot destroy me.

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P.S. Thank you to all who have reached out in concern; I haven’t responded to many, I’ve literally been just trying to breathe. Last night’s epiphany about the Sequoia’s was an a ha! moment for me, a crisp, swift breeze that brought me hope I haven’t felt since this whole thing started. Yes, I’m being vague. I’m sorry. Actually, I’m not sorry. This is my little corner of the internet, and I use my writing as therapy. You’re the weirdly voyeuristic part-stranger who is reading my therapy sessions for recreation.

P.P.S. THANK YOU, all you voyeuristic weirdos! You are My Tribe.

P.P.P.S. ooxxooXoXXx

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On cactus, and living in the Valley of the Surface of the Sun

Purple Cactus flower_feistyharriet_April 2016

In my short time as a resident of the American Southwest I have come to appreciate some of it’s thornier and more beautiful parts: the desert plants that thrive under the harshest of conditions. In the early spring I loved taking my camera with me on walks through my neighborhood to photograph some of the spikier and thornier specimens in people’s yards. Then, you know, temperatures soared and I retreated back to the air conditioning, where I have stayed.

Agave teeth_feistyharriet_San Antonio Botanical Gardens

I see my northern neighbors celebrating cooler temperatures, the coming of fall fashions, pumpkin spice everything, and exhaling that the heat of summer has passed. Meanwhile, it’s still 100+ every day here and my cabin fever continues to rage. Locals keep telling me that Arizona’s fall is coming, and looking at the weather patterns I only partially believe them. It will be in the 90’s through October before finally cooling off to temperatures where I can breathe, but for me, 70 degrees is a perfect summer day, not appropriate for November and December. I truly don’t know if I will ever fully adapt to life in the low desert; the high desert where there is frost and snow and plummeting temperatures at night? That I can do. But without the elevation of those ancient plateaus, Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs just bake, and bake, and bake, for MONTHS on end.

Red spike cactus_feistyharriet_April 2016

The soul-sucking heat, the neverending blistering sun, the subsequent cabin fever…it makes me anxious and irritable and, in general, makes everything worse. I somehow feel that a few days of truly cold temperatures would solve a fair number of my internal turmoil, the cool temperatures calm me and help me think more clearly. I am sharper and more logical, more productive and happier when my body is not fighting itself and my surface-of-the-sun environment.

Hairy Agave_feistyharriet_April 2016

I have had to negotiate a lot of adjustments since I moved to Arizona: new work routine (which just changed again), new dynamics with Mr. Blue Eyes and his kids, new dynamics with my own family and friendships to accommodate the distance, and new relationships with friends and colleagues here. Those are the pieces that keep my going, the beautiful desert bloom, the cactus flowers…but the damn heat is the always present spikes and cactus spines, the constant that must be negotiated multiple times per day. When walking to the mailbox has the potential to give you heat stroke, the weather doesn’t just disappear into the background. Perhaps it does for those who are used to the fire-breathing sky, and perhaps in time I will adapt. If my love of Charles Darwin has taught me anything, it is that species will always adapt to their surroundings (or they will die out, but let’s not focus on that option, mmmkay?)

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Contradictory

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When you start something new there is always a little bit of anxiety mixed in with the thrill of the new, the unexplored, the possibility. Maybe that’s just me. Coincidentally, when planning a new adventure, I also go through waves of melancholy and exhilaration; sad about what I’ll never have time to experience and simultaneously over the moon about what I will be able to see and do.

My brain is a living, spinning contradiction in almost every way. It’s exhausting.

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Arizona Meteor Crater

If you are the kind of nerd that I am (and I like to think that you are; Hello, Nerd Friend), you will remember the week in elementary school that you learned about the Barringer Meteorite Crater in Arizona. You know, the giant ball of iron that zoomed in from space, made a fantastic hole, and probably killed off the dinosaurs? Ok, that last part isn’t true, it wasn’t THE meteor (which was, by all accounts, one of many significantly larger ones), but the Arizona meteor was a pretty big one, and because the plains around it are still completely desolate, it’s easy to imagine mass extinction. A few weeks ago Mr. Blue Eyes and I decided to go on an adventure close-ish to home, and the crater was near the top of my list.

Arizona Meteor Crater_feistyharriet_July 2016 (3)The crater is massive, over a mile across, 2.5 miles in circumference, and 550 feet deep. You can see a bit of white in that photo up there, those are outbuildings from the mining operation that used to be at the base of this pit.

Arizona Meteor Crater_feistyharriet_July 2016 (7)This is a piece of the meteor that made the impact. Most of the 150 foot rock dissolved upon fiery impact, but from time to time the ranchers in the wide open spaces around this crater find pieces of this heavy nickle-iron space-debris on their land. The largest piece found so far is about the size of an infant car seat and weighs something like 1,400 pounds.

Arizona Meteor Crater_feistyharriet_July 2016 (4)Blue Eyes and I wandered around the museum, took the tour out to the edge of the crater, were curtailed on said tour due to a nasty-looking storm brewing to the north, but did check out several fixed telescopes to get a better look at the geology of the crater, some old leftover mining operations that were hauled down there by mule, and the debris from a small airplane that crashed in the crater, not taking into account the wind in there it was unable to get out and smashed into the rocky sides of the pit.

Arizona Meteor Crater_feistyharriet_July 2016 (2)The museum was small, but had a lot of interesting information on meteors, meteorites, and history of the area. Blue Eyes is a mining geek, and a dirt & rock geek, and I love space stuff…so we frankly had a blast at the museum. Man, science is awesome.

Arizona Meteor Crater_feistyharriet_July 2016 (1)As we were leaving the storm we’d been watching turned into a pretty intense summer thundercloud with speedy winds whipping it across the plateaus. Glad we weren’t on the rim of the crater for that, but am also kind of bummed we didn’t get to go exploring a little more.

Arizona Meteor Crater_feistyharriet_July 2016 (5)Uh, this is not at the crater, this was a wrong exit that I insisted was correct, only to be met with some weird tribal-alien ruins of what once was a money maker on historic Route 66.

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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Book reviews about red rock country

Capitol Reef Fruit Orchard_feistyharriet_March 2015 (7)

This year I decided to write my book reviews a little differently instead of focusing on what I read chronologically, I want to group similar books together by topic and write about them that way.

Mormon Country, by Wallace Stegner (5 stars). Stegner spent a lot of time in Utah during his formative years, and his grasp of Mormon culture and idiosyncrasies while still respecting their faith is, frankly, refreshing. This was published in the early 1940’s and while there have been some big changes in many aspects of Mormon culture since then as the LDS church has grown exponentially, some of the idiosyncrasies are now just bigger issues, and some have disappeared completely.

In addition to describing the people and culture of Utah, however, Stegner spends many chapters discussing the land, the settlement (small agricultural towns based on community and irrigation, not the stand-alone ranches of the Midwest), the working with the natural resources instead of exploiting them (Mormons did not mine, despite settling in mineral and oil rich country), history of native tribes and people, history of battles (actual and political) with the federal government in the early days of the Utah Territory, Spanish explorers, Butch Cassidy’s outlaws, legends and stories from the Colorado Strip, dinosaur hunters, and the “colonizing” Mormons who settled from Idaho to Mexico, from the Rockies to the Sierra and even outposts at San Francisco, San Bernadino, and San Diego, California.

Mostly, this book just made me homesick. Stegner’s descriptions of the wildest places of the Wasatch mountains and south-eastern Utah’s red rock country made me long desperately for home. Stegner’s predictions for Utah have almost all come true, which was really interesting to read about.

Petrified Forest NP 2_feistyharriet_March 2016

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner (4 stars). The high desert, red rock canyon country of south-east Utah was the last part of the contiguous United States to be mapped, and with good reason. That country is harsh, blistering, and difficult to navigate by foot, horse, boat, or, frankly, jeep. Terry Tempest Williams says Utah has “a spine like a stegosaurus” and I think that’s quite apt. Powell is the first (white) explorer to attempt this country and try to map the rivers and mountains and plateaus. This book is that history and follows Powell’s political career for several decades as he tries to convince Congress and the public, so hot for the Homestead Act, that agricultural farming just will not work in vast areas of the arid, desert West. He failed, and it wasn’t until decades later that the US Government started to understand his points. The subsequent water war that has lasted and heightened in the last 15 or 20 years was predicted by Powell over 150 years ago, he knew exactly what would happen to the lands of the West if farming and ranching were left unchecked and the water resources were not protected.

The most exciting part of this book is the first 150 pages where Powell and a small group of adventurers run the Green River from Wyoming down through the Uintas and eastern Utah, finally meeting up with the Grand/Colorado River and continuing on through southeast Utah and northern Arizona, running the Grand Canyon, and ending up in the tip of Nevada. His descriptions are fantastic and, in many ways, a love letter to the red rock country I hold so dear. The rest of the book is more political and details the history of homesteading and immigration through the western United States, bits of the wars and treaties and decimation of the Native American tribes, and a lot of congressional arguments and acts and vetoes that led to the “opening” and settlement of the West. Stegner wrote this in the 1950’s and it is fascinating how much still holds true 75 years later on the fight for water and other sustaining resources in the hot desert mesas and mountains.

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High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, by Barbara Kingsolver (4 stars). When I picked this book up I thought it would be include essays about Kingsolver’s life in Arizona, experiences in and around Tucson. It does not. The essays are well written and thought invoking, but only one or two has any direct ties to living in an arid desert. Just shows you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Kingsolver discusses politics, environment protection, family, travel, and many of her own childhood experiences. Excellent read.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams (4 stars). This book is part environmental treatise, and part family history. While I sometimes did not identify with the connection Tempest Williams feels to the women in her family, I certainly felt in my bones her love for the Salt Lake valley and the Great Salt Lake herself (yes, the lake is a woman). Tempest Williams is a gifted storyteller and writes beautiful, poetic descriptions full of emotion and feeling.

Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, by Terry Tempest Williams (3 stars). This collection of essays about red rock and canyon country was a little hit and miss. Some of them I *loved* and re-read immediately. Other essays didn’t really affect me much, or even made me angry; but, in most ways, this book is a series of love letters to the wild, rocky country I call home.

Other Reading Recommendations:

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Anthropology of Turquoise, by Ellen Meloy

 

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