A library. It’s the size of a tool shed, I said once. It’s a one-room, unmanned library harboring books under a silver sluice of light that slides off a nearby Doug Fir’s body like silk in the afternoon. I saw it. When I was there, I heard it: needled brushstrokes raking the roof over maybe 1,000 titles. Their spines tonight will curl in the heat around midnight Pacific Time. The pages will turn gray together, the covers will spit boiled dye until the whole shelf ignites and one page slips out in a gust of wafting oxygen and then—edges browning in flight—the last line of that scene will tack and jibe to the ceiling, its last word a blistering antitail of orange.
“There is a certain commutability between matter and energy that resides in the fact that wood is potentially as much a construction material as a combustible substance. This is precisely our concern now.”1
The library was on a country road leading through the small historic town of Blue River, most of which, beginning early yesterday, had burned.
My uncle’s lot and a second cousin’s house. You’ve heard it before. But you’re somewhere now and if you imagine that where hissing in its foundations, your laptop too hot to grab and the wood floor melting, roof beam bowing, and when you inhale you swallow invisible knives and it leaves days of razors in your chest, then. Then, another litany occurs to you. The things you once amassed: papers, irreplaceable pictures, power cords and flash drives, artwork, a man’s hat, bike chains, all those jars, tiny plants, won’t be what gets you. It’ll be that ridiculous handwritten note on the fridge. Says: “rye flour if avail, or reg.”
You should look for a charger, water, a signal, an open road. But the zurek soup you were going to make obstructs your steps for a minute.
Your concerns, no matter how small, were everything until they were nothing.
Your list is short now.
A hiker’s registry, in a typical, almost-weather-proof box, with an old pen dangling from a bootstring. It’s attached to a giant sign-post on the Mummy Pass trail, marking the border between Rocky Mountain National Park and Roosevelt National Forest. This well-known sign and its attendant box is probably, as of now, 8 p.m. Mountain Time, either silent under the freak early snow or spewing pitch and sap, a pole of twirling flame. We aren’t yet sure. Potential is addictive, dangerous. There can be no actual on nights like this. I watch InciWeb, glued to my phone like it’s a sad, sad thriller.
In that hiker’s registry—either frozen or burned—in a tome of curled white scrolls, is my name (several times, once with an exclamation point), his name, a happy spider (or its descendants I guess), deciduous pine dust and particles of the 1990s, probably the 1890s, maybe the Mesozoic era. Always, a little heap of exosomatic objects appeared on that trail. Once, I found a spare button, a cracked compass.
“Happiness is the perfect and serene equilibrium under the logical empire of the solar cycle.”2
And there was a cow moose, always seen drinking at Cirque Meadow just a couple miles before this sign. She had a soft brown head. It could all be an ash mound now, a bone midden, coal moraine, in a couple days. Just a heap of gray dust, hiding heat inside itself, poofing up and cooling. I imagine one dark flake flipping over in what used to be a breeze but is now just a rancid current aliasing matter across the floor.
The bare silver spears we will see next week could be ponderosa, lodgepole, thin pins of aspen. Have you touched one?
Burned deciduous and conifer trunks are soft, like dry black silk, they write their will on your palms.
What ash does is: everything could be anything else.
A checkbook covered in mold. Now, this wasn’t in the Cascades or the Rocky Mountains but the dry gravel prairie and oak savannas west of Lake Michigan. It’s a long way. It’s a long dream. It never came true. When you stand before the sudden irrelevance of all your former toponymy, subjects change abruptly.
There was a flash flood back in May out here in the Midwest, it washed up the kind of box you forget about. It had old financial papers, labeled kitchen and then office , and then finally in a bigger, juicier Sharpie: basement. I never got to cross off basement.
Along with the rest of the tired, aspiring precariat I’ve moved almost every two years, a process which produces boxes. They hold things like old checkbooks, extension cords, suspension rods, hangers, CDs, transcripts. I guess I forgot about this one. Until the flood. In the middle of the night the basement had about three to six inches of water in it. It just kept rising.
Not bad for 2020, though. It’s hardly worth noting. This is just a Midwestern spring now, maybe throw in a couple tornados. With that much water, without sewage, you can put boots on and pump it out, in a day or two of constant work. So there you are, in the humid heat, hammering down on your swamp, your marriage, your zest for life, your it-could-be-worse life.
At some point the next afternoon I thought: whoever might see that I got a C- in Formal Logic is less my concern than that those transcripts have social security numbers printed up top, in bold. And then bank numbers. I stood there staring at the box, sitting there in the yard, trying to figure out what to do. It was all too damp to shred. It stank. The papers were heavy and stuck together, with velveteen mold growing by the hour.
But then the water heater quit. Then the power went out. Then it came back on, but not the water heater or the washing machine, which quit just after it filled up with water for a load of gross, muddy clothes. Then the freezer quit. I ate all the ice cream to save it. The box in the yard got put in the garage and promptly forgotten.
About a week ago, second week of September, I noticed the thick, damp box still there in the garage, black mold happily festering, social security numbers and bank account numbers still intact and visible. It had been in there all summer.
I lit the bonfire pit. The checkbooks puckered, bubbled and loosened and fell down into the bright red mounds under the logs while I drank wine from a lidded mug. I waved away a gnat and scrolled InciWeb.
The C- in Formal Logic took a dive of total defeat into the furious force of nature.
Something still smelled like mold.
A cabin. It’s 10 p.m. Central Time now. My checkbooks are almost devoured. From my lawn-chair, I scroll for the latest updates in the blazing mountain west where I grew up. InciWeb shows a red pool like a blood pool over the peaks most familiar to me. The topographical lines descend down the side of the valley where I became myself. Where the lines are squiggly and close together, they indicate steep and varied terrain. They smooth out and spread at the valley floor. I remember it without willing to. The landscape is in me. People write things like this when they see it disappearing.
Some people suggest I should be sadder.
Others admire what they’re calling pluck.
Feelings this year though; they eat each other up, roar from within each other. They engage such ludic costumery.
I zoom in on the Cameron Peak Fire on my phone, centering the fire’s edge over the green lines representing the slope of scree under the summit of Mummy Pass. The fire has wrapped itself around Pingree Park but hasn’t bitten. If it does, it might eat a late nineteenth-century cabin with original windows and woodwork. Registered as a Colorado historical landmark, the three-room structure was home to me and one other housekeeper for each of the four summers I worked there.
plank smell in the morning / planks after rain
wood made pungent hammered by sun
cool fog on grass where dawn strawberries dropped
I suppose the glass of the cabin will buckle and pop first, then maybe melt; it wasn’t modern glass, it was made of mica. Sometimes even without a passerby, the intensity of lights and darks at high altitude would play these windows’ texture throughout an afternoon and make us look.
Two children of the original homesteaders died one winter in the 1890s or so. Their graves, more than a century old, are little stone lambs sinking into the grass. Maybe those won’t burn.
We always said there was a ghost that wandered on the dirt tire tracks that led from that cabin, the ‘Homestead,’ to the next, the ‘Middle Cabin.’ Everyone was sure there was only one, a girl ghost.
What will she do when the flames come? Have we considered fires and ghosts? Graves? The already dead reconstituted through modern intensities?
Saint Augustine observes that a stone falls, and a fire rises—they say the fire’s still going, even with the snow. A ghost floats, or does she melt? The hems of her dress might go hard and petrify, seared or frozen. Tomorrow she will be a smoky rock of granite emitting whorls of burned history.
I check my phone again. The red area representing the fire has expanded over a small gray square representing a structure.
Watershed 1. The HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, Lane County Oregon, near Blue River and McKenzie Bridge. I can’t. There are some places so close to the heart, and so close to the head of the fire, you can’t. Stilted descriptions pop like sacrilege. They cannot be thought. Here, Saint Anslem missed something. That thought beyond which no other heavier thought can be thought is not god but loss.
Total loss makes you laugh at the wrong moment, then think of murder, then order a sandwich and weep while arranging the toppings.
The HJ Andrews Forest is a Long-Term Ecological Research site with a long history of study and attention from scientists and artists alike. I was honored to be one of the artists in residence there in May of 2018. My uncle’s ashes were spread in a life ceremony near there in the Blue River in 2011. The first watershed study-site is pretty much gone, as of about three days ago.
Watershed 1, October 28th, 2004:
“I am sitting beside that brook resting on a mossy stone.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer
What has been learned in the research at Watershed 1 over the years is that old-growth forests are as alive and as much a being as anything comprehensibly humaniform or animal can be. They do a kind of work. Biologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer has written extensively of the Andrews. At Watershed 1, she has observed that, “Over at the gauging station on the stretch of creek that drains the old-growth stand, the water is cold and clear. The undisturbed old growth retains its nutrients.”3 Data from Watershed 1, compared to the other watersheds (still standing outside the head of the Holiday Farm Fire), reveals that the section of forest that was clear-cut more than three decades ago by logging has “hemorrhaged nutrients, and warmed by the loss of shade canopy, had been hostile to fish eggs and other life forms.”4 Even then, the scarred body had been coming back. It had been healing.
The future tense is hard to use.
Knowing at least something is the condition of all possibility for using the future tense.
Not in this heat.
Some things cannot be said.
I don’t have words for everything.
“Within the culture of entropy, the most unbridgeable gap is surely […] the divide in the field of relations between life and thermodynamics.” 5
Is the forest at the Andrews a dissipative being? Am I? I cannot dismember my smell of it or the feel of it. Where do I cease typing and say love? Of course I can unravel. Stables and wineries and mobile homes and restaurants can fall apart right down to the tooth, the nail, the cast iron pan. Cremation is only the kin of birth, midwifery is coroners’ work—to say something about this transformation, this emergence of dust. I cannot, scrolling a phone, lean in. You cannot assemble the essay back together after the wind picks up from inside it; an assemblage operates on the oblique.
The story is: anything could become nothing, and that story has been being told for centuries and is about to be told indefinitely. “These are the stories told in the water. Ravens scavenging a carcass, a thousand-year-old fir tree falling, all are held in a data point of nitrogen concentration on October 26. […] The data from the Andrews are translations of the stories told by water: things that have happened, things that are coming.”6
Some destruction is untold to date.
Blank spaces abound.
It is the year of the blinking cursor.
The HJ Andrews Experimental Forest can weather the crumpling of Watershed 1, but more remains. I once courted water striders there. Around the pool, the rhododendrons were still tightly wound up in green. The water was cold, clear. The striders walked all around my legs, skating, darting, their shadows exact on the bottom of the pond. We were all about to burst, we were all performing miracles. Mira, oculi, to wonder, with your eyes, at what is right in front of you. There is no other world.
Under the condition of heat, frog and salamander eggs and larvae don’t stand a chance. Tomorrow, ash will continue to pound the pH. They’ll be cold-trailing the fire’s edges tonight. Lips will break, chapped; someone will dream an Edenic ecotone between wet and dry, wake up desperate to remember it.
In the darkness of my Midwestern yard, busy combatting mold, I can’t stop scrolling, the screen of my phone cracked, muddled with a dead gnat.
I know you’ll want an ending.
Here: everyone’s living in gyms.
Relations between individuals are more real than individuals themselves.
Money is not a real thing.
So much more than wood is combustible. Reducible.
1 Luis Fernández-Galiano, trans. Gina Cariño, Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy (MIT Press, 2000), p. 18.
2 Ibid., p. 25.
3 Ibid., p. 47.
4 Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Forest Under Story: Creative Inquiry in an Old-Growth Forest, ed. Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, Frederick J. Swanson (University of Washington Press, 2016), p. 44.
5 Luis Fernández-Galiano, trans. Gina Cariño, Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy (MIT Press, 2000), p. 112.
6 Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Forest Under Story: Creative Inquiry in an Old-Growth Forest, ed. Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, Frederick J. Swanson (University of Washington Press, 2016), p. 47.