On one of our last nights in Grand Gulch, Jeff and Keshet gave us some devastating news from the outside world (received by their sat phone). The North Inlet of Rocky Mountain National Park has been burning since October 14th. The beautiful, diverse place we traversed through at the latter end of our trek– a place full of birds, chipmunks and squirrels, elk, deer, moose, firs, pines, spruce…. A place full of life. Winding River– the campground that housed us for several nights after emerging from the backcountry, where we ate cherry pies and pizza pies and heard the mating elk all night– has burned entirely. Images of the golden aspens smoldering into ash filled my mind upon hearing the news. We started trip-long conversations in the mountains about management of public land, the throwing-away of indigenous knowledge and burning practices, our disconnect to an abstract “wilderness”… And suddenly, these conversations, fears and concerns have been fulfilled. This feeling is not new to me, as an inhabitant of Southern California. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience with fire, our collective experience, and I wrote this the night I heard the news:
Ash. A girl from California has to know it well. Eyes, nose, lungs– acquainted with the substance from my very conception. Yet, the sight of it raining through the sky, collecting on cars and once-white-windowsills, could never feel “normal.” Could never feel anything but absolutely grotesque, watching obliterated pieces of the places we love fall to the ground in front of us. It’s cruel, and it’s torturous.
But the ash is who we are. Perhaps not who we’ve always been, but certainly who we are becoming. Our earth is burning, blazing, and we are smoldering too– souls untethered to this land like the ash of our homes, the ash filling our lungs and minds. A people uprooted, a people once productive and alive and now floating, burnt out, collecting on cars and once-white-windowsills.
When things burn, why do they leave pieces of themselves behind? Why not just disappear into the ether never to be seen, never to be inhaled? Ash is the most honest sacrament. Instead of eating the body, drinking the blood, we breathe in the death of this world at the hands of our own sins. We feed it to our own bodies, our own blood. It’s an open casket funeral, screaming in plumes of dark, black, smoke– SOMETHING IS DYING. SOMETHING IS ALREADY DEAD.
Mountains are engulfed in flames and the wind will notify us all, in cities and towns, first through scent and then all at once by delivering the desecrated body of the earth to our front doors, forcing us to confront it. But we humans, many of us now just floating pieces of ash ourselves, have forgotten. We have forgotten who our mother is, we have forgotten to respond to her screams of agony and flecks of death. And we pay for it. But we keep up these sadistic patterns of forgetfulness, mistreatment, somehow missing the point that we are killing not only the earth but ourselves– physically, emotionally, and spiritually.