The pictures tell the story but I will say it: I am heartbroken.
To understand how much I love the Pacific Northwest, I will tell you that at 19 years old I fled my Midwest hometown via a one way plane ticket to live at the edge of Seattle, Washington. My life had been a strange mix of the horrid and sublime; it wasn’t to become truly and healthily balanced until years later. But I knew anything could be withstood if I was close–step-out-the-door close–to the wilder areas of nature, specifically mountains, rivers and lakes, forests. I had tasted some of that happiness when summer camping and other visits to northern Michigan. So I had yearned for even more wilderness before cabin living (with older sister) on Lake Washington, an area then still more rural. Every morning I stepped outdoors to take in expanses of lapping, radiant water and greenest trees, to hear music of scampering animals, trilling birds. It wasn’t perfect in all ways; I returned to MI. a year later. But the brash and gentling natural world had so potent an effect on me that all I had to do was shut my eyes: soon arrived the residual energy of its orderly and stirring designs, mysteries and truths. Nature always had felt like a conduit for the healing and instructive powers of God.
Most people seek and can be fortunate to claim a geography that fits them, feels most like home. I was relieved to give up flat, wide-sky expanses of mid-Michigan for this other. Though I visited often it took 20 years to make the permanent move; I have resided in Oregon since 1993. It has been everything I’d hoped in most aspects. Of greatest importance have been the natural world’s opportunities for exploration; activities have seemed endless.
But now: wildfires. Within this part of the state lies our historical treasure, the beloved Columbia Gorge. There is so far zero containment. Six hundred firefighters are out there working day and night. No human life has been lost at this time. Scores of forest creatures have perished, so many more to follow.
Last Saturday a teen-aged boy set off a firework during high fire danger weather in Eagle Creek. That fire began to rapidly grow, then exploded on Monday and now is merged with an older Indian Creek Fire: it now all covers 32,00 acres and counting. Many things can spark flames in fire weather but now these lick at the outer edges of Portland; my husband works in an area that is now at a Level 1 warning–“Be Ready” to evacuate (L 2, “Be Set”; L 3, “Go”). Many communities have been evacuated or may soon be.
And we are not the only ones; an estimated 500,00 acres are burning in Oregon alone. Many are raging in California. There are 1.8 million acres afire in the U.S. right now, per Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown’s latest figures.
Just ten days ago my spouse and I were hiking in the very areas where the fires are devastating the forests and creatures. My post last Wednesday was a cheerful account of hiking to Bridal Veil Falls and enjoying other areas. At that time I felt an eerie sense of the risks of brittle dryness as we trekked among voluminous grasses, unruly thickets and towering trees. One mistake or lightning strike could ignite a fire. But people here are wary and respectful of fire danger watches and warnings. It never occurred to anyone a Washington state youth would exercise such poor judgement, set a conflagration going.
I have stayed indoors for three days, trying to not watch too much news, waiting to hear from Marc on and off since he can see more from his office window. Air quality from falling ash (accumulating on cars, my balcony, other outdoor surfaces) and smoke blanketing the skies is unhealthy, causing burning eyes and congested lungs if out in it too long. (My not-perfectly-healthy heart warns me to take no chances.) The cat I caring for and I are anxiously pacing at times, peering out windows, sniffing the breeze through a cracked window and recoiling–even he does not want to go out. I have the air conditioning unit on high most of the time to filter and cool hot, thickened air. People have donned masks so they can breathe outside when they must leave their homes.
Everything feels different for me, brought into a razor-sharp focus I did not have 5 days ago. The trails I have loved hiking and walking, above and along the Columbia River, are forever altered, so quickly. I am profoundly thankful my sense of urgency told me ten days ago to hike those trails at Bridal Veil Falls among others, my annual pilgrimage (marking 16 years lived past a heart event while hiking). Any area structures and homes near there are being or have been evacuated.
Lively, tuneful birds flitting among the forest, the bears’ huffing calls, signs of cougar, rushing creeks and waterfalls, the sight and scents of that deep, sinuous, busy Columbia River from high wooded trails, the town of Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods and beyond…hard to think of today but harder to avoid. I try to console myself with the fact that I at least possess hundreds of photographs from over the years and such fine memories. I know there are other areas intact in the Northwest to enjoy but for the foreseeable future nothing will be well and not ever the same along miles of the Columbia Gorge. Not as it has been for many thousands of years.
So I weep, there is no stopping it, for great losses. How can we ever repair such damages? Or must we watch earth’s demise, just wait for Mother Nature to repair things again–and will that fully occur this time? Powerlessness wells up and harangues me. Hurricane Harvey has devastated so many areas down south. Now there is Hurricane Irma tearing a path of destruction. All over our globe climate change usurps the last flimsy denials, our illusions of domination. Many Native peoples everywhere spoke of the loss of natural balances long ago; so often those warnings went unheeded. I think hard on these things as I prepare to share a few photos from over the past 8-10 years.
What are we to learn amid all this? At the very least, we must come to know more deeply all we are given on this earth, so much better honor and care for it. And beware reckless greed though it feels so late. Nature’s bounties and complexities have been our guides and lifelines, yet too fast can be threatened. And lost. Can we have forgotten that the earth was made to be enjoyed and utilized in an alliance, a partnership that provides us housing and food and a myriad resources every single day? This planet is constructed for an alliance, for interdependence that has sorely been taken for granted more often than we want to admit.
Love and honor your small spot on the earth wherever you are, love the beautiful and the homely, the short-lived and aged plants and creatures, those underfoot and making homes in small spaces and those high above, the ever blooming and those that require more tending, bodies of water that beguile and nourish or desert that stuns with its rare raiment, the jungles with their lushness and secrets, the valleys and woodlands with emerald swaths and changing shadows and light, the far northern lands with austere majesty.
I want to ask that you think of us here. Hurricanes and other disasters are so overwhelming while I suspect fires can be noted as spectacles then put aside by the public, with less probing thought afforded long-term consequences. Far less federal aid is generally allotted for fire damages and rebuilding efforts, as well as those who must relocate. I appreciate prayers for all life suffering from the wildfires in our country.
(Starting with the picture of the blue heron among Columbia River’s shoreline rocks are five consecutive pictures of Cascade Locks, a village/area long a favorite for us, and we most recently had lunch by the river just ten days ago…all now threatened by voracious flames with evacuations underway. You will see Bridge of the Gods that has so long spanned Oregon and Washington; we hope it holds. But news is that wildfire sparks have now “jumped” the river to WA. More devastation unfolds.)