We live in a culture that worships anything new and novel. Things change at a blistering speed. Before you have time to get used to one thing, the next thing comes along.
Walking along the trail at human speed today, one foot in front of the other for a couple of miles, I was thinking about the familiar. How many times have I been up and down the Waptus River trail in the last 23 years? As many times as it takes to know the twists and turns of the trail, the ups and downs, the small landmarks. I should find it the same old tedious trail, but I do not. Even though it’s so familiar, it’s different every time. The weather, the quality of light, the particular moment in whatever season it is–different every time.
Seasons are not static. The woods are moving from late spring to early summer. It’s time for calypso orchids and hermit thrushes, and I greet both of them with a soaring heart.
Calypso orchids, or fairy slippers appear in the deep forest in May. I first made their acquaintance as a child following my grandmother across the creek to a spot where she had transplanted some. It was a wild and secret place where she nurtured these small treasures. They were rare and precious to her. Now I work in a place where they bloom in great profusion for a few weeks, and I cannot help but get down on the ground in order to see them closely. Such pink petals! Such a freckled pouch that makes the slipper part, the crimson lines to draw the pollinators in.
And the thrushes–heard the first hermit of the year this very day. They have returned from their wintering places to nest and raise young. Furtive brown birds, they spend most of their time high in the tree canopy. You can hear the song here, but imagine a sort of hollow echo and you will get a sense of how they sound in the woods. Haunting, but not sad. They sing for their own kind, but others who walk through the forest overhear the melodies.
I could spend the rest of my life seeing the same flowers and hearing the same birds. Being in love with the familiar makes it impossible to be jaded and bored. All seems right with the world because the orchids are blooming and the thrushes are back, right on time. And I am glad.
Overcast day. Had to get out of the house and into the woods. I chose the Waptus River trail for my therapeutic hike. Good to stretch the legs and see where the snow had melted since my last trip in May. Felt much stronger.
The wind was blowing from the west, pushing clouds to the east. Up and down along the rolling grade–in the dark cedar bottoms I listened for water, and on on the rocky rises I listened for birds. One hermit thrush was calling, echoing in the treetops. The song is in a minor key descending. It could be perceived as sad and yearning, but I don’t think that is what the thrush has to say. To me the song is about summer, and sitting in a tall conifer after a long flight from Central America. It’s about hearing the sound go out and come back to one’s own ears. And maybe about connecting with others of the same kind.
I entered the burn, and spent some time remembering the Polallie fire. It all started on Labor Day, 2006. I was home canning peaches when I got the call. Within a couple hours I was in my fire clothes, flying in a helicopter to pick up John at Lemah Meadow, and then doing a recon flight with him. (Finished canning my peaches at midnight.) The next 11 or 12 days were spent hiking and being a lookout/monitor. There was the day weather, fuels and terrain came into alignment and the fire ran up a gully on Davis Peak, creating a huge smoke column. My friends who were putting up notices in the wilderness called into say ash was falling on them. There was one exciting day working with the fireline explosives crew, hunkering under the rotor wash of a heavy helicopter cooling a hot spot with water. We had to wait to finish laying out our line. Katie’s eyes were as big as saucers, and I had to feed her chocolate out of my pack to keep her calm. The eventual boom was very gratifying.
The forest is always changing–sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Life never completely disappears, even during the hottest part of a fire. The fire itself is a living thing, a force of transformation. Now this burn has been rained and snowed on for three seasons, and there is light where there used to be shade from trees. I heard woodpeckers banging away on the snags. There were patches of vegetation that hadn’t burned, some swamps with blooming salmonberry and bog orchids. Spots of green through the black and gray. The next generation of trees is coming up.