There is a tree that stands in the forest
That one tree is all forests –
All trees are that one . . .
(John Denver, from Amazon)
The morning air was soft; there was a breeze, light at first but soon one which became gusty. There was also a left-behind dying ember, one that the breeze gathered in its arms, then carried away and deposited a few yards distant. Minutes later, there was, on that spot on the floor of the forest, a tiny fire, one which, within hours, grew to become one of the most massive wildfires in the recorded history of the American Southwest.
It was ignited in those early morning hours of May 29, 2011 and soon spread to ultimately burn across and largely destroy nearly 850 square miles of lush mixed conifer forest which once straddled the rugged hills, valleys, and ridges that topographically define the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona’s White Mountains. The Wallow Fire — so named because it began a mile or two north of the Mogollon Rim in the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area, just a few scant miles to the east of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation boundary — raged for more than forty days and forty nights before it was declared officially “contained” on July 8, 2011.
It was started by a pair of campers who, for unfathomable reason, failed to completely and totally extinguish their campfire near Bear Wallow Creek before leaving on their morning’s exploratory walkabout. Sadly, they left their two dogs behind in the camp, their leashes tied to a tree; the dogs were undoubtedly among the very first casualties of the wildfire that quickly (and literally) exploded into the surrounding forest, thanks to a wicked southwesterly wind which blew dying campfire embers into the drought-parched surround and then blew those flames steadily northward. For more than a month.
The fire burned for one day less than six weeks, and destroyed almost everything in its path in the process. There still remain, today, here and there, occasional and isolated patches of green and unburned forest which the fire, for reason only it knows, avoided or ‘went around’, but the bottom line remains unchanged: 841 square miles of once-beautiful National Forest are almost completely gone, all thanks to human presence. Humans. Us. We the people. Nothing more, nothing less.
Over the course of most summers during the decade prior to the Wallow fire, we had enjoyed as much time as our situation cared to permit us to enjoy, in that forest. We’d spent days, occasionally even weeks, camped there, alongside its large grassy meadows — ‘cienegas’ in the local parlance — amongst neighbors of elk and deer, of black bears and mountain goats, of wild turkeys and of cougars, and of (recently reintroduced) endangered Mexican Gray Wolves. And wildflowers, of course. It was as close to paradise as anyone might ever dare imagine.
But there were signs of problems. Drought had left its mark. Huge stands of trees, in random areas here and there, were, thanks to massive (drought-induced) bark beetle infestations, each and all dead. And drying. Bark beetles thrive in drought-stricken forests, after all, and the Apache National Forest had become, over the previous decade or two, their perfect habitat. And too, there was the tree density, itself a consequence of extensive logging in the previous century where virtually all of the giant old growth trees had been cut down; in their stead grew their offspring — small, and dense, their vitality no longer curtailed by the deep shade of the old giants. In short and given the right conditions, flammables were everywhere even as the probability of wildfire slowly elevated, year by year, thanks to human-induced climate change and the inevitable consequences implicit therein.
And then it burned. And now, it’s gone. The devastation which remains echoes the words of the poet, Shelley, who described the essence of the (enduring) human dilemma more than two centuries ago, when he wrote:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Below are my own impressions of that which once was, assembled in a few photographs alongside a few words of lament, words which I wrote one afternoon in the summer of 2007 whilst sitting next to a campfire on the edge of Butterfly Cienega, itself (then, no longer) a grassy meadow deep in the Apache National Forest. There were elk and deer grazing nearby, and in the distance one could see — everywhere — skeletons of dead trees; and with every passing year there were more of them. Now they, too, are gone.
Elegy Written in a Dying Forest