On a hill, looking beyond the burn

“Barn’s burnt down.

Now

I can see the moon.”

Masahide (1657-1723)


This poem from the 17th Century Japanese Samurai and Poet Mizuta Masahide  has always been powerful to me. There is wisdom, or at least staying power, in the belief that what you see beyond tragedy or difficulty is what you must focus on.

During this year of unprecedented (at least in recorded history) wildfires in Northern California (and elsewhere), this is not to offer a simple answer to those who suffered and are suffering from loss and life and family, jobs and, in some cases, hope.

But what the universe brings, in a small amount of time, in unexpected ways, can be uplifting and inspiring.

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The Creek Fire wasn’t the big one in Shasta County in 2018, and wasn’t the big one in the state, but when it burned from June 24 to July 15, it was a warning of what would come. Folks in the lightly populated part of Shasta County near Igo, Happy Valley and Centerville have been through this before, and after warnings of a dry year and plenty of fuel, a few weeks of evacuations and only one structure destroyed, many counted their blessings. This since a month later, the Carr Fire began to range, the largest in Shasta County history, and in sheer size and scope, the biggest the North State had ever seen. And the fires got worse.

The North State, and counties like Shasta, Trinity, Klamath, Modoc, Humboldt, and many others are built on a lifestyle of adventure. On stepping out of your door, and finding truth. Rivers, streams, lakes, gorgeous vistas and mountains.

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I’ve jogged the trails in the Piety Hill area with my dogs Murphy and Billy probably twenty times over the pst couple of years. Whether starting from the Clear Creek Road entrance, by the bridge near Horsetown Preserve, and working your way “up” the trails for the view, or starting at the top at the Cloverdale trailhead on Cloverdale Drive (my preferred), i initially found it to be a great escape. Challenging, tons of trees and valleys and rock formations, old trails used by horse and mule travelers back in the Gold Rush days, and still clearly cared for today. Then the Creek Fire changed the landscape.

So when I started returning in the fall, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The trails had to be closed for a period of time as the BLM and local trail folks maddest safe again. Firefighters clearly had done a great deal of work with great care to not only stop that fire where they did, but to make it clear and safe for the rebirth.

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And as I began to hike these seemingly familiar routes, I was hit with a sense of awe. I saw things I had never seen while on these trails before. It was as if Mother Nature was reminding me: there is beauty in the comeback.

The fire had ripped through, but the new plant growth had begun. The trees that remained are holding strong, and the vistas, and views, now across valleys and into areas previously crowded by the trees and thick growth, are now open. I saw formations I hadn’t seen. I wandered into rocky crevices I’d never gotten close to.

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On one of these numerous revisits to the area in late 2018, I saw large bones strewn about in one section along a hillside, perhaps from an old graveyard on Piety Hill washed free by the first rains of the fall and the loosened top soil, or perhaps from deer or  other wildlife uprooted by the fire. Those bones were gone and gathered by the next time, so someone caring for the trail made good on the promise to gather the fallen to rest.

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I walked along a thin creek, one of so many cutting through this little hilly area, and realized I had only seen this creek (when it was wet) at the spots it crossed the existing trail. Now I could walk through to its source, see it’s higher sources from afar, and yes, I decided to name (for myself) a 20-30 foot slope for my dogs. Ten Legs to Sunset Falls, I’m calling it. I didn’t discover it, but it felt as if I was the first to see it. Now that the area was clear, I could see some ledges smoothed out just off the path, where I had blown by in the thick brush before, only now able to see and reflect ourselves.

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It’s where I sat next to a young rattlesnake on another subsequent hike, coiled under a flat rock by where I sat with the dogs for our snack. Beware those little unbridled bites. We moved to a different spot, and let the snake continue its winter rest.

We could hear a tree fall, the crack and the boom, to the east. A necessary thinning effort, no doubt, something that continues as it should to keep these public lands safe.

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These trails are not deep in the forest, not miles off the roads, out of reach, and that plays in to the great work getting them groomed for safety. They are accessible, close to home. And they will burn again. Homes on their edges will be prepped for that inevitability. This is in no way a commentary on what should/could be done to clear the hundreds of thousands of acres that burn and require the fight throughout the years, and will continue as long as humans inhabit the planet (and the Pacific Northwest). The world is large, and Mother Nature’s map is impossible for humans to cover. Many, many people work to care for all trails and public lands as best they can. Hindsight is of no use when nature is responsible.

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So when I think of fire, once what is lost is cared for and properly honored and remembered, I look again at what is now there to see. Not left behind, but emerging new.

Beyond the pain, beauty is awash with the sunlight and starlight of each new day. Beyond the barn, the view is beautiful.

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