Summer cleaning

One of the scarier things about summertime, especially during the driest months, is the chance of major fire damage. After living in South Dakota – with the Black Hills just a few hours away – and frequenting Wyoming – where Yellowstone once darkened the sky for months on end – I’m used to hearing about major fires. They’re destructive. They’re frightening.

They’re natural.

Still, I can’t help but be alarmed when something so beautiful – the forests of Yellowstone, of the Black Hills, and now of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area – is threatened. One day, you’re looking at hundreds of years of growth, trees that have stood for nearly a century, which converted the carbon dioxide of World War II and provided the oxygen that has helped the last four generations breathe. The next day, it’s charred, turned into charcoal.

It’s necessary, I know. Many tree seeds don’t sprout unless the older growth has been stripped away, needing extreme heat and a clear sky to prosper, to repopulate and spread like the fire that tore down their predecessors. But there’s nothing as horrifying as staring into a once dense forest to see nothing but black toothpicks, shells of a former living organism – not just the individuals trees, but the entire ecosystem, itself one large living being that provides shelter, food, and supplies for thousands of animals.

My greatest camping memory is of the Boundary Waters. It was a grueling battle against nature at times. My boot filled with mud, and my feet became tired and sore. I went to bed shortly after sundown, and woke up shortly before sunrise. I cycled my patterns with the wilderness, eating dried Thai food and drinking sips of Jameson. I learned a lot about the forest. I learned a lot about my personal limits. And then I shattered those limits.

Now, I’m watching it burn from afar. A 1999 storm knocked down enough kindling to keep the fires raging. The lack of constant population has forced an air of uncertainty over the entire area. No one knows how far the fire has gone, and you’d be stupid to try to find out.

There’s nothing more dangerous than when Mother Nature cleans house. And the Boundary Waters Canoe Area has needed a summer cleaning for a while now. But that still doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 18th, 2006