Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dark comes soon and wet

It is raining.

That is both a profound statement and an understatement.

There have been times this week where I have stood in the rain for half an hour without getting damp. You could see the rain leaving the clouds but by the time the drops neared terra firma the greedy air had robbed them almost entirely of themselves. And those lucky few who managed to keep themselves together long enough to fall the whole way down found themselves evaporated moments after they hit. It would rain for an hour without the ground becoming damp. But today the clouds seem to have forced every molecule of wet from their silver linings and the starving air seems to have gorged itself enough to finally be sated. On more than one occasion it was raining hard enough on the tin roof that I could not hear myself think. It was like one sustained roll of thunder. At these times I found myself as Noah in an ark. Outside the windows all that could be seen was water coming down. There was no barn across the yard. There was no yard. I meant what I said initially.


It rains very seldom here in the summer. Once spring skips merrily on making way for long days filled with Sol you may only get a few showers until Fall crashes in with frosts and golden aspen trees. And so, true to tradition, this Summer has been quite dry and as always, fears of fires run as wildly through the minds of the locals as they would race through the tops of the tinder-dry tree tops.

There was a fire about an hour away from here burning when we got here a few weeks ago. Hundreds of acres and millions of trees burning. Left to burn. So go the national forests when they are not leased for regular timber harvest, fuel removal and management. A heritage of hundred year old trees turned to smoke. Their ghosts gathering at the edges of the horizon in one final burst of beauty. Sunsets beyond the imagination as the thickened air gives perspective and depth to the sun slipping below the mountains beyond the mountains. This could perhaps be considered lasting beauty traded for temporary beauty and it is I suppose true. Except that I had never seen the ancient trees or sat beneath their shade and I will forever hold the sunset in my memory. And forests have always caught fire and always replanted themselves. I suppose that the Birthday Fire of Bonner's Ferry has finally burned itself out but my only basis for this thought is that the air has been less hazy.

The timber on our nearer mountains is managed. Most of it is national forests leased to this or that timber company. Companies are told how much they can take or how much they must leave and parcels are cut in patchwork fashion to maintain habitat and promote healthy regrowth. Several years ago a few large parcels were cleared out. Few trees were left standing save proud tall and healthy tamaracks. These sentinels are the genetically strong, spreading the seeds of the next generation. In 5 or 10 years they too will be cut but they will have left a heritage of wee western larch trees behind. In the mean time the cleared spaces have become meadows filled with huckleberry bushes and bear grass. Places for deer and bear alike to graze in preparation for the hard winter to come. Places for my family and I to wait along the forest fringes, to fill our freezer in preparation for the hard winter to come.

Over this now fading summer another timber company has been working to clear new parcels in the land above us. Men and machines travel daily into what should be wilderness. Whenever traffic increases on our humble dirt road so do the rumors. There is little else to discuss. No one wishes to think of fire and how can one talk about the weather when there is only always sun? Rumor has it that this particular company bought out the leases of another timber company that went bankrupt a few years back. And according to rumor that this company has also gone bankrupt. They are however, under rumor and perhaps something otherwise legally binding, required to continue to cut timber on the parcels. And rumor also suggests that the lease on the timber is up at the end of the year and they do not wish to renew it. So they are taking as much as they are permitted as fast as they can at which time they will leave the mountain. I've heard pieces of this story from more than a handful of people and not everything lines up into logic. But no matter. I can say with confidence that there are at least 9 machines scattered around the mountain and that is a lot of iron for an operation of this size. It is also a tremendous amount of diesel fuel to keep the feller-bunchers happily felling and bunching. And as the trees are cut, trimmed and stacked, they are as quickly shifted onto the humble backs of timber trucks and whisked away towards some good purpose in mill of some western state. The world will be kept long in telephone poles, toilet paper and pellet fuel. Log homes and cedar chests will be built as strongholds against rust and the moth that destroys. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

But for the present residents of the unpaved portion of rapid lightning road, we are spared the ashes and instead given a double portion of dust. The fragile soil of our mountain is really not so much soil as very well packed, talcum powder fine tan fragments of still older mountains. Shallow rooted grass holds the mountain together in any place where the roots of a tree cannot. And where there are trails or timber roads there is no grass. Rocks unfortunately have no roots to hold silt in place. Daily the timber trucks rattle quickly and empty up the winding trails and plod slowly and heavily down, each journey removing some tonnage of timber but also a tonnage of dust. It shakes off on corners and sprays up on trees such that by the time the truck reaches town it is presentable. A brush here, another there and the company logo is legible again. But on the trails behind our cabin the dust rests deceptively, pretending to be a solid floor when it is actually rather like 6 inches of air. And as we traverse the mountain seeking adrenaline through speed we find ourselves sliding sideways in unexpected places or falling in to holes that had not been there before.

Each resident recognizes that these parcels which are now ugly dusty wounds on our mountain will heal quickly into moose filled meadows in a year or so. And this is perfect timing because the existing open spaces are becoming less open. One can scarcely see a bull moose let alone a black bear. But even with the promises of greatness waiting for us in a few short months we complain ardently because it gives us something more interesting to talk about than the weather. Our cabin is a good distance from the road but this dust is pervasive and mobile. It has nary any substance to cause it to settle. It defies gravity and lands where it chooses. Everything I can see is cloaked in a thin powder. Wipe it clean and it will be covered again tomorrow.

But we've found ourselves in a bit of a hard place. You see this time of year we always pray earnestly and ardently for rain. Rain without lightning. Rain until snow can put the threat of fires to bed beneath a downy white blanket for a few months. But this year it seems our prayers are more timid. We are still as desperate as ever for rain but conscious of the fact that nothing is holding our mountain in place. I am afraid that in the morning I will look out and see a valley where once there was a peak...or I may find that I have been washed past the Pack River General Store in all the way in to town. The saying goes that everyone lives downstream. Perhaps tomorrow I will too.


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