Monday, May 31, 2010

Fire in the Chiricahuas

South Fork Cave Creek
One of the places I love most in the Sky Islands of Southeast Arizona is on fire. Horseshoe Canyon in the Chiricahuas is burning -- around 1200 acres so far -- and threatens what most call the "jewel" of the Chiricahuas, South Fork Cave Creek Canyon.
I was just there a few weeks ago with my friend, Kirsti.
We birded South Fork and drove Forest Road 42 from Cave Creek to the Onion Saddle, on into Rustler Park where it was cool and quiet and very, very shady.
Kirsti at Onion Saddle
In August a few years ago, we visited the same spots and were drenched with rain and chilled by cold and mist. And now there are temperatures in the upper 90's, predicted to hit 100 by Friday, and the place is on fire.
Rustler Park spruce trees at edge of meadow
One more in a constant stream of reminders that it's all process.
I certainly need these reminders, because we don't typically see our lives as process.
We tend, instead, to freeze our experience into discreet events that we either like or don't like, or perhaps feel neutral towards. The photos I have posted here are the quintessential freezing of a process into an event. And, like our memories of the time we spend in a place, our events seem so real to us, so solid. That's how we speak of things: South Fork Cave Creek is (and we like to think, always will be) the jewel of the Chiricahuas, "the single most desirable hike in the Chiricahuas," writes Richard Taylor in the 2005 edition of A Birder's Guide to Southeast Arizona (p. 171). Until it is destroyed by fire, that is. Taylor also refers to other fires that have ravaged the Sky Islands in the past, as discreet events: the 1994 Rattlesnake Fire that burned 27,000 acres in this very area; the 1977 Carr Fire that blackened 9,000 acres at the tops of Miller and Carr Canyons.
But Dr. Bill McCormick quotes Leonard Taylor's, "Hiker's Guide to the Huachuca Mountains," in describing the Carr Canyon fire, acknowledging that it is a process:
In June of 1977, some careless people left a fire unattended; it quickly grew into a forest fire, and destroyed 9,000 acres of trees; most of Upper Carr and Miller Canyons. Heavy rains followed, causing severe erosion, and most of the top soil was washed down the mountain. Where once a shaded trail led through towering pines and flower-filled meadows, now a rocky path winds among charred stumps.

The mountain is recovering, however, and after the monsoons start the Carr Peak Trail is one of the most flowered trails in the range. Also, magnificent views abound, as they are no longer obstructed by trees.
Nevertheless, the description still reflects a distinctly human perspective, a dislike of what happened. The author describes "careless people," "severe erosion," and "charred stumps." The fire caused him and others pain and regret, and probably anger, at those who caused it.

On the other hand, I heard a fellow hiker in Miller Canyon comment just last month about a "lovely meadow" that she came to at the top of Miller Canyon. And from my cabin I could see a spot high up near the top of the canyon, that was filled with beautiful, bright, spring green, though relatively smallish, trees. Their color contrasted vividly with the darker greens of the surrounding mountainside habitat. And it occurred to me that perhaps her beautiful meadow and the spring-green young trees I saw both resulted from the Carr fire, now 33 years old.
Our firefighters are hard at work trying to stop the event they're calling the Horseshoe Fire. And those of us who love these mountains and their canyons, and wish to hold them as they are, however futile that wish may be, will worry all the way through to the rainy season about the fire's consequences, the homes it might burn, the many other things we value that it will destroy, the loss of life, the loss of beauty, the loss of habitat. But fire, or more generally what it embodies -- dramatic and drastic change, loss, even destruction, devastation, and death, followed by (surprise!) re-growth and renewal -- shows us a simple truth about our lives here. As does all the life that exists in Cave Creek and Miller Canyons, human life is a cyclical process encompassing everything that's part of the cycle, not just the parts that we like. Letting go of our wish that what we call the good will stay and what we term the bad will never come or quickly disappear, we're left with acceptance.
And after that, on we go to fight the fire because we're not dead yet and neither is South Fork Cave Creek. But with awareness and acceptance, we see the fire for what it is, and ourselves and our actions in a broader context.