As we hiked through the charred remains of what was once a lush forest full of Englemann spruce, subalpine firs, and lodgepole pines, I felt the awe of Simba and Nala as they explored the Elephant Graveyard. The trees, dark and mangled, reached out with their spindley branches for their fallen friends. Those that had succumbed to the fire and could no longer stand lay on the blackened ground like obsidian alligators, their burnt, scaly bark reflecting the afternoon sunlight. In the Scapegoat Wilderness of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (1964 Wilderness Act), my best guess for the cause of the forest fire would be a lightning strike.
Standing among the burnt stands and seeing up close how a single spark grew to consume miles of 80 foot tall giants was both amazing and saddening at the same time. It’s one thing to see the aftermath of the 1988 Yellowstone fire from the comfort of the WRFI van, but a completely different experience feeling charcoal crumble under your fingers. Images of all the wildlife that could not escape the flames fury flooded my mind and I looked at the soil that their fates built: soft, ashy, peaceful. In many areas, the only contrasts to the barren landscape were the bone-white rocks, the overly cheerful blue sky, and Straight Creek, which looks out of place snaking between the black spikes. I wondered what happened to the creek when the fire raged by (did it boil perhaps?) and how it has changed since the landscape has been changed.
Traveling through the skeleton of what once stood green and overgrown, it becomes easy to overlook the significance of the fire and the opportunity for regrowth that it brought. Near the edge of where the fire blazed, short plants, mosses and tiny lodgepole pines that barely reached our knees could be spotted stretching towards the sun. Ants, flies and beetles had already started to inhabit the area and several different species of butterfly (my spirit animal according to my WRFI group) were hard at work pollinating and rebuilding the new ecosystem. I noticed some small pine cones on the ground, their scales slightly singed. Judging by this sign, I figure the fire happened rather recently. A friend pointed out that lodgepole pines are serotinous, which means that they require fires to open their cones. The seeds they release germinate into a new generation of needled giants that feed off the nutrients their predecessors gave to the soil. Although we didn’t spot any animals (they probably smelled us from miles away), I can assume that they too are slowly re-inhabiting the area.
Often, natural biological processes appear as stunning parallels to our own lives. In a recent series of unfortunate events, one of our group members had to leave the course early. The group dynamics that we had established over the past three weeks were greatly shaken, like an ecosystem that loses much of its function to a forest fire. Losing the companionship of a close friend and vital group member was like how losing a single species can disrupt an entire ecosystem. Each member of our little anthropogenic ecosystem plays an important and unique role that cannot be replaced or replicated. While the period immediately “after the fire” was incredibly difficult for me personally, I looked to the charred forest of our hike in Scapegoat Wilderness for solace. The silence and stillness of the landscape coupled with the knowledge that this wild place would rebuild itself after being destroyed gently reminded me that my group’s ecosystem would too be able to restore itself.
As we have learned from the numerous speakers and articles we’ve read, each species of an ecosystem contributes something infinitely valuable to the greater picture. However, every ecosystem changes for one reason or another, whether it be due to climate change, over-harvesting, resource extraction, population growth, or perhaps a forest fire. Having to say goodbye toa great friend earlier than expected was not something I could have anticipated for this twelve week adventure. I looked back on what happened, how our ecosystem is forever changed, and remember that deathly beautiful landscape. I’m grateful to be able to partake in this adventure and I will always remember that sometimes growth can only occur after overcoming destruction, as long as we root ourselves in the soils of what came before.