A Haunted Forest

Life amid Death

Story and Photos by Tom Alvarez

This feature is presented free of charge in its entirety for the first part of May.

A few miles west of Stanley, I stop at Park Creek Overlook in the Sawtooth National Forest. I stand at a small viewing and parking area off a circular drive leading into and out of the wayside, above a narrow meadow on a small plateau-like setting.

It faces east, offering a wide vista of the Sawtooth Mountains rising above the lower landscape of trees.When I face west, the view is starkly different.

Opposite the view of green pastures and rows of vibrant trees is a burned forest. Lightning ignited the Dry Creek Fire on August 6, 2016, which destroyed approximately 781 acres of lodgepole pines and everything else around them. At first glance, the entire landscape seems nothing but scattered debris, ashes and ruin. Black is the dominant color and a faint odor of ash drifts lightly in the air.

The burnt ground seems like a setting from a grim fairy tale: foreboding and perhaps haunted. Dead trees are scattered everywhere. Some stand tall and erect, others lean left or right, many are flat on the ground. Branches hang from tree trunks, twisted into claw-like shapes resembling a witch’s bony hand or the claws of some evil being set to snatch an unsuspecting visitor.

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Park Creek area, Sawtooth National Forest
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Skeletal remains of trees after the fire.
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Denuded undergrowth.
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Scars of the burn.
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Regrowth begins.
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Patches of dead saplings are gathered together, as though they huddled in panic for safety before the approaching fire swallowed them in its fiery maw, leaving them bent and twisted into curls and bows as they exhaled their last breaths. Walking across the landscape, stepping over and around broken and fallen trees burned black and textured like barbecue charcoals, I can easily imagine flames and heat so intense that the trees cracked and spilt open.

But there is an odd beauty in the scattered remains of this forest—a sort of nobility and defiance in what remains standing, charred and burned, unwilling to completely surrender and vanish in the dust. A forest is a wonderful thing: a mixture of diverse biology and vegetation, a home to creatures with wings, legs, and roots, a soothing oasis offering comfort to one’s senses and removing the clutter of urban noise.

Over a ten-day period last summer I stop at the overlook several times and each time I see something different. For all the devastation laying in every direction, many signs of new life creep across the ashen ground. Birds dart back and forth from branch to branch, while crickets and bees whirl throughout the remains. I notice a couple of freshly clawed-out burrows with all the signs of new residents.  Patches of grass are scattered across open ground between charred trees, and bright lavender-colored flowers arise from the blackened soil, in small single strands and large round bouquets, reaching out for sunlight. Despite the fire, seemingly a catastrophic, life-ending event for everything within its reach, the forest endures. Not as it was before the fire, but not entirely and forever destroyed either.

It’s difficult to imagine that this patch of forest will grow back and be exactly as it was before the fire. But it’s just as unimaginable to think of it any worse than before the flames consumed it. In less than a year from the time the fire swept through these few acres, destroying the inhabitants, this patch of ground is slowly but steadily being reclaimed by life. In another year or two, seedling trees will creep out of the soil, and in the years to come, a new forest will emerge. It’s a life-inspiring scene that stirs in me thoughts of resilience and hope.

For ages, fire has ebbed and flowed across forests and plains, destroying and rebirthing the landscape. The land renews and reshapes itself, continuing a cycle of demise and restoration. Is there something larger to learn from this that we may be missing—blinded by our clinical, science-minded outlook? Maybe, putting aside biophysics for the moment, the forest has its own spirt and will.

I was once at a fire in Arizona, looking over the aftermath of scorched earth dotted by yucca plants scarred black by fire. Thinking the plants were totally destroyed, someone cut into one to reveal that only the exterior was damaged—the inside was still green and slightly moist. A pulse still thrived.

It seems no matter the degree of destruction, so long as a faint pulse exists, then the likelihood of recovery seems more probable than death. Perhaps mankind, born from the same earth as the trees, shares a kinship of life-spirit and resilience. Conversely, if hope is a characteristic of mankind, then maybe the forest, born from the same soil as humans, shares that same trait.

Maybe there is magic and mystery in the forest that eludes our understanding. Maybe there’s much more to a forest than meets the eye.

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