Monday, November 24, 2008


All that remains of the trailhead sign.

The debris basin. This was filled with vegetation.

Trees that didn't make it.

Looking up-canyon from debris basin near trailhead.

Looking towards the trail that leads down into the oak forest.

The devastation was complete, right down to the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk sits dreaming above hills once covered with brush and filled with rabbits and mice.

It’s quite a bittersweet moment to realize that although gas prices are way down, giving me greater freedom to roam again, some of my favorite hiking and birding spots have been erased by the recent wildfires. I am still in shock that two of my spots are toast: O’Melveny Park in Granada Hills, and Wilson Canyon in Sylmar.

Wilson Canyon is a particularly great loss. This area had survived being burned before, had escaped the developer’s greedy maw when it was designated as a park in 1999, only to succumb to the ravages of a wind-driven fire that was most likely an arson.

The lovely and magical oak forests that lay in the upper reaches of the canyon are now gone; along with the memory of a flock of Oak Titmice that flitted down from the canopy around me one day like feathered snowfall. I also saw my first Phainopepla and Swainson’s Thrush here. And I was recently planning another trip there to take photos with my new camera. Now all I have is what memories and images are ingrained in my mind. The photos I took yesterday are the reality.

I have wept for this loss and I have grieved as though for a loved-one. And none of my tears brings me peace or solace. The loss is too recent and the wound too fresh and I cannot move beyond it. And I know that this grief will not go quickly either. Things like this affect me deeply. I still tear up when I remember the grove of eucalyptus trees on the property across the street from my house that was cut down—every last tree of more than 30. The bare space in the view from my kitchen breakfast nook is a painful reminder. And so it was when I saw the burned hills; the charred remains of a thriving habitat of scrub, chaparral, and oak--and home to birds, deer, rabbit, and coyote.

There will be no quail calling from these hills, no smell of sage lifting on the breeze, no coyote howls ringing down the canyon in the late evening when the moon peaks over the shoulders of the hills. No rabbits will run here, no hawks will hunt, or deer drowse on grasses. This land will not recover for decades and the creatures that called it home, the ones that managed by some miracle to survive, will find nothing here to sustain them. And winter, always a difficult time for wildlife, will be hardest on those that survived the fire. They will have to move to other unburned areas, and those will be crowded and overburdened with their additional numbers. It will not be a good time for wildlife.

Logically I know that habitat recovers after a fire and wildlife survives somehow, yet my kinship with the land and its creatures pains me just the same. The more time I have spent outdoors in the past two years, the more attached I have become to nature. Every trip into the wood immerses me deeper and strengthens my bonds with the natural world. I respect it, cherish it, and protect it. Any attack on nature is a personal attack, a personal injury. What wounds the earth and its creatures wounds me as well. It is hard for folks who do not spend enough time outdoors to get this and I feel sorry for them.

But I have learned this as well: to love the land is to risk loving it too much; there is real possibility of loss bound up with it. To become too attached to a tree or place is to engage in the folly of permanence. All things change, and things that live must die. But when humans interfere with the order of things death comes on swift wings; without conscience, without pity, without remorse. Only those that love the land and embrace nature as their true home will weep in remembrance of it, for what has been lost.

So now when I go into my favorite woodland places, when I hear the call of quail from the hills and the breeze rustling the leaves into a sea-song, and when the sweet, pungent smell of sage and wild grasses blend with the dusty smell of earth I will not take it for granted. I will embrace these moments and all these sensations even more fully. I will hold them close and make them a part of me. I will weave their memories, sensations, and smells into the tapestry of my being to keep with me always, so that all that I have experienced will not pass away, but live within me.

[Written while listening to Cappercaillie; all of their songs sung in Gaelic]

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