Winter has fallen like heavy dark drapes. A chill in the back office has driven me to the front room and the warm black iron of the woodstove. Flames dance in the darkness of early morning. I am, like many of you, drawn to fire.
Fire was on my mind last November when my brothers and I were scheduled for our regular autumn backcountry trip deep into the maw of Hells Canyon. Last August the youngest of my three siblings took Mom and Dad to visit Pittsburg Landing on the Idaho side of the canyon, a rare point of entry for vehicles. In the 100-degree heat they saw an orange glow lighting the evening sky north of Somers Point on the Oregon side, a fast-burning range fire that transformed the blonde bunchgrass ridges reaching downward toward Snake River into rumpled heaps of brooding, smoking blackness. But when November came we knew no other place, no other way, and returned to the blackened chasm with few expectations about what the scorched landscape would offer. When we crested the ridge above Snake River on the drive down to Pittsburg Landing, I could see across to the wide sweep of the Oregon canyonside. Black ridges were interspersed with basalt bluffs, harshly gray and vertical. But beneath the somber darkness another color was emerging—a pervasive green.
Fire is a lazy hell. Climbing the steep trail up Pittsburg Creek, I could see that the flames had run only when chased by wind. They rushed quickly over and along the ridges, torching dry grass and shrubs on the surface, leaving rocky outcrops and moist windless draws unscathed. Ponderosa pine that form the green fingers of forest in the side canyons were blackened at their bases but still very much alive despite the burned underbrush and needle duff on the forest floor. Signs of regeneration were already apparent. New leaves of wild rose and Oregon grape hugged the charred ground. Two green inches of new growth had pushed upward from the black nubbins of bunchgrass, and was the source of the verdant hue of the canyon. Although the fire was now two months dead, the rippling wind remained, groaning ceaselessly across those greening ridges.
Elk herds chased the fire that was chased by wind. In late afternoon they moved from their midday beds in forested draws and canyons onto open ridges, grazing on new bunchgrass shoots. They fed into darkness, then reversed course sometime in the middle of the night to begin grazing back toward their bedding areas in the trees. Their beige rumps were prominent against the backdrop of burned bunchgrass. We didn’t count them, but there must have been at least 200 in the area where we camped. Their numbers had not changed from past years, even only two months post-fire. The fall rut was over, and the herd bulls had disappeared, having left their harems to gather in bachelor groups in quieter places. White elk bones lay in stark repose against black ash, most of them scattered by scavengers. Fire is too lazy to burn bones.
Predators chased the elk that chased the fire that was chased by the moaning wind. While we watched deer and elk graze along the ridges of Salt Creek, three lonely miles from our campfire, an early dusk stalked us. From the canyon rim a chorus of wolves rose on the near-full moon. One of the howls was a particularly deep-throated and business-like bass. I don’t know why they sang. But from inside my chest their howling seemed aloof. The Imnaha Pack was not serenading me. I was being told. Something shifted and I became small and soft and sank downward into that web of eaters and eaten.
By next evening the wolves had descended from the upper rim into Salt Creek. The elk were gone; they are paranoid and smart and mobile and don’t like wolves. Who can blame the elk? Wolves eat them. My brothers want to eat the elk, so they don’t like wolves either. Neither the wolves nor the elk like us, because we are either predators or competitors, depending upon which of our fellow beings we are engaging in the conversation. For some reason I like all of it—wind and fire and elk and wolves. I like my brothers, too. I’m not sure how I ended up the congenial one.
In camp, a wild river of night wind poured over the high rim, flowing down Cougar Creek, rippling across the exposed ridges of my cheeks, chasing me deeper into my sleeping bag. Elk chirped to one another on the ridge above. From deep in the bottom of my bag, deep in the deepest river gorge in North America, I wondered if becoming an affable participant in what little is left of the wild world comes from a willingness to cede control. It’s easy to berate this compelling need to run things. We harness the wind. We control fire. We control wolves. We control elk and deer herds. Or at least we try. All of this seems ridiculous, to the point that the only thing that seems out of control is our attempt to domesticate the biosphere to the level that we ourselves have become domesticated.
From within my warm living room, self-righteousness shudders and fades. The fire burning behind a glass window is a piece of oak from a tree felled to protect a house and then cut to firewood lengths with a chainsaw and split with a gasoline-powered hydraulic machine into pieces that are now neatly stacked in the driveway and covered with a petroleum-based plastic tarp that came in a shipping container on a boat from China. What could be simpler? Now here we are at the turn of another winter Solstice, an astronomical reality that couldn’t care less whether we, as individuals or as a species, continue into the future. Our unbidden presence in this, the right-here-and-right-now, has depended to some degree on controlling a universe of wildness agnostic to our existence. Control is part of our animal need to persist and has served us well. But this compulsion to be constantly in command, even the illusion of it, seems to extinguish some piece of my animal nature. So I’ll follow the music of untamed wind, the rejuvenation of wildfire, the nobility of an elk herd, the ego-crumbling chorus of wolves. Sometimes I just need to let go.
©Tom A. Titus