Reading the Ashes

By ROBIN LEE CARLSON 

Watercolor sketches of stone and dragonfly

I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.

I’ve stepped off the trail to peer at a gaping hole where a tree once stood. Nearby there are charred tree trunks, hollowed out by fire, but they are still standing, pointing blackened fingers into the fierce blue above. This tree is completely gone, vaporized—leaves, branches, trunk, roots—leaving only this hole in front of me. I imagine the last embers glowing at the bottom of the hole, insatiable fire consuming the final morsels of this particular meal. The white ash that is now settling onto my pants and shoes is all that is left of the tree. I squat down and pinch some ash between my fingers. Its feel is as delicate and slippery as the sibilance of its name implies.

The missing tree, its hole, and I are all tucked into the bottom of the canyon and still in deep shadow as the morning light slides over the top of the eastern ridge. The slope begins just a few paces from us. When I look up the hillside, I see a constellation of scars where trees once were. In their place now are patches of ash, apparition-white, showing how fully the living material combusted. Black ash means lower-intensity fire, where not everything burns completely; white ash means a high-intensity, all-consuming burn. I stand and stare, releasing one held breath and finding myself holding another and another.

Watercolor sketches of mountains and plants

I am sharply conscious of each breath I take. I am inhaling air—the fluid through which terrestrial creatures always swim—but also particles of ash, the last motes of blue oak and gray pine. Being here, I have inserted myself into the rhythm of disturbance and regrowth, the inhalation and exhalation of death and new life, and also all the things that looked like death, such as the twisted, bare, black branches of shrubs that belie the shoots of green leaves already bursting from their root burls. I’ve even taken some of these grains of matter—trees transformed into breath—into me and embedded them deep within my own tissues. I am breathless because the erasure of the trees from this landscape has left haunting traces, all the more striking for their unexpectedness. The ash in my lungs and the ash on the hill, two ripples in the larger flow.

And I see how the ashen patches on the hill are pools. They have puddled and settled into the fissures and clefts of the earth, as if poured from the empty pit where a trunk was once rooted. They seem to have run down gullies and crevices, sinking into channels, the lowest points on the terrain. The ash on the hillside fell to the ground while the fire raged, and it continues to settle long after the fire has passed. Moving downward, pulled by gravity, just like the water that runs down these hills in the winter. Making a map of the tiniest details of the terrain over which it coursed. 

It is October, so these cartographies of ash on the hillside are the only aboveground flows. No water is visible here at all. The ash pools tell a story, though, about what is still flowing deep beneath them, always flowing, even after a droughty summer and even drier fall. There are trees here in all stages of life and death. The ones that are fully gone, marked only by ash. The ones that are charred stumps and snags. The ones that still have leaves hanging, though these leaves are crackly and brown, clacking together in memory of the flames that came near enough to dry them out but not incinerate them. And the ones that are still green, leaves intact, trunks slightly charred at their base, but still solid and full of life. If I follow the paths of these green trees along the elevations and depressions of the land, I am seeing the path of water down this slope made visible, even when that water is well underground. Hidden water protected these trees from the flames and made them just humid enough to resist combustion.

Watercolor sketches of fire on bark
It is difficult to believe that the water is there, flowing, always trickling from high to low, slowly, invisibly. Shortly after the fire, a couple of dry pools at the canyon bottom were suddenly full. Because so many of the plants that were usually on the hills—the trees and shrubs, the annuals and perennials growing on slopes and valleys—were absent, the water they would ordinarily have slurped into their roots was left to run all the way down to the creek bed, following its secret underground trickles and runnels, filling pools with unheard-of September water. 

Breath. Ash. Water. This is what is around me, this severe landscape dominated by black and white and brown and looking very, very dry, but also this life-giving movement and flow:

The ash that flows on and into the soil, where it imparts nutrients soon to be recycled in the explosion of plants and fungi and lichens and microbes that will grow in this freshly exposed earth. 

The water that flows underground, revealed in the lines of unburned trees and surprising pools, nurturing life hidden safely beneath me. Sustaining the fungi and microbes, arthropods and mollusks, plant roots and seeds that, teeming below, are just as important, if not more so, than what I can see above the soil.

That soil itself, and the rocks, the slowest of all. They flow. The fire has quickened this process—the boulders nearby have sloughed off some of their outer layers. The fire heated the outside of the rock much faster and weakened it so that these fragments broke off. The flakes now lie on the ground at my feet, that much closer to joining the soil. From ancient marine sediments to the shards at my feet, their flow is infinitesimal and deep, but it is still movement.

Watercolor sketches plants
At a faster pace: the plants around me, leaves still green on unburned trees, and new, tender shoots arising from the burls of shrubs. They flow, too, taking water into their tissues and growing, regenerating the shelter, shade and food that are the scaffolding of this ecosystem. Water flows through them, evaporating into the air to condense and fall again to earth.

Faster yet, the acorn and Nuttall’s woodpeckers that crisscross the canyon above me. I can almost see the trails they each make back and forth as they first flap and then tuck in their wings and shoot like a torpedo to another patch of snags on the other side. They are always here in this canyon, but they find no tragedy in the fire’s aftermath. Blackened trees mean more nesting cavities, and dead and dying wood draws a feast of tunneling insects. They are flashes of black and white, and sometimes I catch the tiny swatch of red on the top of a head, bright and cheerful, harbinger of the wildflowers to come.

Closer to earth and following the pattern of the meandering creek bed, Anna’s hummingbirds fly up and down the canyon to find the last few California fuchsias, sustenance in a time of few flowers. Feathers iridescent green in the sun, they are almost fish themselves in the invisible flow of air that mirrors the flow of water that will run down the channel this winter.

Watercolor sketches of mushrooms and bird
Maybe fastest of all are the breezes upon which the birds fly. Draft, gust, blow—the air and its tempers return us to fire. Winds always carry the threat of fire, and it was a set of summer thunderstorms that lit this one. All around me, I see branches and fine twigs twisted into intricate shapes. These are the fire winds made visible in lasting form, trees frozen in place by desiccation and heat.

Swept into the flow of this timeless cycle, I haul myself back into my own body and my own presence in the canyon, the smell of smoke and taste of ash. When I came here just days after the fire, the silence was penetrating and palpable, but now I am surrounded by sound. Even though the canyon is empty of people, I am not at all alone. Ground-foraging birds, such as towhees and sparrows, scritch and scratch through the dried-out leaf litter to find insects and seeds that were protected just under the soil and are still there, waiting. Lizards are starting to emerge now that the day is growing later and warmer, and they scurry to their safe retreats as I approach their sunning spots. There are all manner of tiny winged companions buzzing about: dragonflies and flies, beetles and termites. Plenty of scats mark the recent passage of mammals that might be foxes, coyotes, or bobcats, and I imagine that some of the farther rustlings could be mammalian.

In the thrum of life around me, I come back into myself and the reason I’m here. Black ink, water, and paint flow through my brush and onto a sketchbook page, forming images that will connect me in time to former and future selves. With these images, I seek a record to communicate what I am seeing and feeling and how much it matters that I am a witness to this piece of earth right here, now, in the midst of both drama and constancy.

Watercolor sketches of fern
This is familiar territory. The trail is in Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, on the eastern edge of the Coast Ranges, not too far west of my home in Davis, California, and I’ve known it since I was a child. Even the ash and charred wood are not strangers on this land—the canyon burned five years ago too, so this is a return, a homecoming—a repetition of the time I hiked here soon after the last flames charged through. I’ve been visiting Cold Canyon monthly since that first fire in 2015, and I have already watched as the shrubs resprout and fill the slopes and valleys with leaves once again, as the first wildflowers emerge, bright colors fresh on the landscape and then whole hillsides rich with purples, yellow, pinks, and reds. I’ve watched as butterflies lay eggs and caterpillars hatch and then stuff themselves with leaf and stem before beginning their own great transformation. I’ve watched as some of the annual wildflowers dwindle with each passing year after the fire, giving way to the perennials who’ve grown tall and are taking back their space and sunlight.

I was immersed in the fire cycle: drawing, taking careful notes, talking to researchers, looking for clues in the scientific literature. I knew I was studying cycles and change, knew it was part of a never-ending circle, but am still just a little surprised to be here again. Somehow back at the start all over again, thrust personally into the cycle of burning and growth and burning again. So this time, this second time, I am planting myself more firmly, more consciously in the flow of these habitats. I know that I will be seeing budding and flowering and buzzing and feeding again, but I know now the darker truth that it will not be exactly the same this time. A five-year interval is not nearly long enough for the chaparral and oak woodland habitats here to regenerate their reserves. For annuals and perennials to refill their seedbanks. For bulb-sprouting plants to replenish their stored water and starches. For lichens and other slow organisms to return to the area. And for all of the animals that depend on these plants and lichens to make their way back and find enough food and shelter to make this place home again.

The flow of time, of my visits, the repetition of close observation built up over the seasons and the years, the building of my understanding, the growth of my sense of belonging to the contours of this geography—all of these mean that I am different now too. When I started, I was observing from a place of remove. I was sure that fire was a great disturbance whose destruction was necessary for the rebirth and renewal of the ecosystem, and I wanted to see what that looked like and experience it directly. With each visit, each step on the trails, I have taken this place into myself and left my own molecules behind. And in the new perspective I’ve gained, I understand that fire does not need to be a cataclysm and life here does not start again—it continues, having never disappeared, sheltered in soil, in water, in the little islands of plants that did not burn. Fire destroys, but fire also tends, nourishing all the life-forms that evolved alongside it.

Watercolor sketches of plants and flowersIn the coming months and years, I will keep hiking these trails and drawing these scenes. I will watch carefully to see what we are losing in the ever-tightening spiral of more frequent, more uniform, more extensive wildfires. I will pay close attention to how the flows that make this ecosystem whole continue and how they are disrupted. I will walk here with the knowledge that fire itself is a close companion, just as necessary for the lives around me as rock, wind, water, and sun. 

These are the things that, until now, I knew but did not know:

wind flows,
fire flows,
ash flows,
water flows,
rock flows,
birds flow,
paint flows. Time flows in drifts and eddies, through fissures and grooves in the terrain, slipping into the cracks in our understanding, bringing us around again to the beginning, over and over again so that there is no beginning, only the delight of a flame-headed black-and-white sprite flying madly across a canyon to dine on the riches found in a charred trunk, reaching to the sky.

Watercolor sketches of plants

 

 

Robin Lee Carlson is a natural science writer, illustrator, and author of The Cold Canyon Fire Journals: Green Shoots and Silver Linings in the Ashes. Her focus is ecosystem disruptions, anthropogenic and natural, and how landscapes and ecological communities change over time. Learn more at RobinLeeCarlson.com.

[Purchase Issue 24 here.] 

Reading the Ashes

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