What I saw


Last updated 4/30/2024 at 10:19am

Photo by T. Lee Brown

Prescribed burn west of Sisters on Deschutes National Forest, this spring.

Smoke curls around the knees of the ponderosa trees. It's just a prescribed burn, nothing to worry about, but it sets my nervous system a-twangling. I'm reminded of the Milli Fire in 2017, and the bouts of smoke or fire we've experienced since.

Seven years ago, my family was "full-timing"-living in a small travel trailer, traveling and camping. Here is what I wrote then:

I saw the sun, a shiny reddish-orange thing, sulking behind a veil of forest fire smoke.

I saw two gray squirrels chasing each other up and down the giant pines, three or four dozen chipmunks, twice as many golden mantles.

I saw bold fledglings, furry but confident, taking to the trees. A little peeping brown thing that followed me around, landing on flexible aspen branches. The woodpecker kids clinging to the great pines, pecking inexpertly, learning to become loud.

The crows, only a few of them and only every so often, flying overhead, offering their inelegant caws to the symphony.

I saw a full moon that looked drenched in blood, like the apocalyptic books of Scripture I read and re-read and re-read as a child. Book of Joel. Revelations. Joel again.

I saw the mouldering remains of a roasted chicken in its Walmart plastic box, stuck in the little boulders of the stream beside which we now live, temporarily.

I saw bursts of lava rock rising serenely from red and brown hills with their deep mat of dry ponderosa needles, some brooding in great half-circles as magical as Stonehenge or Avebury.

I saw highways of ants, some crawling up my legs because I lingered too long in the wrong spot. Some of them died as I brushed them away. Others lived.

I went to the springs and drew water straight from the source, drank it raw and whole, my feet and calves numb from the cold within a minute's time.

I saw the dead, fallen logs on the Manzanita Plain begin to shed their immense cloaks of bark. The child in my life calls the fallen, curved hunks of layered puzzle pieces "boat-bark." If carried to the stream, they will float.

Woe to she who steps on an apparently solid log just as the boat-bark decides to slide off. The fall is longer than it looks. The branches scratchier.

I saw an old man who no longer lives in the woods, who has acquired a trailer and a place to park it. He was back in the woods, making his rounds, saying hello, with the excuse of picking up some wood. I was happy to see him.

I saw a couple living in a van laden with possessions. I was at first nervous, because these new people had parked in our part of the forest.

The man, near toothless, took a large and unwieldy armchair out of the little van. It took a long time. Then I saw him - trying not to look - heave his wife onto the chair. He tenderly brought her to the outdoors, the stream, the smoky air.

We met when they drove by later. They were lovely. She is disabled. She became a major protester of a war about 20 years ago, in her wheelchair, with her kids carrying signs that said, "War Kills Children Like Me." She made 600, maybe 800 signs, she said.

She is going to write a book, she said, a book about how Christian churches in America don't practice Christianity, don't listen to Jesus' words.

Looking back to that day in 2017: the smoke did not clear. We traveled and camped. We drove east of Prineville for a week of festivities and food, music and Native dancing, kids and new, temporary friends. It was the eclipse festival, where there was no cell signal to interrupt us.

A family packed into a tiny car had little English and we had almost no Japanese; our kids played together. They were sweltering without any shade.

We loaned them a big tarp and some rope, asked another temporary neighbor to let them string it up from the neighbor's tall RV.

The Japanese family was happy. We were happy. They offered a gift of tea. I still haven't brewed it.

Entrails of smoke scudded across the sky from the west. "I wonder if that's our new house in the forest, burning down?" I half-joked.

The festival ended. At last it was time to move into our new house near Sisters, time for the former owners to move out.

Time for our kiddo to start first grade. Time to breathe fresh air, stop being vagabonds and take up the mantle of middle-class, home-owning respectability once again.

As soon as we got back to Sisters from the festival, our new life would begin. That very afternoon.

But the Milli Fire had other ideas. To be continued...


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