Every year, my father and I take route 410 into the Wenatchee National Forest and set up camp on the spot my grandfather took my father as a boy. My family has been going to this spot for over 70 years now, and I’ve been going for over 30. For me it’s an opportunity to unplug, unwind, and reflect, far from cell phone reception and civilization.
About 20 years ago or so, a lot of the trees in the area started to die off. The Forest Service said it was caused by some kind of invasive beetle, and that the winters weren’t getting cold enough to kill them off as they would have in years past. Eventually we got a harsh enough winter that the blight finally stopped, but three years ago, and again last year, the combination of unusually dry summers and all those dead trees made the area a tinderbox for wildfires that raged through the area.
Last week, like so many times before, my father and I packed his truck and headed for the woods. I was concerned about what it was going to look like after last year’s fires. Mercifully, our campsite and the immediate area had been spared for a second time, but the damage nearby was extensive. We went up to Raven’s Roost, an outlook with an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet and looked out over the mountains and valleys below, parallel to Mount Rainier. The vista was breathtaking, but the size of the burned area was also staggering.
Fires aren’t necessarily always a bad thing–they can be a part of the natural cycle of the forest. But between those beetles and the weather over the last few summers, there can be little doubt that damage we saw wasn’t just part of the natural process. Each year, for the last several years, I’ve wondered how many more times our beloved spot will be spared as wildfires become ever more common. Seeing the damage makes it harder for me to find the peace I once found in those woods. I want to bring my own children there someday, and the thought that I may not be able to is heartbreaking.
But this year, I noticed something else, too. In the area where the fire happened three years ago, formerly all gray and brown and ravaged, everything was turning green. Some of the trees that previously looked dead had new growth on them. New little trees were popping up everywhere, along with Oregon Grape and a variety of other plants. Chipmunks dashed through the undergrowth, and many birds and butterflies fluttered about. What had appeared at a distance as a huge dead zone was actually experiencing a spectacular recovery.
What I took away from this is simple: nature is still fighting to make a comeback, and if we can just give it an opportunity to do so, it will. We’ve lost a lot, and we aren’t done losing. My beloved campsite may yet burn, and indeed probably will someday if we stay on our current trajectory. But there’s also still so much to fight for, and we don’t have to work a miracle to win. We just have to stop actively causing damage. Nature is incredibly resilient and given a little time, will do the rest. That’s still not simple in a world where so much human activity is premised on making the situation worse, but seeing this charred ground turning back into a forest so quickly gave me a feeling of hope I haven’t had in a long time.