About a year ago we took Jack to Mt. Graham.
A sky island in Southern Arizona, Graham is an oasis. With a peak of almost 11,000 ft, it’s far reaches are covered with dense fir, aspen, spruce, and a few pine that have wandered far from home. There are a great many bears, a squirrel found nowhere else, and a trout found, well, almost nowhere else. It is very pretty.
Or should I say was really pretty.
The Frye Fire started on June 17th, 2017. Caused by lightning, fire crews fought it valiantly for more than a month, fighting impossibly steep terrain and a brutally hot summer, even by Arizona standards. Despite their efforts the burn area consumed the vast majority of what most of us think of as “Mt. Graham.” How severe was the burn? No one outside the burn crew knows.
Our suppression of fires for the last hundred years or so has had an obvious effect: There is a lot to burn. I think it’s pretty silly to judge to foresters of 100 years ago by the knowledge we have today, but suffice it to say, knowing what we do now we would do things differently. We are doing things differently.
Still, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of loss every time a fire burns. Unlike the fires of my great-grand parents (who, truth be told, were busy faming in Iowa), these fires burn hot, and hard, and leave little. The forests will regenerate, but the joy of knowing the forest is older than you will be gone. In my life alone, three gargantuan fires (the Rodeo-Chediski, Horseshoe 2, and Wallow) have taken more than 1,000,000 acres from a state that doesn’t have much forest to give. Wonderful pockets remain…
…but at some point we have to be honest about what is happening. We are losing places. We are losing places at an alarming rate and there is nothing we can do about it. We are losing places at an alarming rate and there is nothing we can do about it because it is the right thing to do. What the hell are we supposed to do with that?
Meanwhile on Mt. Graham,
From the moment we left last year, Angie and I had planned to make our Graham trip an annual event. I, blessedly, had no cell service, Jack had genuine fun, and Angie found a place that reminded her of childhood camping trips in California. It was perfect.
We were going to watch Jack grow up there. We were going to watch Baby #2 (Editor’s Note: Is that an announcement?) grow up there. We assumed the forest would outlast us, that we would grow, and that it would grow, but we faster than it. That’s the way forests are supposed to work, after all.
But that isn’t the way forests work. Forests change, faster than we thought. Life changes, faster than we thought. Forces of impossible strength move us, shake us, alter us in ways we can’t imagine or predict. And our little family is stuck in the middle, struggling to think like mountains, and searching for what all this means to us.
We’ll return to Mt. Graham, probably sooner than we should. It will still be there, but it will be different. Different in the way it always has been, different in the way it always will be, but different. We’ll be different too.
Goodbye, Old Mt. Graham. You were a wonderful friend. You’ll be missed.
Note: The title of this piece was changed from “On the simple and profound loss of losing a place” to “On the simple and profound sadness that comes from losing a place” on July 19th, 2017, because the original title was terrible.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.