BY LYDIA BRANDT
In 2017, the Columbia River Gorge burned, beginning at Eagle Creek and spreading until it blackened nearly 60,000 acres of good, green land. I received the news over the phone from my mother, the iron woman who never cries, and I could hear pain in her voice. A child had done it. He had gone up the trail to the end of it, where there is a bend in the tributary that some yet call Takenah, the deep pool. There, he had lit fireworks with friends, and instead of packing out the illegal, smoldering remains he had buried them. September is the driest month, so the fire raged without check until October, when much need rain came rolling in from the sea, but it was not contained for nearly two months more, and as late as May of 2018 there were still whispers from the mountain men that it yet burned in places only fire or the ones who knew could reach.
When I heard it, I was a mere five days into my freshman year of college and feeling the acute sting of a pain I had put on myself. I ran away from the land that raised me, and at the advent of my absence it was burned in a vengeful torrent of fire that devoured trees which had seen my grandparents be born and die, which had witnessed the arrival of their parents, and had sighed quietly at the sight of explorers in canoes on the water who knew not they slid past hallowed ground. When I ran, I had feared the land would swallow me. As I lay on the uneven, gritty linoleum of my dorm room floor and felt tears gather in my ears, I wished I had allowed it. I could have slipped away with the trails which hid me as a child, no longer held by living roots, and washed out to the river where my uncles pulled fish from swift water and smoked them in low cedar boxes that smelled like full bellies.
I did not see my land for nearly three and a half years, as I did not return, and in fact fled farther still. The pain of the burn lessened over time, or perhaps other pains superceded it. There were other fires as well. In 2020, the North Umpqua, where I had learned to walk and swim, was destroyed. That same fire extended down to the coast, licking along the banks of the Siuslaw and coming dangerously close to Cape Perpetua, which some yet call Halqaik, the exposed place. I witnessed none of these great hurts first hand, for I was in the desert where nothing could burn, as nothing could grow. I still felt them, and I never truly forgot the initial wound. How could I? A limb had been severed from my community. I was not the only one who had been raised on the trellis of cliffs, trees, and waterfalls, raised that I may one day become it, and thus bear it fruit. It was closed to us, gated and fenced so that the land might recover. We could not go. It hurt, a similar hurt to the one I felt when I first saw my parents growing old.
We left early in the morning, the first day it was announced the land could bear to be seen. Just my brother and I made the trip, rising before the sun and clutching thermos lids of tea in spindly fingers. We drank the cedar we wished to hold, the last of a stash carefully rationed and saved. The same trees grew behind our house, but they were not the trees, and in our mouths was the only nostalgia I will tolerate: a yearning for the land. He drove and we did not speak, for in the beginning we were still tired, and as we approached our destination the enormity of the grievance became too great for words. Low fingers of fog clung to befouled remains of once mighty trees. As the sun came up, a breath of warmth on the broad back of the mountains, the worst was revealed to us. From the car, the Gorge was a dead body. I saw the corpse of a giant, I saw innumerable ribs. Blood flowed stark against skin which had once been blanketed by the signs of life, the verdancy which I had thought would one day line the inside of my coffin, would spring up around my decaying flesh. Now there was only a naked flank, not even a suitable place to die.
An alien world greeted us when we parked and began our ascent, eyes wide with a holy terror. We walked in an open wound, a wound to the bone, to the core, to the soul. The huckleberries I had eaten were gone. The ferns from which I had fashioned crowns for the very brother that stood beside me, once short but now towering above me, were nowhere to be found. The trilliums, for which I would have laid down my life, were missing. Only the tallest trees had survived, and many had been scorched beyond recognition, tarnished to charcoal and looming in front of us like sad, bony women, so tired and tall, so cold and thin. Our horror redoubled, for we had come from such a woman, and we both feared I was becoming such a woman myself. Part of us, part of me, had burned with these cedars, and as I walked with great purpose to the epicenter of pain, the original fracture, the place where we first learned what it meant to know loss, I knew I walked through me. We passed the charred remains of the trees from which we had harvested the bark for our tea, and we could not help but laugh. How strange, that we had been so careful, taking thin, delicate strips as to not overstress the trunk, only to have it all taken away.
It was dead, and when I dragged a palm over it, the ashy surface squeaked under my hand, which came away sooty. We flaked off the outer bark hoping for a living core, but found only death inside death, and it moved us to tears. I had not cried in front of my brother for a very long time, but in the frangible light of morning surrounded by the great, howling and rattling nothingness, we wept together. We did not stop until we reached the end of the trail, where we paused to rest and mourn for some hours, burdened by the odd weight of the provisions we carried on our backs. Before the burn, we never brought food with us when we entered into the wilderness, for we knew it would feed us. Now all it had to give was blackened husks of trees, calcined by shame. We ate the meagre offering anyway, crumbling pieces of the charcoal into our mouths and hiding them under our tongues, nibbling at them until our teeth looked necrotic. We ate the low throbbing affliction. We consumed the ache.
Then the sun came up, well and truly, and we began our descent, stepping lightly as to not wear away at the cliffs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a smudge of moss on a fallen oak, previously obscured by darkness. I glanced down, and by my foot I spotted a young shoot of miner’s lettuce. The cliff face beside me was enrobed in lichen, greedily lifting mottled hands to the waterfall which trickled past them. I looked up and made out the silhouette of sword ferns growing at the split of a rotting alder. My brother pointed out a lithe trout in the river below us, and I showed him the tracks of several grey wolves, a portend of both deer and wild sheep. A heron picked amongst the rocks at the riverbank, and we watched as he plunged his long-beaked head under the water and came back up with a frog, which he tossed down his gullet before flexing the power of his shoulders, extending vast grey wings and taking to the sky.
We spoke on the ride back home, trading memories of wading in streams and evading exasperated parents in dogwoods, peeking out from branches as they searched below us. On passing Waukeenah, we recalled the day we spent picking Oregon grapes, filling baskets and mouths until we nearly couldn’t drag ourselves out of the forest. They had been made into a fine jam, more seed than fruit, which we had crunched with relish. The Columbia was beside us, surging like a mustang on its way to the ocean, and the smell of it through the window was peace. It will be centuries before the land unfurls to its full glory, and I will never see it. My body will be long returned to dust by the time there are enough cedars to take their bark again, hold between teeth a plug of resinous phloem and nurse the taste of goodness long past its due. I have seen it now, and I see it beginning to live afresh. I can no longer ask the land to hold me, and now must hold it instead, cherishing and remembering, two actions which lead to fierce protection. This yoke is light, and I smiled as we turned towards home. Behind us was the mountain, which some yet call Wy’east, the proud man.