For the last couple of decades my family has owned a cabin in the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, less than two hours from our home. Whenever the speed of life was too much it was always there for us. Our refuge. When the weather was right, in the early mornings, I’d wrap up, sit outside the many-paned windows, and take in the forest. In the center rose an ancient red cedar snag, undisturbed by the hemlock, cedar and fir upstarts, all less than a hundred years old, who all seemed to gather around her. I named her Grandmother Snag. Every time I sat, there she was. I began to think of her as my own private Natural Wonder. And then, a few months ago, our cabin and the surrounding forest were wiped out by a fire that sped through the valley at speeds over 60 miles per hour.
As the news rolled in, confirmed by drone reports, we knew that all the family mementos and irreplaceable instruments had succumbed to flames. Somehow this mattered less when I imagined the Grandmother Snag there, holding fast to the hillside, surviving even this devastation. I wrote a poem about her. I poured over the drone footage and asked witnesses if they’d seen her, joking but slightly hopeful still. As the small community tallied and mourned our losses, the reality of destruction was too enormous for me to bring up my fanciful image of one snag.
Then last week, five months after the fire, my husband Geo was finally able to enter the hazardous area to see what remained. We were told to expect little, which turned out to be a falsely optimistic prediction. The entire old forest was gone, along with more than 70 cabins in the valley. Damaged and dangerous trees had been felled and stacked and now lined the rutted and muddy road, sometimes twenty feet high. Only ribbons of twisted metal and a lone fireplace remained, along with two stove boxes. Two perfect bicycles were melted to sprockets. A fire-blistered propane tank somehow hadn’t exploded, and a once-green metal outdoor table with four chairs sat rusting, waiting for some human company.
George brought home one box of melted remains: a Kokopele metal plaque, a dragonfly door knocker, the remainders of vintage Mary Poppins lunchbox, melted like a Dali clock. Then a couple of weeks ago he surprised me with a Valentine’s gift: a family photo of sorts, one he had taken at my meditation site. In the middle of the blackened forest hillside only one landmark remained. And there she was. Tilted to a 45 degree angle, but firmly and deeply rooted in the forest floor. Charred and bent but not broken. Grandmother Snag.
Up in Smoke: An Inventory
1 outdoor pit toilet with peeling door
1 sixty-year old gingerbread cabin
2 decks, shaky floors,
5 beds, and games and drums for a crew
1 hand-hewn ladder to a skylit loft,
1 retirement clock
1 white and robin-blue wedding quilt
signed by your grandmother.
1 bluejeans and corduroy quilt
hand tied by your mother,
that one that covered us that first time we slept together.
All remnants of all fifty years gone with the spiraling and swooping
cleansing fire of our last anniversary,
And also: 2 bay windows opening to
18 species of tree,
Uncountable rampant lichen and fern.
An entire ground floor of deep moss
Greenest quiet of ancient forest mornings
The pale sun lighting Grandmother Snag,
Red orange indigo scrubbing the emerald floor.
Long walks on rivers in the fullness of forest
Infinitely star rich nights with music and friends,
Beyond fire and smoke.