Flaming Wind

Along the front range of Colorado we wait for snow. We have only wind, the demon that moved the fires swiftly and decisively from August to November 2020, through 625,356 acres of forests, which now stand only as charred splinters. Without the familiar snows of February and March――and sometimes April――the drought will continue, which means the fires will return in 2021. Yesterday, Groundhog’s Day, the sun blared and the outside temperature rose to 61°F. Today, the sun blared again with the same temperature, but the forecast tomorrow predicts cold. The two weather fronts have collided and now blow at 42 mph.

At times the Cameron Peak Fire raged forward on the back of 75 mph winds (Derecho), though during several days the wind surged at 116 mph. When the Mullen Fire (176,878 acres) roared down from Wyoming and merged with the Cameron Peak Fire (208,913 acres), Roosevelt National Forest along the Cache la Poudre River corridor could do nothing but burn to cinder. When the East Troublesome Fire (193,812 acres) jumped the Continental Divide and merged with both, Colorado recorded its worst fire season on record. For weeks on end in 2020, those of us who live in the front-range towns of Northern Colorado choked on the smoke that turned the sky black. There were days when headlights were necessary during daylight driving. Even now, after Groundhog’s Day, I am afraid to wash car; washing off the ash stuck night take away chunks of paint.
So now in the Centennial State we curse the wind and wait for snow, though if we get it the spring thaws will bring what would most assuredly cause massive flooding…
… and I live just a stone’s throw from the Cache la Poudre River.

Calfornia lost nearly 4.5 million acres in the 2020 Western United States Wildfire Season; Oregon lost more than one million; and Washington lost more than 700,000 acres. All three states recorded their worst fire seasons on record. All three states, like Colorado, are in danger of a fire season repeat.

The causes of the fires in the western United States are blamed on poor forest management and climate change.

The World That Was

Think for just a moment… or for even a moment after that first moment. What happened in 2020? Two things made news: the COVID-19 pandemic, and Trump with his Republican Party cohorts. That’s all that made the news. But think; what else?

So much more happened which we can barely fathom, but which never made front page. We heard about a few other things, but not being boisterously apparent like Trump, or as deadly as COVID, we probably passed aside those other things that made only the back pages of the newspapers.

The press reported the total number of deaths effected by the virus, but did not publish the names of the 300,000 people who, with their deaths, left at least double that many people grieving and wondering how they would manage to fend for themselves in a world gone haywire. How many of those people were mothers or fathers to multiple children, were aunts or uncles to a multitude more. The unknown number of affected people tears at the heart.

That is news.

In your lifetime, certainly not in what remains of my lifetime, Oregon, Washington, California, Colorado will never display the beauty of their once magnificent forests. The parts of each of those states that we most enjoyed are gone: beautiful lakes stipped clean of the trees which once stood watch among their shores are gone, trees which, if sturdy enough, stand only as charred sticks in the brittle ground that may wash away in the floods which will come with the spring thaws.

How many notable deaths――scientists, musicians, literates, conservationists, proponents of human equality? The list seems longer than those of the previous five years:

• Mario Molina―received the Nobel Prize for his work on the effect of CFCs on the Earth’s ozone.
• Julian Bream―master of the classic guitar.
• Eva Szekley―survived the Holocaust to win the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke in the 1952 Olympics.
• Arthur Ashkin―invented the “Tractor Beam.”
• Debra White Plumne―defender of the Oglala Lakota Tribe.
• Barry Lopez―naturalist and conservatiuonist writer…
… and the list goes on: Bill Withers, Terry Gilliam, David N. Dinkins, Priscilla Jane, George Bizos, Charlie Pride… .

How many of us know these names? How many of us understand the significance of these names. They were reported, but only as an afterthought of political spewing and the virus that hacks at the guts of the American Dream――chops away the dreams of so many people on this planet.

But what is it that holds us all together, as one people, stuck on a rock circling a star that glimmers in a universe so infinite that time does not know we exist, never needed a reason to care that we inhabit a mote that has never made the news?

My hope is that the “lockdowns” of COVID have given us enough time for introspection, a study of ourselves that reveals each of us is a part of larger whole that seeks to survive amidst the turmoil we inflict upon ourselves.

Personal Cleansing

It is said fire purifies, and for that my wife and I perform a ritual every New Year’s. We write all the things we want to forget of the previous year on strips of paper and burn them. This year, when we stepped into the frigid cold one second after midnight, my wife held a toilet paper tube crammed with thin stips of denunciations. My tube looked identical.

We stood oblivious to the weather and joined in the cacophany of our neighbors as we all whistled and cheered and yelled obscenities about the previous two hundred ninety-one days. Every few seconds small fireworks blossomed overhead, rekindled our shouts and catcalls, and though all of us appeared as only shadows beneath the streetlights or remained unseen in the darkness of our own yards, we howled united in a common cause–death to the Year of COVID.

I lit a small fire in a small portable barbecue grill. My wife laid her tube in the flames. I laid mine beside hers. We watched the tubes turn to ash, as if the rising smoke could wisp away all we had burned.

Against our better judgment, we stayed up two more hours, hoped the next time we opened the front door the world would be different, like Dorothy stepping into the color world of Oz. My wife and I knew better, but still we hoped.

It is said fire purifies; this year it cannot. Like so many others in the world, my wife and I carry too many unhealed wounds from last year: the loss of her dream, a yoga studio that celebrated its second anniversary only days before California issued “Shelter in Place” directives; leaving thirty years of our lives behind in a move from the West Coast back to the Colorado Rockies; the passing of a dearest friend, and the passing of the cutest little fella we’ve ever rescued from the SPCA…

… and the devastating fires in the western United States, and all over the world; the shooting of innocent people by policemen; the political destructiveness of a madman in the White House and the misguided elected officials who furthered (and for another two weeks will continue to further) his dastard, narcissistic plans…

… and the pandemic which killed nearly two million people, forced too many people into unemployment, has closed so many of the businesses that supported so many people, and which will persist in shutting down so many more as it continues its wave of global depredation into this new year.

The fire did not erase all my wife and I hoped to forget. We knew that as we stepped out beneath a clear blue sky New Year’s day and crunched through snow toward the path which follows alongside the Cache la Poudre River, one of only fourteen wild rivers remaining in the United States. Years ago the river was sacred to us, and once again has become another of our rituals, our stream of hope for the future that flows from the majestic Rockies.

After a thirty-year absence from Fort Collins–the home of our college alma maters, the town where met, and the birthplace of our daughter–we have returned full-circle to start fresh.

Something inside me says the mountains and the waters of our past will cleanse us. Maybe 2021 will be better than last year.

Coming Upon Winter

The green of summer is gone, the reds and yellows of autumn faded. All that remains above the Poudre River are brittle brown leaves that await their final fall into the flow. Seventeen inches of snow fell one week ago, but the only the bones of the storm remain in gray piles along the roadside, like roadkill wanting to disappear.

‘Tis the season of change――in the air, on the ground, in our lives.

In Colorado, Hell erupted to the surface of the Earth in more ways than several. The entire West is burned to char, and still burns. Violence among people still boils over the rim of the “melting pot,” and the POTUS proliferates violence and ideas of civil war.

Guns in public, aimed at the buses of a presidential candidate opposed to the maniacal, insane antics coming from our “sanctified”: White House.
Who could have imagined that, one hundred fifty-five years after the War Between the States, the modern United States would relive one of the worst catastrophes in its history, a catastrophe indicative of Hitler’s rise, Mussilini’s rise, Kaddahfi’s rise… .

Rome burned and lost its foothold on the world because of Nero’s insanity. My hope is that history can repeat itself so many times before people wake up.

My wife and I rode our bikes alongside the Poudre this afternoon, and at the bridge just before the intersection leading into Old Town Fort Collins we heard a steel tongue drum, beautiful and so much attuned to the slow rythym of the river. I stopped on the bridge to listen, and to watch the fella who sat beneath gray trees and played the music. I stood longer, bowed my appreciation to the player as he bowed his appreciation that I listened. He restarted the melodic enchantment for my enjoyment. At the end, I waved good-bye. He waved good-bye. No sound; only the music.
It could have been an eternity. Maybe just a few minutes. He shared his music, I shared my enjoyment, and together, in silence, we shared our appreciation of one another.

I can only hope the U.S. election a week ago brings our country closer to an appreciation of one another, more appreciation of itself, and more appreciation of other countries.

Inferno

Dante wrote his famous epic poem, Inferno, in the early 1300's. It tells the story of the narrator (Dante) on a journey through nine concentric circles (worlds) which comprise Hell. The poem begins in March. Dante steps through the gate of Hell, over which is inscribed "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Immediately upon passing through the Gate of Hell, Dante recognizes a man of considerable political power whose selfish thirst for his own welfare serves as the metaphor for the door through which too many have entered into delusional salvation. For the next 190 pages or so, all hell breaks loose.

The poem is religious, but times, attitudes, beliefs, perspectives, and scientific revelations change. What a great plot for a modern story.

Oh wait. It's not a story. It's happening right now, seven hundred years after the original version, and because after so many centuries the poem is no longer protected by copywrite, my version of Inferno differs.

My main character could be any man, woman or child who walks out their front door, and who discovers their once-familiar portal to the outside world is now the gateway to Hell, in all its flame and fury.

The Inferno is here. Pick a calamity, any of which is a massive story by itself:

1) An inland hurricane in Iowa, which destroyed 43% of the state's corn and soybean crops.

2) Tornadoes in Massachusetts, not unheard of, yet rare.

3) Fires in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado which have scorched the West to ash and cinder.

4) Unconstitutional civic behavior and violence condoned by the White House.

5) Racist murders on our city streets and within our homes, justified by the White House under a mandate of "law and order."

6) Corruption and international meddling in the upcoming election.

7) Social media so loaded with lies and altered photographs one cannot decipher what is or is not true.

8) A dangerous person in the White House, and too many misguided souls who want to extend his residency.

9) COVID-19.

... and now an additional level: 10) the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My story begins in March, just like Dante's tale, yet this updated Inferno is not a story I can write. This series of unfortunate events writes itself daily, sometimes hourly, and each new plot twist becomes so surreal I could never conceive such madness; this story reaches beyond my understanding and creativity. Even if I could, my writing is dark; the ending would be extremely bleak...

... and I don' want this new Inferno to end that way.

Ignorance

The profoundness of ignorance becomes a devastating tsunami when we look around — to the front, to the sides, then over our shoulders — and realize without having to think about it we did not know. Ignorance pervades, because, after looking around, we do not recognize where we are and have no clear recollection of how we arrived. It is our own fault for always moving. We know that, we admit that (“back in the good old days”), then we “keep on truckin’.’

Yet along the Oregon coast, islands of rock, so steadfast in their defiance of the never-ending surge of a rough sea, have stood against the loneliness of midnight for more ages than man has memory. Still, we cannot sit still in one place for more than a passing thought. Each new idea that seeps into our collective consciousness, or that strikes us like a bolt from a heavy sky, sets us again in motion, embarks us once again upon our mortal pilgrimage toward unknown destinations we hope will ease our loneliness, or will be spectacular enough to ease our pain.

How long has it been since humanity stopped to hear the song of the trees? There was a time when the people of the land understood the language of the forests and of the brooks.

It was common — long ago — to walk through the forest and experience things that can never happen again, or to see things that will remain eternally hidden, and for which we cannot piece together a rough recollection. Some things about the forest could never happen, though we were there and saw it, because we stood motionless in awe and wonder.

But we no longer sit to breathe, we try to authenticate our existence only with movement — leaps and bounds — which we justify as progress. Still, we ain’t goin’ nowhere.