A New Pair of Glasses
In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote about his romance with the big river that splits the continent from Northern Minnesota to the gulf. It’s just a few yards wide at its start at Lake Itasca. Then it becomes miles wide as it flows south, 2,300 miles to the gulf.
I grew up on the Minnesota River, one of the first big tributaries of the Mississippi. I spent
most summers as a young boy thinking about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The river meant days wandering the muddy banks thinking just beyond the next bend must be something amazing. Watching the current roll, the ice break in the spring, the floods, I often thought I’d be content spending my entire life there under its spell.
But Samuel Clemens — the adventurer — took it a step further. He decided to apprentice as a riverboat captain. (His pen name, “Mark Twain” was what boatmen yelled to mark a depth of twelve feet or two fathoms, deep enough for the riverboat to clear the bottom.)
The river never changed, but Mark Twain’s perception of the river did. Now, in charge of a clumsy and hard-to-maneuver paddle-wheeler, the river appeared almost demonic. Shoals were everywhere, appearing and disappearing. Snags floated under the surface and spun in the currents, lurking there ready to punch a hole in a fragile hull. A bend that was navigable a month ago, now appeared sharper and foreboding in the gloom of evening.
The river doesn’t change, but our perception of it does. I left the river —I guess we all have to leave our childhood landscapes to grow up. I chose the mountains in the west. Laurie, my wife, and I lived in a home three miles up a one-way dirt road in Santa Fe County. We were deep in a Piñon Juniper forest; steep ridges dropped off the road into canyons and arroyos. I could follow our ridge line and walk north through the Rockies all the way to Colorado. It was idyllic, wild and astonishingly beautiful. There was a hundred-mile view to the horizon with nothing but forest, mountains and the infinite plains of grass.
When we moved in, it was wet in Santa Fe. There were big snows and summer rains. We joined a volunteer fire department; then came the year 2001 and the drought. And our perception changed.
First there was the fire in Los Alamos, called the Cerro Grande Fire that exploded to 48,000 acres and destroyed 230 homes. For days after, the ashes of homes and dreams fell out of the sky in Santa Fe like snow — coating cars, windows and walkways.
Soon after, while the Cerro Grande Fire still burned, Santa Fe was backdropped by a mushroom cloud that rose up to 30,000 feet, creating its own weather with lightening and thunder. This was the 28,000 acre Vivash Fire in the densely wooded Pecos Wilderness.
It continued. In 2011 we watched the Las Conchas Fire while sitting on our portal at night. We could see the evil red eye of the dragon. It was a super-hot fire storm burning through hundreds of acres of heavily forested mountain slopes just thirty miles away from our home.
Of course in the west, fire is part of the natural ecology. Prairies burn. Forests burn. Tesuque Peak above Santa Fe at 10,000 feet is scarred by a fire from the 1890s. Mountains burn.
The problem often is that our lifespans are so short compared to cycles of nature that we miss the big picture: the west has always been this way.
But a couple of huge fires in the terrain you live in — well, that will change how you see things.
The forest doesn’t change—our perception of it does.
I don’t use the word idyllic anymore to describe where we lived. As Mark Twain saw the Mississippi as a riverboat captain, now I see our high desert and mountain home through the eyes of a firefighter.