Letter From The Desert: Aspens

Drive west of here to Morongo Valley, then abandon your car at the corner of Highway 62 and Canyon Road. Hike westward into the upper end of the little Morongo Canyon, toward Sand to Snow National Monument. Eventually, you will reach an open grove of Jeffrey pines and red fir, well-watered compared to the Mojave Desert below.

It is a strenuous hike at 18 miles and about 5,000 feet of net elevation gain, but not a particularly challenging one. Aside from a 1,400-foot cliff at around mile 14, that is. You might decide to go the long way like we did. We drove about 75 miles out of the way to avoid hauling the camp stove and tent and food and dog up that cliff. It worked: we spent the last four days encamped in an open grove of Jeffrey pines and red fir. And flies.

Four years ago this week, the Lake Fire raged about a quarter mile away. On Saturday we three and a couple of good friends hiked from our camp down toward the headwaters of the Santa Ana River through a vibrant pine forest carpeted with wildflowers, and then up about 500 vertical feet of ridge to a notch with a trail running down the far side. Beyond, devastation: about 1,500 acres of standing charcoal.

Devastation, that is, that served as a bit of camouflage for an even more verdant place. Deep into summer, Fish Creek ran through the bottom of the draw beyond at full gurgle, irrigating a healthy stand of recovering aspens. We walked down to the creek. Our dog Heart was born in South L.A. about six years ago and was then rescued to the Mojave Desert: on Saturday, she explored her first ever flowing stream, paddling through the shallows on hike-sore feet, then dozing beneath a stand of stream-side reeds.

I was here a few months after the fire, and wrote about it. Even then, it was clear that the Lake Fire was no ecological disaster. The charred husks of Jeffrey Pines on the road to Fish Creek bore tiny new green buds, the so-called “flush” that pines will grow in the wake of a fire. Now, those same trees seemed almost none the worse for wear, aside from the stripes of charred bark on their trunks. Black oaks and manzanitas grew in profusion, as did the dreaded whitethorn, Ceanothus cordulatus, hated by government foresters for its supposed interference with the growth of new two-by-fours, but which actually nurtures new tree seedlings.

I did not quite recognize the forest here as the same one I saw in October 2015. That forest seemed bleeding but with the promise of recovery. This one bears its burn scars as though the fire was a necessary initiation. The fire was needed to open up the canopy, to convert a few hundred thousand tons of woody potassium and calcium into fertilizing ash, to create big loads of biochar to sequester carbon in the thirsty soil, to attract the bark beetles that would feed subsequent generations of downy and Nuttall’s woodpeckers.

We spent the weekend hearing those woodpeckers drum, burying our faces in the platy bark of Jeffrey pines and taking in deep draughts of their butterscotch resin fumes, delighting in the dog’s discovery of running water. Spaces where higher-intensity fires had killed more of the trees were carpeted in gold and white and pale purple, and the inaptly named “plain mariposa lily,” Calochortus invenustus, grew at times as freely as drug store tulips.

Let me not be too glib. The Lake Fire, which Wikipedia helpfully reminds us all is distinct from The Lake of Fire, burned an area the size of San Francisco with frightening ferocity, its individual flames visible from 30 miles away in my backyard. Its smoke made life miserable for thousands of people, and while no one was badly injured by the time it was put under control a month later, one house was destroyed, and a friend of mine built that house so that sucked.

Government scientists estimate that Southern California’s Jeffrey pine forests burned on about a 14-year cycle before the advent of settler technology with its hoses and helicopters and anthropomorphic bears on the USDA payroll. We stopped that cycle, as we did in forests throughout the Western US. Fuel built up. Trees overpopulated. With insufficient water for too many trees, drought killed more of them. Dead trees raised fear of fires out of control and fire suppression campaigns escalated. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I like to imagine the downy woodpeckers watching with amusement. The moral arc of the universe bends toward forest fires. The downies will have their bark beetles, the snag-excavated nests. One might as well try to stop the changing of the seasons. Four years after the Lake Fire, the devastated aspens in the high-intensity burn zone are respectable eight-foot shrubs. I will see them towering again, and I am not young.