Pilgrimage in a Burnt Forest

Anna Coffman
Donnell Fire, Donnell Reservoir, California
2019

Story Info

Coffman

Story & Experience

I head into the Sierras to explore the area burnt by the Donnell Fire in 2018. Wikipedia says that 36,450 acres (147.5 km2) were burnt, but I don’t have any concept of what that means. I am looking for a place to hold a retreat where we bear witness to the destruction wrought by this fire.

I notice that I feel like a scavenger, someone trying to profit in a way from disaster. I wonder if that is how reporters feel when they go into a devastated area – I want it to be impressive enough so that our retreat participants can experience the full impact of the fire, and at the same time my heart breaks for every burnt tree, every animal that couldn’t escape, the devastation wrought by the fire, and the subsequent cleanup. I am grateful that nobody was killed by this particular fire.

The Clarks Fork area is right in the center of the burn zone, and the road has not yet re-opened since the fire. I decide to walk in, to explore, to see if this area would work for the retreat next year. I know that the campground I want to check out is about 7 miles in. Do I have it in me to walk 14+ miles? I feel challenged, adventurous, and a bit nervous, too.

When I first go down the hill from the closed gate and cross the bridge over the raging creek, there is total destruction. All that is left are blackened tree carcasses and bare ground. My heart is heavy.

But then, as I keep walking, I get surprised – I notice that the fire burnt in a mosaic pattern. There are areas where everything is burnt, like the area I first encountered, but other areas are not touched at all, and wildflowers are starting to bloom. And in some places the fire has blackened trees, and killed some of them, but new growth is already happening. Some areas look not that different from clear cut forests. Empty wastelands with only tree stumps left, stacks of logs, huge slash piles. The burnt logs are being cut, both to make travel on the road and trails safe again, but also to sell the lumber that is still salvageable.

As I keep walking, I come more in sync with the forest around me. I feel sad and cry for the destruction, and I rejoice with the green untouched areas and the new life erupting. I say blessings for the forest, for the burnt parts and the healthy ones, for the beings that are alive and for the ones that perished. The forest becomes part of who I am. My task of evaluating for a retreat moves to the background – still in my awareness, but not so prominent. I no longer feel like a voyeur, but rather like a pilgrim in a new land.

Eventually I find the campgrounds untouched by the fire – and then “the task” comes to the foreground again. How many campsites? How far is it to the burnt parts of the forest? Is it too far? Can this work for a retreat? The first part of the return trip involves a lot of tracking, marking, measuring.

But eventually, as the sun moves lower in the sky, I settle back into the pilgrimage.  Just this step, just this tree, just these flowers, just this cloud. While I had been unhappy about the road still being closed, I now realize what a gift this has been for me, this opportunity to be on pilgrimage for the afternoon. My feet and hips hurt, but I feel at peace.

 

Donnell Fire, Donnell Reservoir, California

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2019-07-20T08:31:27-07:00
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