I am camping in the mountains between two fires. Although in no danger, I can sometimes smell smoke from the fire to the west if the wind is right. The other fire to the east is mostly contained now, but it was, for awhile last month, a grave threat to, among other things, one of my favorite campgrounds. The fire was stopped only a few miles away from that special site near Lake Haviland.
My traveling companion and I stayed at that campground last week, after that fire was mostly out and the National Forest was reopened to the public. Our immediate surroundings at the campsite were green and lovely, the lake as shimmeringly beautiful as ever. But the reflections on the lake’s surface now contain the new colors of the partially burned mountainside nearby; running through the ravines that are etched into the sheer Hermosa Cliffs and for miles around are swaths of brown and blackened fir and spruce and ponderosa pine timber, charred gamble oaks, and many varieties of burned underbrush.
But it was not as bad as I had feared it might be. Here and there were still stands of living trees, with stretches of greenery saved somehow by the many thousands of gallons of water dropped from planes overhead during the worst of the fire, as firefighters stopped the spread of the fire at the highway over which, yesterday, we were able to drive peacefully.
All along the roads now are huge signs and banners thanking everyone for their heroic efforts that amazingly had saved all human structures. No human lives were lost either, though doubtless untold numbers of wildlife and plant life were destroyed.
When I was in college, I worked for an insurance company and so was familiar with the legal term “an act of God.” That was the term that referred to those things unforeseen or unavoidable, beyond anyone’s control or responsibility.
Whether these fires or other fires raging in the west, or the floods and hurricanes and other hazards afflicting us all, are unavoidable “acts of God” or are caused by human negligence, those of us here in the mountains today, living between two fires, are reminded to be alert, mindful, responsible. And we are aware of the ways we all contribute, for good or bad.
At a little restaurant in town yesterday, we saw volunteer firemen from Michigan here in Colorado, resting momentarily from fighting the fire still burning a few miles to the west of us. I felt touched by a deep gratitude for the willingness of any of us to give of ourselves for others, for life itself.
There is wisdom aplenty to be gained here in all this.
We’re now in a different campsite, a pristine environment, nothing blackened to be seen. The mountainsides are dense with many shades and shapes of trees, aspen and spruce and pine and who knows what all. But every moment I look out at the beauty of my surroundings now, I am reminded that it too could be gone in an instant of flaming loss. I realize that all this, as it is right now, could possibly almost instantly never be the same again. I am made aware of the wisdom of “be here now.” I appreciate this very instant, for I am more certain that it is fleeting. At my age, of course, that’s a daily reminder, but somehow the intensity of this communal event has sharpened my alertness.
This morning I am sitting by a rushing river, its bubbling, splashing song another reminder of constant change. Downstream, an ancient fir tree has finally toppled from the edge and into the surging waters that are moving on, over, under, around the new obstacle. I take note, even as I once again attempt to capture the moment in a freeze frame of a photograph. “Take care of all this,” I whisper to myself and to the world at large, “Take care of what we have.”
I am reminded too of being a good steward of what is now available when I walk several times a day to the place where I can fill containers with drinking water for our use, just as I once did when I was a child and we lived in the deep woods of East Texas, without electricity or running water. Conserving water came easily back then when I had to pump it up again and again from the well with the little red handled pump on the back porch. I was taught early by experience to be responsible for my own use and misuse of resources.
I admire our camp host here who carefully picks up every little scrap of paper or debris when he cleans an abandoned campsite. I am reminded to be diligent in picking up all the little things I randomly discard.
Of course, I look with some chagrin at all the many ways I spread out my things, limited though they may be, around the campsite, especially when I consider that others like me have had to evacuate suddenly because of threat of fire. How much “stuff” is enough, I ask myself. And then I give special thanks for all the things I am privileged to have.
In doing my square foot meditation most days, I get the same lesson, and more. Recently I watched a solitary black ant walk from the ground all the way up a spruce tree; an hour later I watched him make his way back down, carefully avoiding all the tiny spider webs spun within the rough edges of the tree’s bark. From the small ant to the almost unseeably tiny spiders to the little green ferns to the shining six-inch-tall white flowers—in that or any other square foot of the world, life teems. Always at risk, but always surging forward, creative, beautiful, precious, the life force marches as purposefully as the ant, up tree and down tree, through thick and thin, fire and flood, life surges.
Not all the wildlife around me, of course, is small. When two friends from Texas stopped by our camp the other day, they went for a hike and suddenly saw a huge bear, turned away from them, eating berries. One of the hikers instantly turned and ran back the way they had come. The other recounted later how she had been torn between wanting to stay to watch the bear or else to follow her husband as he fled. She decided to flee too, since she had heard the stories of how this local bear had been strong enough to drag a huge dumpster down the hill, turning it over and over to get at the trash inside, trash generated by tourists in the bear’s environment, tourists like me.
So I am watching my trash, how much I generate, what I do with it, and I’m keeping all food out of harm’s way, for my sake and for the bear’s sake. If the bear plunders an actual campsite, he will be endangered, as government employees will be required to deal with him.
Danger is everywhere, of course, for the bear, for me, for the plants, the waters, for it all. Life is precarious, if tenacious.
Also, everywhere, though, there is beauty, and wonder. And there is the possibility for gratitude for all life—animal, plant, mineral, wherever the “natural” state of things may be.
I look out daily at these Rocky Mountains, as I sometimes attempt to capture in watercolor the contours of the rugged upheavals, the valleys and peaks, the crevices, and the boulders strewn here and there, and I am reminded that the very mountains are in motion, over eons though it may be; they too are changing, changing. Nothing stays the same for long. Appreciate it while you can. Only this moment, this moment, this is my opportunity to see, to be, to appreciate, to celebrate, to create, to share it all.
And so, again, here I am writing to share with you, as I go into my day now, with a deepened awareness of the precious gift of each moment that I am privileged to be alive here on this plane of existence, here with each of you, to whom I send this message of love and this suggestion that you, too, live in a state of mindful openness to the beauty and wonder and precious precariousness of your lives.