This golden autumn day we are out in the Mountain Shadows area, working on cleaning up the mess the Waldo Canyon Fire made on a particular hillside and ravine.
The quiet is big. There are peeping finches, just a few. A pair of scrub jays silently watch me, probably wondering if I've brought any breakfast. A magpie busies herself on the forest floor, searching for whatever she can find. The dull hum of I-25 is very distant.
Suddenly a chainsaw roars to life, shattering the soft quiet. Engines begin to rumble as crews like mine, now on-site, begin their jobs of repair and restoration.
All about are broken glass, metal shards and concrete chunks. The aspens are responding with regrowth as are Potentillas, oaks, opportunistic native sages and hardy weeds like toadflax, although they all need a good drink of water.
Across the street, seemingly untouched by the wildfire, a sprinkler system pops up and begins to water a lush bluegrass lawn. There's nary a smudge on this home and landscape. I find myself wondering what their experience has been, and may continue to be, in this strange landscape surrounding their little oasis.
After huddling to strategize, we begin by removing a lovely, but scorched, apricot tree blocking access to the ravine. The fragrant smell of apricot wood wafts on the air. I stash two trunk pieces, lovely and twisted, to save for my friend who lost her home in this neighborhood. I don't know if she will return or relocate elsewhere, but she loved her apricot tree, and these familiar pieces can grace her new gardens, no matter where she goes.
As we move through the trees, we assess each one, checking the slope, gazing up the trunk, estimating the best fall zone, and calculating where they might hang up. Not in a hurry, we want this to be a thoughtful process.
Some of the trees fall reluctantly. They shift, crack and snap before, gracefully and almost in slow motion, wheeling down. Some seem to deliberately catch themselves on black arms and fingers of branches. Black as ravens against the brown of the soil, the trees lie expectantly, waiting their turn in the next step of the process.
As a 50-foot Ponderosa falls, I duck behind the wall of the remaining house foundation, aware and leery of the explosion of wood as a tree hits the forest floor. Someone comments about the idea of carving two dozen bears in the remaining tree trunks. We all laugh out loud.
Felling the trees in place, we use their trunks and branches to hold the hillside against the inclination of sliding soils. Stumps help hold back the large and heavy trunks. Smaller branches are worked and woven into the brace against gravity. Besides holding against erosion, this method will help slow the flow of water off the hill, hopefully allowing the water to soak in. We don't want to take any biomass off the hillside, preferring to leave it to its natural ways of rotting into soil for the trees of the next hundred years.
Once on the ground, wearing their carbon char, the trunks become "nursery logs" where new plantings will find a protected niche in the spring. We choose to leave three select and sturdy dead-standing Ponderosa trunks and limbs for the raptors and the birds, a break in the expanse of air. And aesthetically, the contrast of naked tree form against the Colorado blue sky is beautiful! It will still move in the wind, enlivening it. Bird habitat folks tell us that a dead tree can harbor over 1,000 species, from insects to mammals, in beneficial ways. We want to help the forest recover itself. So we leave a few standing.
The neighbors leave for work, perhaps immune by now to the sounds on the hillsides, and pay us no mind. Even though their home was untouched, I feel they too must feel the pain of a forest lost. Emotional fallout of a forest fire spares no one.
By the end of the day, the crew is blackened with soot. Everyone appears to be wearing camouflage or war paint. But the real fight in the burn area will be left to its inhabitants: humans, animals and plants.
Thinking about them, I begin considering the Mitigation Reclamation Blues. Someone should write the song ... I'd sing it.
Becky Elder of Manitou Springs is owner of Blue Planet Earthscapes and co-director of Pikes Peak Permaculture.