“In nature, nothing exists alone.” – Rachel Carson

After a week of smoke-bound home life, the air cleared, rain fell, and I loaded up my backpack for an Eagle Cap Wilderness trek with friends. Upon return, I feel imbued with words that begin with “W”—Wallowas, Wilderness, Wisdom, and of course…Wonder.

The “W” list goes on –Witness, Wind and Wildfire. And it’s the last word that I’m reflecting on now. What I experienced was the natural rebirth, rejuvenation, and restoration from a lightning-caused wildfire that burned in the Hurricane Creek wilderness watershed in the summer of 2014.

A fire-shaped wilderness

Climbing up a steep hillside through groves of pine, fir, and larch, we ascended the spine of a ridge with a glacial origin, called a medial moraine. There, I marveled at a profusion of young larch trees beneath the living and dead trees. Blackened bark met brilliant green. I trailed my fingers across the silky soft deciduous needles. A few gleamed yellow, hinting the flaming gold to come.

Larch is a fire-dependent tree. Here, you can see how the seedlings flourish after wildfire. Fire-killed standing trees were an important source, as fresh cones in the burned crowns matured and dispersed their light, long-winged seeds.

Larch are fire savvy in countless ways–they’ve had more than 10,000 years to master the art. Those soft fresh needles grown every year? They hold more water and are less flammable than other conifers that replace their needles only every two or three years. The protective bark around the trunk of mature larches keeps the inner cambium from overheating in flames.

Larch in full autumn glory (from my files–October is the month to be swept away).

After fire, both living and dead tall trees reseed the forest, thriving in the intact and unlogged soils fertilized by ash–just as I saw. While fire is no stranger to larch forests, how often fires burn depends on elevation, habitat, or aspect (like north-facing).

Stand-replacing fires come in 120 to 350 year intervals. It’s natural, too, for wildfire to return more often in ways that create a mosaic of living and dead trees. Today, the larch trees face climate change. They are adapting in ways we have yet to know, but we may learn from if we apprentice ourselves to wild forests.

Hiking the medial moraine through fir and larch forest, we balanced between burned and unburned–giving a nod to topography as wildfire influencer.

Like all lessons from the Wilderness, the ecology of our forests is complex. And it’s in our few last wild places–intact forests, designated wilderness, roadless areas, and the wild corridors of connection– where resilience and wisdom resides.

The story of larch interlinks with firs and pines, with birds, squirrels, bears, elk, and microscopic life that nourish one another in ways that defy any farming, row-crop mentality (as I wrote about in my last blog).

Climbing above the wildfire beauty marks (not scars) on that first day, we set up camp in a subalpine meadow below the sheer magnificence of the Hurwal Divide, where two mountain goats grazed in the safety of near-vertical habitat. The following morning, as we hiked in gusting winds on the the flank of Sacagawea Peak, we passed close to a mountain goat–regal in a thick, white cloak of fur, bearded, muscular, black-horned, and front-loaded for powering up cliffs with nimble leaps on suction-cup hooves.

Mountain goat on the lower edge of Sacagawea Peak, gazing toward the Hurwal Divide, and accented by the wind-shaped pines, bowed by the ferocity of life up high–a phenomenon called krumholtz. (Photo credit: Emelie Montgomery-Jones)

What would the wild wooly goat of wilderness tell us if we were able to understand a language rich with the vocabulary of rockfall, alpine flowers, gray-crowned rosy finch and golden eagle, of chasm, summit, blizzard, lightning, and thunder?

If I could guess, I’d say this–that it’s time for us big-brained newcomers with all our technological whiz-bang answers to admit we’ve made a royal mess of things.

It’s time for us to learn humility, to ask forgiveness, and to look to the people whose homeland is shared with the mountain goats of this wild region, and who carry on the traditions of their ancestors. Heed the Nimiipuu ( Nez Perce) and the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people. The answers are there in the practices of reciprocity and of First Foods and Life Cycles, “the heartbeat of our community.”

Every time I enter Wilderness with that big “W,” I feel closer to the wild heartbeat. I catch the fleeting rhythm and harmonies honed over thousands of years into a song lofting on winds that ripples across the tines of larch needles and the white fur of a mountain goat philosophizing from a dizzying perch.

Click here for the science on larch wildfire ecology.