Trees of Fire and Rust

Margaret Hammitt-McDonald, Oregon

The breath of the mountain sparkles in my lungs. From the forest comes the crisp perfume of pine sap, as rich and dry as the afternoon light counting its golden coins through the branches. The trail exults in its altitude, discouraging most hikers with its steepness, and so my spouse and I have the thimbleberries to ourselves. Over our shoulders, Mount Hood leans toward us in paradoxical grandeur and intimacy.

In this seemingly most pristine of places, though, the damage shouts for recognition.

In photographs taken twenty years ago, Mount Hood is swathed in snow year-round. This summer, though, the mountain’s rocky shoulders are bare and gray. What should be majestic seems vulnerable, this soaring and empty rock. Remnants of snow crouch in fissures, not the blistering white of forbidding angels but the craven beige of snow about to die. And in the absence of snow, a new danger has emerged: along the tree line, the deep green of shade and secrets is punctuated with alien rust, glowing like fire in the afternoon light.

Half of the forest has succumbed to pine bark beetles. With the warming of the world, the beetles have expanded their range and consumed more trees, transforming their cool green to these scorched candles. When we walk among them, we find the needles fallen and the branches curled inward, like the talons of songbirds frozen in the snow with their feet in the air, clawing at the sky. These trees have rusted like metal left in the rain. When we stand atop a viewpoint, we see whole hillsides raped by rust. The fiery corpses of beetle-stripped trees advance upon the huddling green of the survivors.

In this remote place, it’s usually easy to overlook human-inflicted scars upon the living world. But when I look down, eyes opened by the rusting trees, I can trace the aerial scars of power lines and the lacerations of logging roads. The mountains are quilted with clearcuts. In some places, traffic sounds from far below waft upward in mechanical echoes of wind.

My own hands, I realize, have wrought these stigmata on the land. We drove on one of those roads to get here. Those power lines light our home. The trees torn from the wombs of these forests have given us paper and furniture, as well as the skeleton of our house. We have invited those beetles to set pines afire in death.

Thimbleberries rust in my mouth. Their maple syrup taste is the blood of trees.

Those trees of flame, the bare back of the mountain, those clearcut wounds, along with a summer day and the knife air that the mountains wield—all of these voices call for me to change my relationship to this beautiful and burning world, to seek ways to return the snow to the mountain and to sing the green into the trees. Indifference is too costly. I cannot forget the sweet incrimination of scarlet that the bursting thimbleberries have left all over my fingers. I cannot refuse the call for change from the frail and awesome places that are the treasures of my heart.

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Copyright © 2013 Margaret Hammitt-McDonald