The first tinge of light lifts an uproar out of the mountains — buntings, bluebirds, wood peewees, tanagers, robins and woodpeckers, all calling eagerly. And, in the distance, a mountain quail’s exclamations. The light grows opalescent, revealing trees stripped bare as ship masts afloat in a sea of young leaves. They stretch on for miles, down one slope and up another. These are snags, standing dead trees. Wearing thick cloaks of charcoal they stand gathered by the hundred, as if in conference.
In the summer of 2013, the Rim Fire set Yosemite and Stanislaus National Forest ablaze. A mosaic of fiery intensities crackled through the lush forests — more than 400 square miles when all was over.
Not over — a new beginning. Where the fire brushed by with low intensity, great expanses of cedar and fir and pine were blackened from their base up to eye level or slightly higher. Most of those trees remained green; their forest floor layered with ash and burned detritus. Two springs later, the earth is packed with wallflowers and all manner of saplings. Northern goshawks have chosen to raise their chicks in one grove, spotted owls in another — the highest forms of praise rare raptors could ever give to a post-fire forest. And the soft footfalls of black bear and deer can be heard as they forage on the new growth.
On slopes where the fire burned hotter, it left the ship masts — snags charred-black on the outside with solid wood on the inside. The snag forest too is crammed with all manner of life, which came as a surprise as their treasures were unknown to me. But the birds have known for eons, and the insects for even longer. Their knowledge is so ancient that veritable rivers of birds ride in after the rivers of insects that swarm into the tell-tale flow of smoke after fire. The smoke of ancient lightning fires runs through the instincts of insect and bird, like a familiar language. Beetles arrive to lay eggs on the snags and the eggs hatch into worm-like larvae that chew their way through bark and wood. These larvae are bread and butter for rare black-backed woodpeckers, pioneers among the snag forests they make their home.
Woodpeckers, like the black-backed, the white-headed and the red-breasted sapsuckers, drill and carve and bevel fresh cavities out of the forest of ship masts — and finally decide on one to call home. That leaves their unused homes for bluebirds and nuthatches and squirrels that are drawn into the brand new forest. They switch and flicker from perch to perch and their excited singing voices pronounce the infinities of sunlight as world.
But deep in these mountains, there are lives slipping away from us every day. Some are ten thousand years old, some over a million. Perhaps their departure is marked by great sounds, a falling from beauty. Perhaps their shrilling protests go unheard. That they are irreplaceable is for certain. They may go unnoticed for days or whole seasons. By the time we shake ourselves awake to walk their wilderness, it may feel like something halved, trying to learn to be whole again. It may feel tentative, like a song with its chorus sliced off.
For now the earth is clinging damply to its half-darkness, as I cling to my three layers to stay warm. The first touch of sunlight sticks to tops of the ships masts like honey. New pine needles glitter from the tips of some burned trees. The birds grow busier, replicating the forests’ filigrees of green in sound, building nests.
Rejuvenation is at work everywhere.
When sunlight spills down the sea of leaves is suddenly dazzling, an almost fluorescent blend of miner’s lettuce, dogwood, paintbrush, lupine, unfurling fern, and sapling of oak and conifer in numbers dense as constellations. One look down and I must swiftly lift my foot before it touches earth — a comical reversal that just about throws me off-balance. Two conifer saplings were underfoot.
Down the slope, a snag is ringing with cicada sounds. It stops when I stop. So I slip behind a large stump and allow fifteen to minutes creep by.
A black-backed woodpecker alights on the snag. Black on black, he virtually disappears — all but a bright spot of gold on his head. The high-pitched cicada sounds begin again with gusto.
A noodle-like larva flails around in his beak as the woodpecker rappels scratchily down the burned bark. He pauses at a round, perfectly beveled hole, where a baby black-backed woodpecker shrills like a cicada, barely able to contain its exhilaration. Within three seconds, the adult has stuffed food down his baby’s still-singing gullet — and vanished.
Click here for a film by Maya Khosla on the black-backed woodpecker. This short film is a preview of a longer film about the black-backed woodpecker and forest post-fire rejuvenation:
Searching for Gold Spot.
The film is located at the bottom of the page.
–Photos by the author, Maya Khosla. © 2015