(Published in Orion and The Dark Mountain Project)
Lately, as everyone knows, Seattle has been smoky, the air quality Victorian, the particulate levels exceedingly high. Particulates: the particular bits of the burning things, the things burning being the Northwest’s forests, the forests and their beings.
Which are first of all trees: snags, sprouts, saplings, old growth, monoculture third growth firs. And spruce needles, big leaf maple twigs, alder catkins, yellowing green cottonwood leaves, hemlock heartwood, root tannins of yellow cedar, pitchy upright alpine fir cones, resin blisters of western white pine, the handsbreadth-thick bark of old Douglas-firs. And farther east, the puzzle pieces flaking off of ponderosa pines, pines that are impervious to fire to a point – and then past that point ponderosa needles, branches, limbs.
And the smoke is the claw marks in aspen trees climbed by bear cubs, and the black scars in the white bark of birches where elk scratched their antlers. It is mycelium-laced snags sprouting witch’s butter and artist’s conk and varnished red-brown reishi. It is the orange punk of ancient Western red-cedar stumps. The spring green of bitter cherry saplings. It is whole alder leaves, blackened and untouchably delicate, swirled up, blown south, crushed finally by air.
The haze between the hills is blacktail deer hair caught in salmonberry thorns, chickeree middens and the stumps that held them and the chickerees too when the fire trapped them. It is empty shells (brown-spotted, pale blue) in Swainson’s thrush nests in curving Douglas maple trees. It is flame-orange Northern Flicker feathers fallen in sword ferns, and the sword ferns. It is licorice fern, deer fern, maidenhair fern, bracken. It is dry and dormant mosses flash-charred into dust.
The dust in our lungs is lettuce lung and lungwort, pimpled kidney and peppered moon, frog pelt and freckle pelt, forking and beaded bone, ragbag and tattered rag, antlered perfume, sulphur stubble and common witch’s hair. Blood spattered beard. False pixie cup. Devil’s matchstick.
The weird redness in the few beams of sunlight is the berry seeds from black bears’ scat. And the berry bushes: huckleberries red black blue, serviceberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, blackberries, black raspberries, dewberries, elderberries, snowberries, gooseberries, mooseberries, kinnikinnick, salal. It is cow parsnip and lady’s slipper, columbine and bleeding heart. It is the foxglove and fireweed of clear cuts and the trillium and wood violet of old forest glades. It is the medicine of devil’s club and corn lily.
The rasp in our throats is slime from stones in small streams turned to steam. It is the rust of broken culverts in old logging roads, pressure-treated posts holding road signs and trail signs, the grasses and oxeye daisies that grow in gravel roads. It is the tarred wood of bridges. It is melted asphalt.
The orange tint to the moon is the burnt bones of long-dead wolves, the flesh of whole voles. It is the black and yellow millipedes that smell like almonds when scared. It is the leaves the aplodontia dried and stacked like hay for the winter. It is the pearly eggs of slugs. It is spider webs and spiders, iridescent flies. It is thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes. It is weasels and martens and fishers, Pacific tree frog, giant salamander, old and slow-moving lynx.
All of them burning, rising, floating, flying, settling in our lungs, on our skin, on lawns, skyscrapers, and lakes. A film in our water glasses, grime on our windshields, dust on our backyard tomatoes. Hundreds of miles from where they grew, these forest particles become part of our place. There is no line, now, if there ever was, between there and here, burning and breathing, their life and our own.