Some retreats are for escaping problems; others are for confronting them. As I wrote in my last post, my cabin time this year was a time for mourning our burned forest as well as finding new hope. I had spent the year since my dramatic escape from the flames imagining the extent of the burn, wondering what precious treasures had survived–the bird houses across the creek? the gigantic tree in my childhood Thinking Place? the aspen grove near Sentinal Falls? I had read scientific papers analyzing the regrowth in nearby Yellowstone Park and learned about serotinous lodgepole pinecones and the fertilizing effects of elk urine on burned terrain. I knew about the stages of grief when losing a loved one; now I needed to adapt those and other bits of wisdom to the “loss” of a forest…which isn’t really a loss at all, since fire is part of the forest’s life.
“Don’t just do something, sit there.”
I’ve run across this phrase in several books about Buddhism; for example, it’s the title of a meditation instruction book by Sylvia Boorstein. Since the cabin is at 7500 feet, I usually spend the first couple of days there sleeping as much as possible and doing only minimal work. This year I let myself off the hook completely since my sister had already opened the cabin and swept the flies. I sat in the living room and enjoyed the family treasures which I would not have been able to save: my father’s flower pictures, the antique leather rocking chair, handmade afghans and pillows, and even the creepy bearskin rug which used to give me nightmares. I sat on the porch and stared at the mountains, especially the charred remains of the trail I had hiked down that day. I rejoiced in the return of more moose than I had ever seen, and I put out peanuts for the chipmunks. I waited for my heart to tell me what I needed to do next.
Clarify the source of grief
I could already see a good deal of regrowth of the meadows and the ground cover, and as a former biology student I knew the next few years would be fascinating. Our cabin and most of the others in the area were safe; we didn’t even have smoke damage in ours. No one was hurt in this fire. If it had to happen–and we were at least fifty years overdue for a fire in this canyon–we had the best possible outcome. So what did I really have to grieve?
Two themes emerged: First, the cabin has always been my safe haven. My father bought it when I was one year old; as a physician he needed a place away from life-or-death phone calls, where he could sleep uninterrupted and hike into the wilderness. I still go there to escape all the demands of the 24/7 wired-in urban lifestyle. When by a twist of circumstance I found myself nearly trapped in a forest fire, my life endangered by awesome forces beyond any human control, I lost my image of Camp Senia as my personal paradise. We all live each moment in the illusion that nothing bad will happen to us; when that illusion is shattered we need time to slowly rebuild it. But we live the rest of our lives knowing the safety net isn’t real.
Secondly, I was angry that I was alone on that trail. For many years the cabin was the place our family gathered. The car accident that killed my father in 2000 and left my mother disabled changed the dynamics there forever. Now I divide the summer with my sisters, perhaps overlapping with them a day or two, and we carefully arrange our schedules so that our mother isn’t alone there. My grown children, busy with school and careers, have managed to meet with us there twice in the last seven years. My husband needs to spend most of his time with his own aging parents in town. I will be spending more time alone at the cabin in the second half of my life; its meaning and purpose are changing for me. I needed to understand exactly what kind of loss I was feeling before I could begin to heal.
Allow mourning to proceed at its own pace
Our cabin is part of a community of around twenty cabins, most with several generations tied to them. Some owners were able to come in last fall; others began trickling in when the season began on Memorial Day. Linda told me she spent most of last September sitting on her porch and crying. By the time I arrived on July 2, she was collecting stories for a camp history. When my sister arrived on July 13, in shock at her first view of the burn, I was happily babbling about green ribbons along the streams and trails. We all had to grieve in our own way and in our own time.
Find an active way to alleviate grief
After my first few days I began to obsess about new curtains and rugs; I couldn’t fix the forest but I had power within. I straightened rock paths, raked the holes where trees were uprooted by the windstorm, collected firewood to replace our burned woodpile, and started a book exchange. My neighbor Sharon was zealously obliterating the burned trees around her cabin so she wouldn’t have to look at them, and she happily used insurance money to replace her smoke-damaged furniture and linens. Ross came in last fall and fixed the foundation on the community bathhouse; others repaired the water system, replacing the melted plastic pipes. We all seemed determined to get past the damage by improving what was left.
Look for the green once you have processed the black
The night before the fire, I happened to look up at the full moon which was covered for a moment by a fluffy cloud. I saw for the first time a real silver lining. I kept that image with me in the days that followed. Even the worst disasters usually have some compensation.
Fire cleans out a forest which is overgrown, diseased, and at the end of its life cycle. Pinecones open in the heat of fire and release their seeds. Soil is enriched by the ash, and greater light encourages new meadows and underbrush. New growth is healthier and attracts animals. Dead trees provide habitat.
We had dreaded the fire we knew was inevitable; now it has come and gone. We have a few years to breathe more easily, although we’ll always have to keep “defensible space” around our cabins. I found I could relax in a way that I hadn’t for several years. We also have a greater sense of community stemming from the adventures we shared.
Sense the time to let go of the grief
Grief never leaves completely. I found myself sobbing on my favorite hiking trail, not because the trail was burned, but because I missed my dad acutely in that moment. After nine years the pain of his death has retreated, but it still sneaks up on me at times. Still, after the first year, I remember feeling a lightening of the burden; I could smile more easily, and eventually his loss became a natural part of my own story.
A time does come when looking forward is easier than looking back. Sit still, listen, and you will know when you’re there.