Usually my life consists of managing damp feet. Being barefoot in Appalachia, you get used to it.
And the mold, the probable rain any day any time. Making sure clothes don't stay laying out to dry in the sun if you're taking a town trip for fear an evening thunderstorm will restart the whole drying process, leaving mildew in wake. Thick, steamy, sticky attaches to the skin. A constant film of sweat is an expected summer condition. A swamp mid-air, you swim through.
The rain keeps the land succulent and lush, moist and dripping. There's immense morning dew, evaporated on the surface in a few hours time. Tucked into the thick green hedges is a held moisture, a natural kind of fire repellent found deep within the layers of organic matter coming from the earth.
The flowering layer, delicate and speckled with droplets.
The green stalky layer, fibrous and strong, multi-branched yet lacking in resin.
The ground floor, covered in chickweeds, dandelion, quickly growing grasses. The soil hiding under all of that. The yellow dock leaves with a root head sticking out through the soil showing signs that it isn't going anywhere no matter how many times you mow it down.
Flooding was more of a worry, or mold eating the whole mattress alive come August when the air is at its heaviest.
Fire was a rare concern. Of course, the old tobacco barn with semi-illegal wiring and questionable cross beams was bound to fall down at some point. We knew that. We would make a fire to burn brush, really any time but instinct always led us to prioritize when a rain was about to come to truly put a spell on the embers and laying to sleep the burnt brush for good. A river ran under that barn when it rained, chicken shit and buried trash from the last inhabitants upstream merging with fresh 'dancing' spring water all coming together and ensuring no fire was to occur along those lands.
A freak overnight storm sent seven inches and a telephone pole to flood our bridge and the entire spring garden. Rapids of mud, fresh goat shit, sand and silt from the old timer neighbors recent tractor tilled stream-side plot for tobacco. Burly cured. Semi-illegal wiring.
But fire, it was for evenings to cook over, or to burn the cleared prickly blackberry stalks from last year. For smoking hides, or lighting the trough-style wood fired hot tub.
You could walk away from it and do other chores like feed the goats, pull the lamb's quarters and ragweed up for the fifth time that summer.
But one time it didn't rain for 60 days. And fire took Gatlinburg. Southerners used to jungle conditions rarely think about the potential of a tinderbox situation.
But this summer, the first summer I didn't go east in my entire life, I experienced what real dryness feels like. And real threat of fire.
Waking up early to make camp coffee by Colt Killed Creek deep into the remote Bitterroots, only to see a haze over the canyon confusing sense of time as the sun is masked. Lena wakes up full of fear worn heavy on her beautiful face because she knows the reality of fire, being a desert dweller. I, aloof, used to wet feet and all, scuff it off as a distant concern.
To driving the Bitterroot Valley, and seeing the plumes everywhere, the orange tint on everything, the sun hasn't touched my skin in a week. My throat, slightly itchy. A post-apocalyptic scene, diseased trees in flames.
To landing at Erin's cabin come August in blissful solitude, days of not seeing another soul and diving deep into reflection and art making. The smoke-filled sky cleared just in time for an intimate moment with the solar eclipse.
I still slept in my camper with the windows open. The night air could shift just like that, a ghost moving over the land the smoke would wake me up sometimes spilling gray ash on my blankets and face through the camper windows.
Opening the camper door, my Chaco's-- Sugi's old pair I have re-glued together five times this summer at an attempt at making a good thing last-- are covered in soot and fragile ash. Whole burnt leaves drift by. This lasts for days.
We find out the Gorge is on fire. Aloof teenagers sending off bottle rockets catch sick trees. Living matchsticks.
The Colombia River, a carved immense gorge, once smaller, now dammed, the sacred sites under water. A path from the Bitterroots to the Pacific. The hills above the river golden with dead grass. The fire jumps the whole river and grows a monstrous limb into Washington. It speeds its way eating through favorite hiking spots for nature loving Portanders.
We live with it. The firefighters show up one morning at 5 am. That night I decided to park near Rahane's dirt road entrance. They knocked on my camper door first: "Where are all the homes?" they ask. I am merely a visitor. They're nice. The fire is two miles away. So much Douglas Fir crowded together, a three foot thick layer of dead branches. They chuckle at the chance of saving Erin's place without three full days of work the government was not going to pay for. A sense of urgency.
I hatchet out spoons by Adam's cabin and they come around shaking their heads at all the firewood, the wood ends, the debris, tanned squirrel pelts. This has got to go. The dead grass must be cut. Thank god you have a spring fed swimming pond. We like to be self-sufficient too on our farms.
The reality creeps in as I breathe it in thick, eyes burning as Erin and I run up the hill with Blair and Garrett the evening they attempt to visit. We went for a walk that turned into an unintended hike. Breathing it all in too hard. Ash raining on us at sunset, air so smoky it is like the foggiest day on a tall mountain. Asthma sends Blair into panic, not enough oxygen, we must get out of the smoke. Go down, get out, my brain doesn't work.
Fire is devastating. It kills a lot of things. It is the most immense event of death, like a giant bomb taking everything in its path. It also is a source of renewal that the land craves like a bygone lover.
How fragile things are. The systems that rely on everything running perfect all the time.
The resting native seeds. The green succulent growth to come when the rains start to fall again.
I'm still processing what it means to live with fire. To respect it like a dead ancestor. To adknowledge it can take everything, and living in the west you accept that everything you own and have worked for can be taken in a swift wind by a ravaging fire.
Thankfully, this time, Rahane was spared. Erin's cabin surrounded by a crowded thicket of Doug Fir, no chance of surviving a close flame, survived. A rain came when the Gorge fire was close enough 900 firefighters were camped two towns over trying to get this thing under control. As soon as I reluctantly left this magical land, full of ash and hollyhocks, tiny homes and three types of squirrels, the smoke and threat ceased. The firetrucks rolled away. A sigh of relief.
I didn't take many photos of the smoke scenes this summer, neither traversing the Bitterroots or while in the Gorge. Most of my processing was writing-oriented and without the medium of camera. So you can use your imagination to conjure ash covered Chacos and a Gorge aflame.