In the weeks and months following a devastating wildfire, artist Alisha Anderson bears witness to a stand of scorched evergreen trees in the forests of Oregon within the ancestral lands of the Cowlitz people.
First remnants of fire.
I did not anticipate the smell—charcoal, the smell of last embers.
Steep and loose terrain, and it is strange to reach for a tree—as I do so often for support—and feel bark give way at my touch.
All around me: Trunks burnt to black satin.
Marks of black: How far the fire rose.
They feel like a drawing left unfinished.
I sat on the ridge today, staring at fog—watching it shift the landscape without a sound.
It reminded me that this all began with vapor. It began with smoke, and me on that plane, flying through a haze of diffused matter, knowing the loss it meant below.
And I flew through it. Through it.
I could not keep it at a distance. I had to see what it meant on soil.
I had to feel loss.
I had to face it.
For I fear it will only be increasing.
Rain, again. Trees, wet.
Bark turns to black liquid under my fingertips. Again and again, bark leaves tree, finding me.
Here, my hands are the ones being marked.
on this bed of scorched needles,
Will some survive?
I’ve measured stems and crowns.
Used equations to find
the thickness of bark,
the duration of heat,
the probability of survival.
All numbers that don’t know what the tree knows.
Ideas follow me up these slopes. Today—ideas from texts illustrated by graph and number. They speak of fire coursing through trees as beneficial.
It is all part of a cycle, they say.
So move on, I hear.
Yet I question “cycle.”
Yes. There is continuation. But not of this life. Not of these trees.
So should I not mourn?
No one is here to tell me stories of what it was like. I enter and meet a shrinking of color, a clearing of view: a stand void of evergreen.
I always thought memory was essential to feel loss,
but here I feel it through contrast.
I hold tree dust—yellow from growth—in one hand, and tree dust—black from burning—in the other. I feel a weight in both.
Photosynthesis and fire—their equations, of inputs and outputs, reverse each other. One: the slow accrual of light. The other: its quickened unraveling. Fire is decomposition, sped up.
It is winged change, of which I feel culpable.
At times the smell will return—
borne of moisture,
borne of wind—
the smell of last embers,
as if it’s all still burning.
I want so desperately to help.
It’s been a slow admittance:
I can do nothing for this stand of trees.
I simply sit,
Is it enough just to be with them?
More fell by the last rainstorm.
hands in stream,
bracing against the rush,
praying for courage
Snow to shins. Sharp wind in ears. The trees (and me), stiff with cold.
The stream flows. Time unfolds. Shadows move more than me.
Tracks on my trail: the bears are awake. Spring has arrived.
enclosed by green.
in space carved open
Sitting here changes my step there.
More snags falling, as the unscorched begin to grow.
The bed of needles is warm again.
hands under head.
empty branches against blue sky.
It is likely my last time.
This I must remember:
How it feels to be beneath them.