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Thoughts on wildfires and their aftermath…

23+25/7/22

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, will have seen the photos I posted of the forest fire that burnt through the hills near the village n the Valdorba/San Martin de Unx area of Navarra where I stay on weekends outside Pamplona.

From sunrise we saw the fire approach with a strong wind behind it.

The fire came close, about a km away, but the wind thankfully shifted and it did not come up the other side of the valley towards us in the end, though we did have to evacuate officially after emptying the house of anything we wished to save – which for me only amounted to the spare medicines I keep here, one book from my large collection and a couple of jumpers with sentimental value. I did think it prudent to take 800 year old statue of the Virgin Mary out of the little church, just in case.

You can see the windmills in the smoke. Only one was damaged. The rest have been turned back on and are back supplying the province as they have for 25 years.

The fires here are not generally set by farmers looking to clear land, though they are sometimes caused by accidental sparks from machinery during harvesting. The extreme heat and extended drought made any spark potentially disastrous, and the high winds made fires spread almost unstoppably – there were several over that same weekend in the province.

The cause of this fire hasn’t been clarified, but the local farmers union are adamant that the underlying problem is the reduction in sheep grazing on the hillsides and the environmentalists push to leave the mountains to themselves rather than intensively manage them…

Well, I hadn’t been able to go up to see the aftereffects of the disaster until a few days ago – now a month after the event.

I cycled down to the valley to the village of Maquiriain which was close to being burnt, but was eventually also saved, up along the main road that was the final fire break, to a village at the head of the valley called, Olleta, and from there turned up to the top of the hill and then back along the tracks joining the windmills.

It was a long cycle, and hot – the tail end of another heat wave that passed over us the week before. In the interim there had been a storm or two, but mostly dry sunny days with the chilly north wind blowing as usual.

First observation:

The most obvious thing is that the experiment of planting pine trees was a huge error, just like it is in many other areas of the world. The living trees left should be felled for timber or paper and native trees let grow – or be planted or seeded from local trees if necessary – instead.

The road built to build and service the windmills makes mountain biking an easier prospect, and helped with the fire extinguishing, though the firemen could not hold the fire back at this point and it continued down the hill to the right, towards my house.

The trees that burnt most were pines and those nearby suffered from the heat.

The densest stands of oak did not suffer so much and seemed to have protected one another (probably because of increased humidity within copses) and even some fields.

Here you can see the burnt pines and the green are all oak, of both evergreen and sessile species.

The huge snowfall we had in October didn’t seem to have dropped so many boughs in the area I saw as in trees around our village, so probably didn’t have a huge effect, but I did see that under the trees with fallen limbs there was more ash when the wood burnt, and the trees probably also suffered from more open canopy effects.

These young oaks seem completely dry but some new growth has sprouted, as seen in the next image.

The same tree showing where a branch was broken by the winter’s heavy snowfall, and some new growth: green against the heat-killed brown leaves.

The juniper bushes burnt to crisps, as did a lot of box, and some other small shrubs I’d know the name of, though that has to include roses and brambles. These will regenerate, I suppose from seed, and some brambles are already coming up. The evergreen oaks are sprouting – from trunks that lost all their leaves and are only sticks, as well as those with shrivelled brown foliage.

Those with trunks too badly burnt have some sprouts from roots, and I suspect more will come with rains and patience for them to get to the surface.

These are young trees and were all badly damaged by the fire, but at their bases, new growth has come through the charred soil.
You can see thought the trunks are charred, the roots are alive and deep, and a new stem has sprouted, despite the lack of rain.

The sheep or other grazers would have probably not had changed much at all. The grass would have been eaten before it burned, yes, but not the juniper and box, as even the horses don’t od much to stop it, so fire is actually the best way to reduce it, and the forest will benefit long term – if the climate change can be reduced in time to have any forest.

The farmers union and other lobby groups are sponsoring a story-telling event for the local kids: how to avoid causing fires in the future. One hopes it does not slant towards recounting legends and myths of the old days… when the mountain was not wild, but was more like a commons-like park or ranch.

Just to be clear, I am in favour of cattle on the hill, as I am the horses, but I wonder if the farmers union would agree that an underlying condition we need to deal with is reducing the CH4 levels from intensive cow production so as to reduce climate change leading to heat waves and forest fires of the future…

Missing things before they’re gone

            The Lilacs Have Already Faded

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We wait as children for Christmas, 

The bursting forth of buds, spread of

Poppies along bearding barley fields;

Delighting in drifting aspen down.

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But if we perchance glance away 

During spring’s apotheosis we find

The lilacs have already faded, and

Summer swiftly advances unto autumn.

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Just as a blink allows the bastards

Take flame and machine to the trees,

Scraping drains in absence of rain,

Leaving shoots shorn dead as winter.

I wrote this last week when I was in my garden, seeing that the patch I didn’t mow the week before now sported a lovely little orchid.

But the lilac I had planted just beyond had lost its one flowerhead, having faded to brown already in the space from one weekend to the next.

And I thought of how quickly the spring passes, as usually, even when we vow not to miss it. It’s too short, even when its only summer on its way, we all know where summer leads….

Then I saw while on a cycle what the local roads authority had done, in May, to the hedges and scrub alongside the roads around the village – gone along with who knows what machinery and razed everything down to the ground. Of course, if they discovered plastic rubbish under that bush, they left that there.

The brown should be brambles and other scrub. Even the poplars got shorn, as if we’re expecting double-decker buses to come along this road…

What kind of mindset allows this to happen? Where are the leaders?

Any pretence that this was done to aid vehicle passage is demonstrably false given the destruction of vegetation many metres on the far side of the safety barrier on the road.

The locals just shrugged it off. It seems they think all this can be infinitely replaced, not that it’s a last bastion of such beauty.

The trees upon the slope on the left help slow down erosion. There used to be more underneath them.

Is it not possible to see that we are losing things before they’re lost, or are we doomed to miss only what we have completely exterminated?

if you can see the black plastic, then whoever cut this down to the stumps should have seen it too, and should have done the right thing.

The village in the north of Spain is not the only place where such destruction takes place, of course. Just last week a huge swath of Killarney National Park was burned by negligence or intentional malice.

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On the other hand, I just finished reading Anne Frank’s diary for the second time, after about a 35 year gap… and I was struck by her passages about Nature.

Just like many during the lockdowns we went through, Anne realised that joy and peace can come from looking at the sky and the trees. Of course, even at thirteen and fourteen, Anne Frank was a very self-aware person compared to most around her, even then, never mind now.

I took snaps of the paragraphs. She wonders if her confinement indoors so long has made her so “mad about Nature” which is probably true to some extent, just as it was for many others. But she sees it as a medicine, “which can be shared by rich and poor alike,” and “the one thing for which there is no substitute.”

I’ve never tried valerian or bromide, but next time you feel shit, try looking at the sky. I recommend it, too.
This was a book I recommended to my students as soon as went into lockdown last year. Things changed for them, but how much did they change? I wonder.

Let that last like of the upper paragraph sink in. This was said 60 years ago, before the shit started to hit the fan ecologically. Have we absorbed that information yet?

My question is whether that last line has sunk into our collective consciousness, or it is just that we can’t fathom our existence without Nature – even it if is out there, waiting for when we want it, after we’re released from prison, or our confinement, or we fancy a walk away from our computers? Until it isn’t.

And can we act as if something is lost before it actually is, giving us the chance to save it at the last minute.

Because we’re down to the last minute.

Winter Poem

Closing up Camp

 

Fish flash lethargically argent in the creek,

Creeping upstream, gleaning the last

Of the caddis flies until torpor takes them.

 

Sun beams golden in glowing leaves but slants

Lower now, more weakly heating us, huddled

On the morning porch hugging our mugs.

 

We don’t swim before breakfast, only

Paddle after our afternoon nap, picking black

And other berries to boil jam and packing

Pumpkins for the car; chopping lumber

 

For the evening fire still keeps off falling

Chill, but within weeks we will give in to

Winter’s grip and slip away to the city.

 

Closing shutters against storms and snow,

Emptying water tanks and pipes from icing,

Clearing closets of anything attracting rodents

Or racoons and slowly strolling round the

Leaf-strewn lawn, taking one last long look

Out across the fall-reflective lake, then forsaking.

 

Still, thinking of spring keeps back sadness,

Slipping through seasons until suddenly

It’s our last, and we must shut up for good,

Or have it opened sadly in our absence,

Our passage through camp just a forest path.

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I write this back in September, thinking of the camp of my friend Tamir, who would have turned 60 a few days ago. I don’t have many photos of his summer place in autumn, but I am sure right now it’s deep in snow and the lake is starting to freeze over till springtime. Thus is life, as long as we still have springtime. And memories that shine like sunlight to keep us warm meanwhile.

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