We drove into the smoke, hell-bent on passing through, not knowing what we’d find.
The answer was of course as equally horrendous as we had only heard or supposéd many times upon report of wildland fires whose smoke was but a trifle, sometimes stifling, never tangible as the looming sooty walls of stone on which the headlights shone.
Around a shrouded corner and under pale bloody light of the full and swollen moon
Emerged a sight as chilling as any human corpse could be, though its animation a macabre mercy;
The blackened roadside slopes had not prepared us for the awful truth of their genesis in hell:
A hillside, no, more like a field of stars swung through the smoke from below into this world —
The twinkling spots of flame rose high above the river’s banks
Like some Nordic, alpine city on a mountainside in winter,
Like a city on the precipice of night:
Countless flames like citizens of Hades let loose for just this night to frolic in the trees, but like the devil’s Midas all their touch turn trees to ash; still they orgy in unleashing.
Further round the bend a caravan of cars assembled, valley-dwellers hoping same to catch the night’s last guidance
But now all thoughts of home turned skyward and at the burning hill above the stream.
From roasting rows of trees pushing fore the fire’s periphery a shower of sparks flew like needle pixies —
The cracking crashing sounds of aged timber echoes through the canyon and landing hushes any triviality.
A hundred thousand years of vegetation burns before our eyes; the slow and silent work of worms and bugs who now die writhing, baking.
The punisher has done his job — a ninety-hour work week —
And now he rests against his car and smokes a glowing rod.
We the powerless gaze in gawking wonder
In awe we slaves to powers beyond our knowing or even semblance of control
For most our days we feign content to imagine we determine destiny
But silent lie when faced with all the truth of what that would come to mean:
The fate of untold generations must lie between our fingers if we are to pretend that even for an instant we are the one who knows what wills may come
Still drive we onward through thicking smoke and past the signs of peril
Past the campers lodged on side of road
Past flashing lights that said the road is closed
But we the stubborn, we the faithful, who forge ahead to know what must be known
Though the view we glimpse is fateful it is fuller than any unknowing would have shown
We have no safety; only grace that shows us other paths and shelters us when we foolish choose to go the one forbidden.
The road is clear; the pilot car
Has come before and comes once more
Tonight before the gates are shut on either side of hell and the heroes do their duty.
Oh what long night
Oh what brave souls
Oh what tortured souls
Of trees released into that unforgiving night
From ember trunks stretching one last time to touch the sky,
Wreathed in flame a final glory, sacrificed to guard the world’s health
In place of men who can do no better than to explode every thing of power that they find: not men, mere boys without instruction
And without will to be instructed
Who will not learn though shown up close the effect of their denial.
The dying of these trees is only and just as natural as the killing of Christ upon a tree
So mortalized by Constantine into a bloody burning sword.
Make war no more! Put down that sword!
The very spot where Christ was killed has burned a thousand times and still the trees return to serve:
Their palms to grasp the ground in adoration - their trunks to hang that holy trunk of flesh
And now their leaves are burning, flying blazing on the wind
Those holy trunks filled with the flame that lit ran through wires but just as well may have lit a cigarette four days ago.
Relieve the trees
Relieve your lungs and kill the fire between your fingers — let go the power you claim to control before your weakness slips and blocks the road for days.
Like Christ the moon is bleeding too
Her face obscured by smoke she sits above horizon jagged
And cries for she has seen, has pulled these tree-forms loose from soil and has guided tides to bring the water round the world and now they burn, her children burn and the ashes rise to meet her.
God speed you rising embers may you touch the outer reaches of the atmosphere where space’s cold and lasting sleep may not disturb your slumber,
May Mother Moon shower you with kisses back to earth where you will fall as ash and one day eons later rise to build a tree which will not burn but grow until it sighing topples into groves of ferns which lay it down to rest and guide its flesh to willing grateful worms and roots of plants which have not been and will never live to see a fire explode into the unkempt and tangled ignorance that Man has left to ember.
When finally they showed us through
The devastation was severe: for miles the slopes still burned with lines of fire which on their own would garner fear but as it were they lonely drew their pace to near the water’s surface: the fire stooped to stare upon its awesome terrible face.
The hulls of barns, the posts where houses once had stood, a dozen gutted trucks and hanging headless road signs littered roadside: a burnt and flapping stripéd flag hung half at ashy mast to preside over the procession passing humbly.
We passed halfway the westward-bound and soon-to-be humbled train of cars with bright lights all a-blazing. They had not seen the sights to come and for that we must forgave them.
A blinking truck stood guard the road headed northward toward Helena: the cursed town for which the blaze was named. Once Nazi signs had cursed its wood and brambles grew through its barn and houses. The apple trees bore late no fruit and post boxes stood vacant decades. Only pickers, vandals, vagrants passed through the town whose fate we did not know. Now over the Trinity, past the fire base, past the brilliant stadium lighting, past the checkpoint, Junction City, stalwart locals gleaning information from tired firefighters.
Up the mountain behind two dozen flickering tail lights like fires on the hillside.