Patricia Prijatel

Writer, Reader, Watcher

IMG_3144Our cabin is roughly the size of a two-car garage—20X24-feet—with a deck across most of the front. The giant hollyhock took us about a decade to grow, using seeds from my sister Phyllis’s yard in Pueblo.  It seems happy in it nest next to the rock our neighbor Harold hauled out of the meadow for us; the rock is about 8 feet long and is excellent for little boys to climb on and snakes to live under. My husband, Joe, made the pergola at the far right out of boards from the original deck or son, Josh, and I built more than 20 years ago. Joe also made the swing and the wooden Adirondack chair.  We got the awning four years ago, right after the fire. Because we are remote and our road is unimproved, we had to meet the UPS driver at our mailbox about three miles away and transfer the awning into Mr. Green Jeans, our Toyota 4Runner and schlep it up to the mountain ourselves. We have four small solar panels on the roof that provide 360 watts of power, enough for not much. The trees immediately surrounding the cabin were saved by firefighters, angels with picks and hoses.

 

Our neighbor Dave called to warn us about the fire at about 6 p.m. June 19, 2013. It began at the Spanish Peaks Scout Ranch, about a mile from our little handmade cabin south of Walsenburg, in the foothills of the East Spanish Peak. We had evacuated by 6:20. This video shows the shots I took as we left.

The final shot was taken by Dave, from his property one valley over, shortly after we left and it shows the fireball created by the explosion of our neighbors Jim and Cherie’s home, about a quarter of a mile from our cabin. We had passed it minutes before it burned. Had we been much later—had Dave not warned us about the fire and told us to evacuate—we would have been right in the middle of that bomb.  Thankfully, Jim and Cherie were not home.

NOTE: I am writing a book about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.

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Our mountain valley, in the shadow of the East Spanish Peak in southern Colorado

The Japanese have a concept called shinrin-yoku, roughly translated as forest bathing. It originated in 1982 when the country’s forest agency began to encourage wellbeing to combat the threat of suicide in Japan, which at that time was the highest in the world. The idea is to walk deliberately and slowly in the woods, observing, breathing, and appreciating. The result is a drop in blood pressure and in cortisol, a stress hormone.

Our walks in this land are pure shinrin-yoku. We bathe in the light, the air, the calm of nature.

The views are everything as we hike: vast stretches of mountain grass, thick forests, rock outcroppings. And, always, the mountain. We sometimes run into elk and bears along the way. They always dash off when they see us, elegant and silent.

The silence of the land is one of the things I treasure most here. It’s so quiet we can hear the grass rustle in the wind on the other side of the meadow. No cars, no cellphone conversations, no bass sounds from some kid’s stereo, no blasted leaf blowers. Conservationists are fighting to preserve America’s wild spaces to quiet the country’s jittery nerves. The quality of what they call our “soundscape” is a measure of our stress. Quiet places in nature, with their soothing background sounds of bird chirping and water trickling and wind rushing through the trees, are calming. Cities are perpetually tense. Our land, I believe, is one of the quietest places on earth.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.

It’s 2 a.m. and I am working at a hotel desk in Postojna, Slovenia. I am a college professor from Iowa and I know only halting Slovene, but should anybody need help at this hour, I have all the vocabulary I might need: ne vem and ne razumem—I don’t know and I don’t understand.

Jure, the regular desk clerk is at the train station picking up two of my students who misunderstood the schedule and ended up getting here in the middle of the night instead of yesterday afternoon with the rest of us.

Outside the plate glass window I can see buses that have brought tourists here from Germany and The Netherlands. I pray all those people stay asleep in their rooms above me.

The town’s one taxi driver doesn’t work the graveyard shift, so I convinced Jure to pick up my tardy students.

“But who will take care of the hotel?” he asked.

“I will,” I answered.

“What if somebody needs help?” he asks.

“You will be gone only a few minutes,” I answer.

He finally agrees.

We talk at about 10 p.m., after which he tells me to go up to my room and sleep. He will call me when it is time for the train to arrive and for me to take over the desk. I cannot sleep for worry. What if Kate and Jennifer aren’t on the train after all?  What if they’ve been robbed or attacked? What if, what if? Read the rest of the story here, on my Psychology Today blog.

PHOTO: Southern Colorado’s East Spanish Peak four years after a forest fire

I had just come back from a discouraging walk, full of reminders of the beauty we lost in a forest fire four years ago, and I sat down with my tea to browse Facebook. The photo of the clear ocean off Key West’s coast caught my eye. “The azure waters are returning,” wrote the person who posted the shot, a week after Hurricane Irma. That image has stuck with me, an image of hope and revival. I know from personal experience that such hope in the face of a natural disaster is essential, a bit of blue sky popping out of black clouds.

But I now believe we sometimes go too far and send the message that things are healing nicely when they simply aren’t. In so doing we normalize tragedy and allow those not affected to shrug it off and get back to their coffee or wine or orange juice, or whatever crop hasn’t yet been decimated.

Telling only the good news can create an incomplete and misleading story: that this was just a little aberration, nothing to worry about here. Just move on. The people in California will rebuild. Elon Musk will create a new electric grid for Puerto Rico. It will be better than new.

I don’t think so, but I do think it’s much easier for us to believe that than to face the fact that huge swaths of the American landscape have been destroyed and the land and its people are hurting and will be for years, perhaps forever.

I have juggled this good-news-versus-real-news world since the fire in 2013 that devastated our beautiful mountain valley in southern Colorado. Nearly 70 percent of the trees on our 200 family-owned acres burned, and the fire was so hot the soil itself turned waxy and water-repellant. Foresters call this hydrophobic soil, literally meaning “afraid of water.” Before the fire, we’d had a drought; after, we had floods. The blackened earth was a magnet for torrential rains that saturated our phobic soil and, with no trees and bushes to slow down the water, our tiny creek became a wild river full of burned husks of trees, clumps of grass, mud, even rocks. Read the full article here, on my Psychology Today blog.

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A ridge in the foothills of Colorado’s East Spanish Peak two months after the East Peak Fire

This fearfulness is new. Once a sunset was just a sunset, a raincloud a blessed sign of needed moisture. Now, though, our refuge, our place of peace has an overlay of danger. My confidence in the steadfastness of the mountain and its valleys and ridges has been shaken.

Three years ago was the big event, the disaster, the fire that burned our mountain and its forests, turning the sky a bruise of red, orange, and purple, and leaving the earth an ashen black. But the years after the fire are even harder, with floods, landslides, and confused wildlife whose entire lives have been shattered. More evergreens die each winter and our few patches of green forest continue growing pockmarks of rust, with trees more than a century old breathing their last bits of mountain air, more delayed effects of the fire.

We plant hundreds of seedlings and cut down hundreds of charred trees, turning their glory into woodchips. We’re here to help Nature out. But, we increasingly learn, Nature has her own way and is a whole lot more powerful than silly little humans. And that powerlessness unnerves all of us because we are a bunch of control freaks up here, living tucked into a mountain ridge at 8,000 feet because we’re after our own piece of the wild.

But, while we are in awe of natural forces, we thought we could have our own way here. The fire and floods have told us otherwise. We’re puny, little stick figures shaking our fists at elemental forces—fire, wind, water. We continue to try to find order in it. It is not our way to just let anything take its course. We must control. And when we lose that power, or the sense of it, whether real or imagined, our world shatters. Without order, what do we have? We are frantic to regain our lost balance, but we’re not sure how to do it, and it’s impossible to tell what’s working, what we should do, why we should do it, who the hell we think we are, what the hell is happening.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.

img_0352The view from our cabin deck. The top of the ridge in the left and center of the photo was burned—you can see the skeletons of remaining trees. The meadow was protected, both by the path of the East Peak Fire and by fire fighters, so many of the centuries-old trees there remain. The clouds, while gorgeous when we know they are created by the sun, look a lot like those that were created by the fire.

Giant Evergreens from Tiny Pinecones Grow

January 13, 2017

In the years after a fire, the remaining trees overproduce pinecones to help re-propagate the forest. This photo shows the road in front of our cabin. The trees next to the road were spared fire damage and have thrown off huge bounties of pinecones every year since the East Peak fire of 2013.