Tom Erickson
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After the Fire

Thomas Erickson

circa 1992


Two weeks ago I spent a weekend in Yosemite. I spent most of the time hiking through an area of forest on the north west flank of Yosemite that was burned in the big fires a couple of years ago. I was interested in seeing to what degree the area was recovering.

I hadn't imagined that a forest of blackened tree trunks could be beautiful. The charred trunks themselves were rather beautiful, with the charcoal surfaces smoothed and polished by two years of rain. But what was particularly striking was that the forest floor was carpeted with wildflowers--lupine, penstemon, wild iris, and others I couldn't identify. On reflection, this isn't surprising, since in terms of sunlight, it is now more a meadow than a forest. And, of course, there are presumably quite a few free nutrients in the soil. It was evident that the recovery was still in its early stages. Various types and mixtures of flowers covered various areas. Walking along the trail one would pass from an area where lupines predominated, to an area dominated by ferns, to a barren area, yet to be colonized. There was surprisingly little erosion -- perhaps because the tree root structures remained intact long enough so that the pioneer plants could get established.

The forest life was not restricted to plants. Along with all the flowers were an equal complement of bees. To add to the picture, California is experiencing an unusually heavy butterfly migration, and the Painted Ladies (as I believe they are called) were everywhere in evidence. Although they zigged and zagged seemingly at random, like your average butterfly, if you watched for a while you could see that they were all moving in the same direction -- in this case, up the side of the mountain. It was uncanny to sit amidst the blackened stumps and wildflowers, and watch thousands of butterflies slowly drifting up the mountain. In addition to the bees and butterflies there were a lot of woodpeckers: there was an almost continual rapping going on. I was surprised that the woodpeckers were finding such good eating in the trees. On closer inspection, I noticed that almost every trunk had various forms of shelf fungus growing out of it, and that, in turn, almost every piece of fungus I broke off, had a worm, or worm hole within it. It struck me that the fire has, in a sense, turned the forest biome inside out. The parts of the forest that formerly were most alive -- the canopy, the cambium of the trees -- are dead, and that has turned the forest floor and the interior of the charred trunks into the most fecund habitats.

I suppose a profound and uplifting moral could be drawn from this, but I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader...

p.s. If this inspires you to explore burned areas, try to stay on trails and, in general, be very gentle. They're very fragile, and hiking practices that are fine in ordinary areas can increase erosion and impede plant recovery.


Tom Erickson

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