A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. --Aldo Leopold, "Thinking Like a Mountain"
Within the last few hours, the Wallow Fire raging in Arizona's White Mountains has increased to nearly 390,000 acres, resulting in a forced evacuation of Springerville and Eager. They're mostly the same funky little town, still kept separate probably by an old feud or some quirky story (like another White Mountain town, Show Low, which got its name from a turn of the cards). If you're an outdoorsy person, it's hard not to love this part of the state -- great hiking and camping.
And now the landscapes so many of us have enjoyed will be missing for a long time.
"That forest is our home and community. Our house is burning down whether we lose structures or not." -- James Nelson, Vice Mayor, Eager
This is a special place being swallowed by hell. Thankfully, no one has died from the Wallow Fire, which officially began on May 29, and "only" a dozen structures or so have been destroyed so far. Good thoughts go out to the firefighters and families, because the potential is there for the blaze to whip through a community like Springerville or Greer, a gorgeous sliver of a town tucked into the Ponderosa folds of the state's highest land, with communities like Hannagan's Meadow at more than 9,000 feet, often the TV weatherdude's "coldest place in the state."
About a month ago the historic Greer Lodge burned down and just today, as a wall of fire bears down on the entire town, they announced it was arson. Probably a few Arizonans reading this have spent a night at the Greer Lodge and thrown back way too many at the bar. But I digress. Within the hour they've announced that the fire may "overtake" Greer. God. In addition to the family homes and small businesses, if that little place lost its Butterfly Lodge Museum it would be a travesty -- one of the finest small-town museums you'll ever encounter. But shit, it's a log cabin, a huge chapter of that area's fascinating story could be gone.
In addition to threatened institutions and homes, the area is sacred to many naturalists. Just as the East has Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond outside Concord, the Mecca of ecological thought for many, here we have Escudilla Mountain near Springerville, the site of Aldo Leopold's wolf-shooting epiphany. Last year I hiked Escudilla, which is next to the snug little burg of Nutrioso. At the trailhead there's that wooden "Wilderness Area" sign, and you remember that Aldo Leopold created the nation's first Wilderness Area in New Mexico in 1924, and without his vision there likely never would've been a 1964 Wilderness Act -- the federal stewardship agency of the hillside in Escudilla where I sat that day, pulled out a ragged copy of A Sand County Almanac, and read.
Leopold did not write "Thinking Like a Mountain" until 1944, but the experience he describes in that essay's few pages took place in 1909 near Escudilla. It took him that long to digest, understand, and explain his encounter with the wolf and mountain. In 1909, he had only been in the Southwest a few months, a new US Forest Service recruit fresh out of Yale, when he shot the mother wolf whose dying eyes eventually opened his eyes:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Some have wondered if Leopold really had that experience, or if he invented it to serve as a rhetorical device. I never really cared, because it's the lesson in the essay -- that humans are part of the mountain, not its lord -- that matters. But I recently heard historian Susan Flader at a conference, and she said they found "the" letter that proves Leopold shot a wolf at this time at this place. Dr. Flader, who wrote the first major study of Leopold in the 70s, showed a new documentary that takes you to the spot. Arizona's Walden.
And now it's burning.
A few weeks ago, I sat on a 7,800-foot ridge and looked over the land Apaches had wandered across since the 1400s, the land Aldo Leopold camped on for weeks at a time. "I'm lucky to be here in advance of the big works," he wrote his parents in 1909, "I wouldn't trade it for anything under the sun."
Neither would I. But no one's talking about a trade. It's being taken by the second largest fire in Arizona's history.
Fire officials said the following communities have been evacuated: Springerville, Sunrise, Greer, Blue River, Alpine, Nutrioso, Eagar, South Fork, Hannagan Meadow Lodge, Sprucedale Guest Ranch, Brentwood Church Camp, Hannagan campground, KP campground, West Fork Black River campground, East Fork Black River campground, Escudilla Mountain Estates, Bonita, White Mtn. Acres, Dog Patch and the H-V Ranch.
Friendly faces, loved landscapes, historic structures, cherished moments.