Outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers in the Pacific Northwest wander in a collectively misty eyed daze today. Their playground, cathedral, and the pallet on which the artist many call “God” performed some of his his best work is gone. It has all been savagely and suddenly taken, never to be replaced in any of our lifetimes. Social media is filled with wonderful, happy pictures of adventures and smiles, posted by people thinking to themselves, “I can’t believe this happened. I was just there.” For many, Eagle Creek and the areas that surround it are where they first fell in love with the outdoors and realized the power of mother nature.
When events like this happen, we are always left to question when is the right time to learn from it. Often times, the expression, “too soon….too soon” is heard as people claim they need to have time to grieve and process. I get it, I understand. The window of learning closes faster and faster these days, so I choose now as the time we try and learn from this tragedy. If you think the learning time is better delayed, I understand. I’m sorry for your loss, please come back when you are ready. Sometimes the lesson is most successful while the audience is most captive. That is why I think now is the time we should learn from this teacher of terrible lessons, the Eagle Creek fire.
WE NEED TO DO ALL WE CAN TO PREVENT FUTURE FOREST FIRES FROM EVER STARTING.
I’ve seen lots of emotional posts across social media calling for the head of the fifteen year old that started the fire, and his parents. I’ve seen others call for compassion and forgiveness, challenging people to remember mistakes they made when they were fifteen. I understand both points of view. I think what happens to the individual who started the fire is between him, his family, and the legal system. The rest of us need to move forward to preventing something like this from happening again. We need to fight for laws and education that make protecting our beautiful forests a priority.
The 2018 budget proposed by President Trump, soon to be debated by Congress, includes a $300 million dollar reduction to the budget for fighting forest fires, as well as $50 million reduction in forest fire prevention measures like education, signage, and patrol. Budgets are like a moral mission statement. They are a pronouncement of what is important to us. If protecting our forests is a priority to us, our budgets need to reflect that. We need to force our government at the state and national level to increase funding to levels that make a clear how we feel about protecting the greatest gift God gave us, the earth.
We also need to change our culture around fire. We literally need to me more respectful of “playing with fire.” I will raise my hand and say I am guilty, and need to get better. I have built huge camp fires, put things in them that had no business being in them, and had fires when and where I was not supposed to. I know that I am far from the only one. I have used illegal fireworks. In short, I have not been respectful enough of the dangers with which I was flirting. After watching one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever enjoyed be destroyed, I know I need to make changes. I hope that others learn from this moment as well.
BEAUTY IS PRECIOUS, AND CAN BE TAKEN AWAY IN AN INSTANT
There is a common feeling of disbelief amongst the grieving people of the northwest today. They think back to hikes and good times they had in the gorge just days or weeks ago. The last time they were on the Eagle Creek trail, or looking down at the beauty below Angel’s Rest, they never spent one second thinking about how it might be their last. That is the worst part about last times, we seldom realize we are in the middle of them. Our sadness is partially about views, trees, and waterfalls that will never be the same, but it also mostly about the people they were with while enjoying those vistas. As we thumb through the smiley and triumphant photos of great days gone by, we see more than just themselves. We see the people we were with. Legendary Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman was famous for saying, “It is later than you think” to his track athletes. Mother nature has reminded us in heartless terms that life is moving fast, and it is later than we think.
We all have favorite memories from the gorge. One of mine happened just a few weeks ago. I have been battling health problems for nearly five months, and haven’t been able to physically do much. My mom, sister and brother in law were kind enough to drive from Eugene to Portland to pick up up and take me for a drive up to the gorge. I’ll always remember that day. Having an ice cream cone with my mother at the Multnomah Falls Lodge, or staring in wonder and the seemingly endless majesty of the gorge from the Vista House. I doubt anyone that many people who enjoyed the view from the Vista House in the past few years ever stopped to think that it could be their last time. We rarely do.
MOVING FORWARD: THE ONLY CHOICE
When a person you love and care about dies, you have the opportunity to gather with loved ones to collectively mourn, reminisce, and honor the fallen. That doesn’t happen when the places we love are taken from us. That is too bad, it probably should. We are left very few avenues to share our common loss.
The good news is that there is still a lot of wonderfully amazing places left in the Pacific Northwest. We have to make sure to protect these places from a similar fate. If we want to continue to enjoy places like Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier, the Wallowas, etc., we must make sure that we are taking actions both personally and collectively to protect these stunning gifts we have received both for ourselves and the us of the future.
We must also continue to get out and vigorously enjoy the lands we love with the people we love while we can. Their are many actual rivers to cross and mountains to climb in our part of the world. We need to get out there and cherish them, because unfortunately as we have just been reminded, it is always later than we think.