Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Fire in the Forest

Goddess Kali (from
Scotland's burning,
Scotland's burning,
Look out,
Look out,
Fire! Fire!
Fire! Fire!
Pour on water,
Pour on water!  Anonymous

She is beautiful and powerful like the Goddess Kali. Yet Mother Nature does not always play fair - sometimes she really lets go and reminds us of her natural processes in no uncertain terms. The last three days a fire has played havoc in the pine forests around Conifer, Colorado, and the wind has been an active character, keeping the fire hot and blazing, and grounding the planes that drop fire-retardant.

Fire has been a part of the Earth’s ecosystem forever; it plays a role in improving soil nutrients, increasing diversity and adjusting habitat structure. Fire and the West go hand in hand; droughts do occur and lightning does strike.  Smokey the Bear was a bit misinformed when he spread the word that fire should be suppressed at all costs. It is akin to the idea that humans could control a tsunami – a bit impossible to hold back an ocean wave of that force. Even with the best intentions, humans cannot always control  Mother Nature.

Many plants in the North American prairie and Western coniferous forests actually require fire to germinate their seeds; it is part of their life cycle. The seeds of the Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) need fire to melt the resin that envelopes them in order to be able to germinate. Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) has adapted to fire in the ecosystem by naturally shedding its lower branches, thereby keeping its green canopy of live needles higher up the trunk – this adaptation enables the Ponderosa pine to survive a low intensity or ground fire. Fire will clean up a forest floor. It eliminates the buildup of litter (dead wood and brush) and opens up patches in the forest to additional sunlight, thereby enabling more herbaceous plants to take hold. Over time this increases the biodiversity. In a perfect world without human intervention this was the case:

Most ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of the Intermountain West were open and park-like, with large, majestic trees underlain by dense grass swards. These low- and mid-elevation forests were shaped by millennia of recurrent forest fire, which helped maintain the forests' ecological integrity by reducing tree densities, controlling forest pests, and releasing a steady supply of nutrients into the soil (ONRC)

Photo from the news of the fire in Conifer fanned by winds

Suppression of fire in the ecosystem allows the forest to become too thick and dense – too many trees take hold in very close proximity to one another - - in addition,  there is unchecked accumulation of highly inflammable woody debris. When a fire does occur in this situation of thick understory fuel and densely packed trees - a hot raging fire is the result. Add in windy conditions, the recent warm dry spell, and human settlement and you have a terrible situation.

To control the event of high fuel, hot raging fire, forest management organizations such as Colorado State Forest Service, the USDA Forest Service, and Department of Interior organizations (BLM, BIA, NPS and Department F&W) perform “controlled or prescribed burns” to keep the fuel load in a forested region in check. In addition to the thinning of the tree stands.  This is wise ecological management but difficult to monitor to perfection. In the Conifer fire, many homes have been destroyed (900 people have been evacuated) and several people have died, possibly due to a prescribed burn mixed with the extremely warm dry weather. As a result, blame and shame will result and fire suppression will again be the local policy. The result of fire suppression will be a buildup of fuel and wood debris in the forest. And what happens when the next fire starts due to no human fault or management – but by lightning perhaps?  What do we do when Mother Nature just doesn’t play fair? How can we keep humans and their homes safe in an ecosystem that has a high rate of fire occurrence?

In closing, I want to applaud and bless the fire fighters who put their lives on the line to help the community combat the blaze. Thank you so much!

Smoke along the foothills - photo from the news.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring Solstice and Some Haiku

Balance between light and dark and eco-compost to aid the garden beds
It is official – yesterday in the cycles of the stars and planets, the orbit of our earth dancing around the sun - we have experienced the Spring Equinox. The sun is now turning back from its stay at the Southern Hemisphere and is moving north –  incrementally each day. At the equinox there is a balance point between the hours of sunlight and darkness.  It is a special time of year to reflect on balance in our own lives, our relationships, and the good old gray area we need to embrace. There are gobs of gray area between the extremes of light and dark.

Spring in the Northern Hemisphere puts one on notice that plants will be coming to life again.  Gardens will soon be planted with vegetables and flowers, blossoms on fruiting trees will open, whimsical narcissus and tulips will sprout for our attention, and the dormancy of winter will soon be a mere memory.  The other news is there is much work to be done to bring the garden to fruition; thank goodness the days are becoming longer. Creating a garden has taught me a little patience; it just doesn't happen quickly. There are various steps involved - building the soil, planting seeds and starts, watering, weeding, fertilizing, and much watching and waiting. Watching for growth and waiting for harvest. Months will pass.

A large load of eco-compost has been deposited in my driveway (thank you, Pioneer Sand Company, Inc.) to embellish and built the garden beds. The soil will create a strong foundation in our tiny urban homestead. Soil is the root chakra of the garden; it is the base and the beginning. The soil must be luscious – full of organic matter, chocolate brown, light and airy.  Wheelbarrow loads of this mixture are making their way to the back yard awaiting the next stages of this gardening process.
Working to improve the garden beds

To honor the day a little Haiku (say Hi Koo), a Japanese form of poetry for you. Written in the common method of 17 “on” (sound beats) in three lines of  5, 7, 5 on. Written by Bumble and me!
to be a garden
soil must deeply nurture
to bring green alive

we produce produce
to enjoy only after
tedious toil

tomatoes come
to those of us who in spring
bust sod and tote dirt

beautiful yard
begins to emerge in front
of our sore souls

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Can One Make a Difference?

Can one person really make a difference? Can one person change the course of events or the environment?  Do these changes occur due to timing, fate, coincidence or the honorable action of one person who is the catalyst for an altered world?  I remember reading the book The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono and becoming hopeful. Any student of the world who would like to understand reforestation, ecosystems, and climate alterations would relish reading this simple short story.  This book is a mere 39 pages, which include 20 masterful woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy.  It is a quick yet deep study about a character who made a difference by planting trees in his local earth. If one lingers over the message (maybe for as long  as it takes an acorn to become a seedling), it becomes apparent that this is a story where time is an important character itself; there is no short term satisfaction to be found here but rather a slow and satisfying evolution. A chain reaction occurring because of one man’s work.

The main character, a shepherd named Elzeard Bouffier, decides to plant one hundred acorns a day in a desolate land - long deforested and gone to waste. He admits in the story that he had planted 100,000 acorns so far, in which 20,000 sprouted, and 10,000 of those would probably not make it.  Indeed, the other 10,000 would live on - along with thousands of others he would eventually plant. The man planted because he felt the earth was “dying for want of trees.”

The narrator, who befriends the man while hiking the dry barren region, witnesses his commitment to this job, which is done alone and without pay; he is duly impressed.  After spending a day with the shepherd, he leaves to continue in his journey and eventually serves in WWI; the shepherd and his tree planting fades from his memory.  After a decade, the narrator finally returns to the area to hike and is amazed at the 10 year old oaks - tall and thriving. He also finds other species of trees (beeches) growing in the valleys that were planted by the old man.  Water is running in the once-dry cracked creek beds now lined with willows. The harsh winds that once ravaged the hills are softened into breezes by the lush vegetation.  Since the water is flowing again and the trees are sheltering the winds, humans are making a life for themselves in this region.  It is a magnificent tale and timely with today’s global environmental issues.

Spring has come to Colorado – it is time to think about planting. Maybe an organic vegetable and butterfly garden and a few trees that will share their fruit or shade. A bit of work spent preparing the ground now for vegetable starts that will be planted in May and give back tenfold when they are harvested. The trees will grow and give back in later years. I am off to the back yard to be part of slow but satisfying process of working the earth. I am hopeful I can make a difference.

Work Cited
Giono, Jean. The Man Who Planted Trees. Chelsea, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 1985. Print.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Women's History Month and Skiing High in the Rocky Mountains

Imagine this. It is crisp and cold yet the sun is out, and you are enveloped in a quiet world of deep snow - a white substance that softens the interface between you and nature.  It is a mythical land similar to Narnia. Occasionally the sun glistens off the snow, and you swear it is made of billions of tiny diamonds - a girl's best friend. This white blanket covers the hills like thick cream cheese frosting coats a carrot cake. It is delicious looking.

Now imagine this - you are sliding down these frosted hills just like you did on your wooden sled as a child. Down, down you fall, gaining speed as gravity grabs you, the wind kissing your face. But instead of a wooden sled underneath you, there are long wooden boards attached to your feet and they allow you to be upright and magically float on top of the snow. The feeling of standing up and falling is exhilarating but also terrifying. 

At the start, you greet the mountain facing downhill but you begin to gain speed and it is unsettling. You work to find your center in this journey – every time you lean back, you go frighteningly faster. You try to find a more forward posture, trusting the boards more. With great aplomb, you bend your knees, turning the boards perpendicular to the fall line of the hill. That one simple solution breaks your speed almost in half, and you are no longer afraid but acquiring control. Then, you repeat the movement turning in the other direction -  fearlessly snaking turns. The only thing that matters is the free falling, the turning, and the present moment. This, my friends, is downhill snow skiing.

It has taken far too long to write a post about snow skiing. This is surprising because it is one of my favorite things to do – not to mention skiing and snowboarding are Colorado’s official winter sports.  Colorado boasts such fine specimens of the Rocky Mountains, proudly offering 58 fourteeners or 14ers* – mountain peaks that exceed 14,000 ft. high.  It is no wonder that snow fall is plentiful and powdery around those peaks, and winter sports are a massive part of the Colorado culture.

I love skiing – both Alpine and Nordic.  I was lucky to have lived in the Vail Valley for six years back in 1980s. Living in close proximity to great groomed ski trails, I was able to get to the chair lift within 15-20 minutes and thereby easily accumulate mileage on the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek during the winter season. In the first year I was awfully green – or just plain awful; I had old used equipment and fell down far too often. Luckily, the deep powdery snow softened the blow to my butt and my ego. Sometimes I laughed and sometimes I was embarrassed.

A great friend, Chuck, taught me how to use the physics and technology of skis, relax my muscles, read the mountain, and pick a perfect fall line. One day it all clicked. I found my balance point - my center. Not too far back or too far forward, not too much to the right or to the left - but just "right" over the balls of your feet and your skis. It was very Goldilocks-like. I find it fascinating that horseback riding, ballet, yoga, and skiing all share the lesson of being perfectly centered and balanced to be successful. So, yeah, I have heard this before too, but it’s true: skiing is a metaphor for life. One must achieve balance or fall down, and success is simply getting up one more time after you fall.

March is Women’s History Month and also features St. Patrick’s Day (honoring the luck of the Irish), and the Spring Equinox (the perfect balance between sunlight and dark)! In keeping with my love of skiing along with honoring the ladies, luck, and the equinox, here is my list of female alpine skiing legends – the top seven (7) great women skiers in the world (along with a few honorable mentions). You go, girls - you are my heroes of the winter wonderland!

 MyTop 7 Greatest Female Skiers
1. Janica Kosteli - Croatia
2. Vreni Schneider - Switzerland
3. Anja Pärson - Swedish-Sami
4. Annemarie Moser-Pröll - Austria
5. Picabo Street - USA
6. Lindsey Vonn - USA
7. Julia Mancuso - USA
Honorable Mentions
Gretchen Fraser
Andrea Mead Lawrence
Suzy Chaffee
Kim Reichhelm
If you have a chilling desire to experience this downhill skiing thing in Colorado, I have listed all the ski resorts and their websites below. There are 28 at present and a dozen of them are listed as the greatest ski resorts in North America. One monetary issue – I cannot tell a lie – alpine or downhill skiing is exorbitantly expensive. Often a single day pass (lift ticket) runs just shy of $100, and lessons (I highly recommend them) can cost well over that. Many resorts will offer money-saving packages that include lessons, lift tickets, hotel, and ski equipment rentals (if you do not own your own).  One must save for the experience and shop for specials. Nordic skiing is less expensive, and I will share those resorts and experiences in a latter post.

List of Colorado Alpine Ski Resorts (and their websites)
    Arapahoe Basin
    Aspen Highlands (Aspen)
    Aspen Mountain (Aspen)
    Beaver Creek
    Buttermilk (Aspen)
    Copper Mountain
    Crested Butte
    Durango Mountain Resort (formerly Purgatory)
    Echo Mountain
    Hesperus Ski Area
    Howelsen Hill
    Kendall Mountain
    Monarch Mountain
    Silverton Mountain
    Ski Cooper
    Snowmass (Aspen)
    SolVista Basin (formerly Silver Creek)
    Winter Park/Mary Jane
    Wolf Creek

And to leave you with a great ski quote: "Gravity is love and every turn is a leap of faith."

Note: *Actually there are 53 ranked 14ers and 5 unranked 14ers.