Claire McEwen’s Blog

Finding Beauty After Fire

Every year, when we drive up into the mountains behind our town to get our Christmas tree, we pass an area that looks other-worldly. It’s an old forest that was burned in a wildfire almost eight years ago, and the exposed white sandy soil makes it look like a moonscape. Every year, when we drive by we say, “We need to go hiking there.” And this year, we finally did.

preserve snag and mountain

This land is set aside as a preserve because it is rare. Millions of year ago, it was a seabed in what is now California’s Central Valley. When the Santa Cruz mountains pushed their way up, the seabed came with them. Plants and critters have had to evolve to survive in the sandy soil, and several are on the endangered species list because their habitat is so small and specific. Within the preserve are hills that people call The Moonrocks. They remind me a bit of the surreal rocky hills in Joshua Tree National Park. Over the years they’ve eroded into rare formations that can be irreparably damaged if people climb on them.

preserve crag and truffula distant

When we first walked into the preserve, with dead snags surrounding us like ghostly sentinels, I wondered if our visit would leave us feeling sad, because this beautiful area had been burnt to a crisp. I quickly realized that it was quite the opposite of sad. It was hopeful. Life was bursting out everywhere.

Preserve snags like sentinels

Blackened plants had new growth, like this madrone tree re-sprouting from its original burned trunk.

nullPreserve, madrone regrowing

Baby pine trees, oak, manzanita and madrone were starting up everywhere. Some of them, like this tiny manzanita, are so tough they’re growing right out of the rocks!

preserve manzanita in rock

Birds flitted up to the branches of the old snags and called to each other from the shrubs.

preserve manzanita

Charred plants, reduced to their graceful shapes, added bittersweet beauty.

Preserve blackened shapes

And the presence of the old trees and stumps made plants that might seem scrawny somewhere else look vibrant.

Preserve big sunset view

Since we were there in December, we were excited to find this Toyon tree, also called a Christmas Berry because it produces its red berries in time for the holidays.

preserve christmasberry

And as we headed back to our car, the sunset light made everything shadowed and golden.

Preserve Multiple snags lit up

preserve 2snags

Standing on a patch of land that had been an ancient seafloor, then a mountain, then a forest and now this unique preserve that is evolving before our eyes, we had a strong sense of the earth as a changing being, not the constant we like to think it is. And we were filled with a renewed appreciation of life as a creative force that after total destruction, grows again. Maybe not as it was, but as something different and still very wonderful.

preserve hiking home

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