The smoke blanket hangs motionless, obstructing majestic Thunder Mountain into a blue-gray ghost. Out of sight, over the rise, hidden from the masses, the burning of canyons and cliffs between Flagstaff and Sedona continues a slow but certain death. All we see is the smoke, transient evidence of mass destruction.
Many of us grieve, feeling the sadness of loss, knowing the jewel of Sedona, West Fork, will be severely altered by this devastation. The media has the maps and incident reports, numbers of personnel, lists of equipment, measurements, action plans and the reassurance that no structures were lost. And, thankfully, no human lives.
But for many of us, the loss is deeply emotional, a feeling of helplessness, anger, depression, longing for what was and remembering. Oh, yes, remembering. For me, West Fork was a church and a school, a playground and a sanctuary, a friend and a favorite relative, the ancient past and now an uncertain future.
Assuming the maps and reports of the fire are accurate, I brace for the reality that West fork is burnt beyond recognition, a disfigured and charred presence that once breathed as a beautiful and vibrant living being.
Some avoid the pain of loss with anger, withdrawal and denial. Some give the quick answer that West Fork will return, nature heals, fire is natural. Yes, and so is death and dying, and deep sadness. In the darkness of what has been lost are memories, only memories, and a grieving soul knows it can never return to what was.
Being with the mystery of emotions is not easy in our culture. “Get over it and move on” is our society’s way of handling the uncomfortable. I am not one who can escape these emotions. It’s been hard many times, but I feel the entire spectrum. West Fork, I cried for you yesterday.
My emotion slowly shifted, I’m entering the void of acceptance, walking through the pain of loss, and then last night it rained, and I felt the sky was crying, too.
West Fork was my church and school. I married my wife, Wendy, in West Fork on a brisk winter morning with a dusting of snow in the shadows. Our two lives were meeting to flow as one at the confluence of West Fork and Oak Creek, two streams meeting to flow as one.
Months earlier, I was photographing Wendy, on a warm afternoon near the confluence, doing her favorite yoga poses for a promotional flyer. We felt that first flutter of attraction not far from where we would give our vows to each other there in West Fork.
West Fork was my school as well as my church. It’s where I learned to connect with the subtle energies of nature. It’s where I learned to preserve a temporal moment in a photograph that held the imprint of those subtle energies.
And from that school I began having my photography published in Arizona Highways. A two-page photo spread of West Fork in early morning, the water making a crystal-clear reflection of what was above — a mirror of heaven on Earth — opened my second photo portfolio. The magazine article was titled Secret Sedona and garnered the magazine an international nature-photography award.
From that magazine article came a book with West Fork pictured on the back cover, one of seven photos of the canyon in the book Secret Sedona. On a special day in my life, I sat with the Arizona Highways books editor at Indian Gardens Cafe and Market in Oak Creek Canyon. We sat in back and ate lunch, and I signed the contract, a moment that would change my life in so many interesting ways.
Afterward, we took an afternoon hike together in that very special place called West Fork. Halfway in, a bright-red, black and white bird caught an insect in mid-air only a few feet in front of me. Those moments in West Fork are so very special in my heart: so much beautiful history, so many vivid memories.
West Fork was my playground and sanctuary. Several summers ago, I backpacked, with one of my best friends, the entire length from near Flagstaff down to the confluence in Oak Creek Canyon. He and I scrambled along with his two boys, plunging into pools of cold, clear water and floating our gear through slot canyons before setting camp on a sandy beach in the heart of the canyon.
Our trip ended as a warm and gentle rain fell quietly from the summer sky. The glisten of rain made the rose-and-peach sandstone deep with color. Delicate flowers and grasses grew between river cobbles and cracks in the bedrock. It was moist with life, vulnerable and open. Secret gardens were waiting where hidden pools invited us to swim. The warm mists were primal and welcome. We shared our experiences soul to soul. We explored and played in this Eden.
West Fork was a sanctuary and a playground. It comforted me and healed me. It held me in its silent embrace. The breath of God touched it on a daily basis. It was nothing less than my vision of true paradise.
I’ve hiked in West Fork with my parents, authors, photographers and photography students, and my wife and friends, yet mostly by myself.
In the solitude, uninterrupted, listening and discovering, I found hummingbirds raising their young, fish darting to the next pool, butterflies by the dozen on one cluster of flowers, bergamots in bloom, monkeyflowers, golden columbines, lupines, penstemons, great blue herons, Cooper’s hawks, Steller’s jays, Coconino sandstone, red cliffs of Supai formation, maples and alders, clouds and blue sky.
But not today. Right now, as I write these words, the sky is thick with gray smoke. West Fork is burning, and there’s nothing we can do. The church is on fire, the school is burning, the playground is in flames, and the sanctuary is covered in ash. One of my best friends is dying today, just over the horizon.
I mourn the loss. Don’t tell me fire is natural — this one wasn’t. Don’t tell me it will come back again — not like the paradise I knew. Don’t tell me to move on, that life is about change — I need to feel and not turn away from these emotions. I am truly sad, and there’s honestly nothing I want to change about that. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain. If the sky can cry, so can I.
(Written on Sunday, May 25, 2014)
Also posted on the Arizona Highways blog.