A Stroll through the Scar


Last week I spent a bunch of time working on some elevation spreadsheets from before the 2008 Lateral West Fire. So the first part of the week basically involved collecting more data on those plots. Before the fire, a few water monitoring wells were installed and surveyed for elevations. To determine how much peat soil was lost in that fire, we went out to take some new elevations for comparison.

Oh, the walk was so much easier than a few other well runs we did earlier in the summer. Those first runs were beyond scorching and utterly exhausting, with the blackberry and greenbrier snagging us with every step. The fire had burned away all of the prickly and removed the canopy, leaving only friendly fennel, mosses, sedges, and a variety of other kind vegetation behind. We had more to lug around here, but (for me at least) it wasn’t terrible. The peat, instead of being mucky, crunched underfoot instead of sucking my feet into the earth. The fire had burned away the nutrients in the soil, leaving the ground and tree matter crunchy and blackened, like little granules of charcoal. By the end of the day, it looked like I had rolled around the bottom of a grill, I was so covered in soot.

Every time we go out into areas like this I get to be so nervous about falling – the charred wood that made up the slash trail looked soft and dangerous, and I was worried I would completely wipe out. I mean, I did a few times, but it was fine, because after I stumbled, all I had to do was stand back up. This is exactly what I told myself every time I took a particularly terrifying step.

We spent a little time at two different plots, surveying the elevation at two old wells. One had melted in the fire, and the other was in pretty good shape. Surveying was pretty straightforward, and in the open air, the sounds of frogs resounded as loudly as a symphonic concert. I remember the first time my supervisor pulled out a tape measure to explain the units to me – the tenths and hundredths of feet puzzled my eyes, and made me all the more confident that I wasn’t meant to be an engineer. Now, after what seems like an entire lifetime later, reading the measurements seems natural – as natural as these walks feel.

On the way back, we loaded up an old datalogger and wandered back. The way back seemed to be a little weaker, and when I was clambering over a log and when I landed, my foot went straight through the peat and I landed, face first into a patch of fennel. My allergies drove me crazy all day after, but that wasn’t even one of the good wipeouts. At one point, closer to the ditch, the peat was so saturated that when I took a step I sank to my knees. For a brief moment, I thought Fred was going to have to pull me out of the mud, but I managed to clamber out, relatively unscathed.

These walks would have terrified me two months ago, the thought of returning home, dirty and sweaty was something I really couldn’t imagine myself doing. But now it’s getting easier, I’m getting stronger every day, and I almost prefer the smell of fennel lingering on my skin to the smell of perfume.