Burning the Shelter

A simple fire reveals the beginnings of our environmental crisis

| July-August 2011

  • burning-the-shelter

    © Pat O’Hara / CORBIS

  • burning-the-shelter

In the center of the Glacier Peak Wilderness in northern Washington a magnificent, fully glaciated white volcano rises over a stunningly beautiful region of the North Cascades. On maps, the mountain is called Glacier Peak. To the Salishan people who have always lived in this part of the Cascades, the mountain is Dakobed, the place of emergence. For the better part of a century, a small, three-sided log shelter stood in a place called White Pass, just below one shoulder of the great mountain, tucked securely into a meadow.

In the early fall of 1976, while I was working as a seasonal ranger for the United States Forest Service, I drew the task of burning the White Pass shelter. It was part of a Forest Service plan to remove all human-made objects from wilderness areas, a plan I heartily approved. So I backpacked 11 miles to the pass to set up camp, and for five days I dismantled the shelter and burned the old logs until nothing remained. I spaded up the earth, beaten hard for nearly a century by boot and hoof, and transplanted plugs of vegetation from hidden spots on the nearby ridge.

At the end of those five days I felt good, very smug in fact, about returning the White Pass meadow to its “original” state. As I packed up my camp, the snowstorm had subsided to a few flurries and a chill that felt bone deep with the promise of winter.

I started the steep hike down, and half a mile from the pass I saw two old women. Almost swallowed up in their thick wool caps, they seemed ancient, each weighted with at least 70 years as well as a small backpack. They paused every few steps to lean on their staffs and look out over the North Fork drainage below, a deep, heavily forested river valley that rose on the far side to the glaciers and saw-toothed black granite on the Monte Cristo range. And they smiled hugely upon seeing me.

We stood and chatted for a moment, and as I did with all backpackers, I reluctantly asked them where they were going. The snow quickened a little, obscuring the view, as they told me they were going to the White Pass.

“Our father built a little house up here,” one of them said, “when he worked for the Forest Service like you. Way back before we was born.”

JWT Meakin
8/15/2011 12:11:16 PM

Another dose of fluffybunny thinking. "Our native ancestors ...lived within a complex web of relations with the natural world, and in doing so they assumed a responsibility for their world that contemporary Americans cannot even imagine". No they didn't. All over the continent, all over the world, are examples of native peoples overusing available resources, destroying their habitat and ultimately themselves. It just takes longer with stone-age technology. "Living in balance with Nature" is a matter of numbers, pure and simple. What is possible with 5 people per square mile is not possible with 500. The first sign of responsibility will be when humanity voluntarily stabilizes its numbers.

Shirley Hodge
8/15/2011 11:35:00 AM

A sweet/sad little vignette but the reality is that we could burn down every construct humans ever built and still not make a dent in the effects that our existence has had on this planet. Many species such as the proverbial cockroach have existed much longer than homo sapian but the difference if not in size but in manner or life style. The cockroach takes only what it needs to live and procreate and in doing so provides a needed service to its environment by ridding it of waste. Whereas homo sapian takes and takes and takes, reproduces to excess and gives nothing back (no burning a log cabin is not giving back) and that is why we are a failed species. Natural will rid this planet of us eventually and ironically it will, in all probability, be by our own hand in that we will destroy the biosphere that supports our selves. Ain't that a hoot?

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