Fire is truly the great equalizer. Both the massive redwood and the lowly dandelion find fire inescapable. I find myself standing in southern Oregon resting my eyes on the charred remains of a once vibrant part of the preserve. A place that very well could have been considered my home as a child. When my parents divorced I never ended up seeing much of my mom. A strange feeling arises when such a large part of your life leaves to become only a memory. With my dad always working to support what remained of the family, I suppose I would always run to the forest to fill some sort of void that I felt at home.
The preserve was about a 30-minute walk from my home, and let me tell you, it was always worth the walk. As the mowed lawns and trimmed shrubs transformed into unkempt bushes and prehistoric looking ferns, I found myself shedding the weight of civilization. In the forest you could be whoever you wanted. Never being told to ‘write this’ or ‘do that’ is very freeing. I would spend countless hours staring in wonder up at the great redwoods. It seems as if people often forget how small everything is, how meaningless most of what we have done as humans is in the grand scheme of things. The redwoods are a perfect example of existence outside of the human world. Stock markets will rise and fall, presidents will come and go, civilizations will rise and fall, yet the redwoods still stand and will continue standing.
I often imagined climbing up the redwoods and being able to leave the world, perhaps even touch the stars. However, there was one tree in particular that I was sure would at least reach the moon. Its trunk was so large it seemed that an entire town of people could not surround it. Its height was unmatched by any other tree in the forest, with its branches stretching over its neighbors, as if it was laying claim to the preserve. I imagined that you could take an axe to this tree for weeks and it would stand on as if nothing had happened. Naturally I was drawn to this tree. I had spent countless hours making memories in its shadow. It was under this tree that I learned I love peanut butter and fluff sandwiches; it was on the tree that I learned it was impossible to climb a redwood; it was in this tree that I carved my initials with my first love; and I was sure that it was under this tree where I would forever lie.
Usually whenever I found an amazing place like this I would immediately tell my friends so that I could enjoy it with them. However, I am glad that I realized that this was not like the antique candy shop or a new water park; this was a place to be alone. The day that I would find other people at my tree would be the day that it began losing value for me. There was one exception, though. I had deemed it okay to show my first girlfriend the tree, because obviously we were going to be together for the rest of our lives. Just like we had seen in all of those romantic movies, we carved our initials into the tree. She did not enjoy the walk nor the dense wilderness and almost immediately wanted to return to civilization. Knowing that my tree was not an ideal place for everyone, made it all the more special for me. I vowed never to break the oath of secrecy again. This place alone was perfect for me, and I, alone, was perfect for it.
Everyone grows up. I was bogged down by more and more homework, visiting my tree less and less, eventually torn away from it entirely by college. I wanted to become an environmental scientist. Perhaps it was the combination of spending so much time in the preserve, surrounded by nature, and loving science, facts, and the big picture. Unfortunately my college did not take place under my tree and a 30-minute walk turned into a 12-hour drive. A strange feeling arises when such a large part of your life leaves to become only a memory. I went from thinking about my tree on a daily basis, to weekly, to never when I graduated college. I had getting a job, paying a mortgage, and covering taxes on my mind. I was too embedded in civilization to simply shrug it off.
My life had become monotonous. 7 A.M. hit the alarm. 7:30, shower and get dressed. 7:45, coffee and newspaper. 8 A.M. leave for work. 6 P.M. get home. 8 P.M. dinner and prepare for the next day. 10 P.M. sleep. Only to start it all over again the next day. However, my meaningless life was interrupted by a familiar picture in the newspaper one morning. A forest fire. Fallen trees and blackened ground in the Oregonian preserve of my childhood. They say it was the biggest fire of the century. Memories came flooding back to me. Sandwiches, carved initials, and peaceful solitude of a time long since passed. Had the impossible happened? I needed to know.
While driving back I relived everything. The cars passing me were only figments of my imagination as I experienced my parents’ divorce, my first love, and having to leave and forget the only place that meant something to me. Regret accompanied worry in my veins as I questioned if leaving home was worth it. All the while I nurtured the glimmer of hope that I would return to the preserve to find that the fire had stopped before my tree.
It was gone. Charred, blackened, glowing embers took its place. I was incomplete. My memories were not supposed to last even a fraction as long as this tree. I may have been an only child, yet I know now how it feels to lose an older brother. The tree had always watched over me, keeping me out of trouble. Yet looking upon its current form, I already found myself questioning if it really did go all the way to the moon. While the tree that held up the moon was impressive in life, I came to the realization that it was twice as impressive in death.
An eerie beauty surrounded the dark and smoking remains as it released its final pops and clicks of life. There was a light at the center of this dark beauty. I know that saplings will arise from the strong remains of the tree that held up the moon. My panic lifts and my heart and soul ease into a sense of relief. My memories will only be able to pay my brother respect for a lifetime, but the forest will grow again.
Writer: Collin Schmitz
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 395C
This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.