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Scorched earth elegy

Where twisted, ancient pitch pines stood, a sea of blackened sticks

| 19 Jan 2022 | 12:45

I didn’t know what I was looking at. I recognized only a sickening dread. The badlands of the Shawangunk Ridge at Sam’s Point, so-called because of its badass pitch pines (pinus rigida) — twisted, ancient dwarfs that laugh at lashing rains, giggle at gale force winds, brush off brush fires with barely a shrug, the honey badger of trees — were a sea of blackened sticks.

One part of my brain addressed the other. Pam, we’ve seen this before. Fire is necessary to the life cycle of this rare and sublime forest. The cones need fire to release their seeds. You saw the fire that did this, remember? It was at night, like hell had opened a seam. But all is well now! This is the sign of a healthy forest.

The other part of my brain heard all this but, situated as it now was in the pit of my stomach, could only think, yeah, but.

This didn’t look like a regenerating forest. I know the signs, especially the green sprouts that brighten every node, so easy to spot against the deep black soot.

The fire-loving blueberries for which the ridge is famous survived. For generations they grew happily under the dwarf pines, whose compact crowns left sun enough for them. But now their partnership has ended.

With great effort, I lifted my camera and looked through the viewfinder, my finger hovering above the shutter button. I lost heart. My arms sagged. I lifted the camera again, and again I lowered it. My friends were dead. I couldn’t do it.

There’s a new word for the sadness I feel, solastalgia. It was coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who describes it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home.” This and other terms, like environmental grief and eco-anxiety, have popped up to describe the trauma in adjusting to a changed environment as the planet warms. Maybe it’s returning to a house destroyed by fire or flood. Maybe it’s a lost beach that saw many family picnics, or the sequoia that graced many vacation photos before falling victim to fire.

Why was I so shocked, when the fire was in 2016? It had been years since Tom and I hiked Sam’s Point, even though it had long been one of our favorite places. The small parking lot was filling up earlier and earlier on weekends. We’d arrive to find cars already snaking through the historic arts and crafts village of Cragsmoor and getting turned around at the gate. It’s what happens when a trail gets suddenly famous — you just get squeezed out. At least the Nature Conservancy, which manages the reserve, is not letting the place get overrun. The otherworldly terrain has survived what it has always had to survive, but an army of hikers on the march would put an end to it. Limiting visitors to those who can fit in the lot is wise, and Tom and I have been turning to less popular stretches of the ridge.

We returned to hike the Verkeerderkill Falls loop on a Monday well after Labor Day. Weekdays are the answer to the crowded trail conundrum. Just about any public park I’ve checked on All Trails sees the fewest visitors on Monday. The number drops even more dramatically in the off-season. So there we were in late September, scrambling happily over the giant boulders and ledges that circle the ravine, through blind warrens of pines, each striking a pose. The blueberry leaves blazed cherry red as the breeze lifted them to the sun. I couldn’t have been happier anywhere else. What an amazing vacation we were having! Until we saw the blighted trees on the last leg of our trip.

When we got home, I started looking into the 2016 fire. The following year, in 2017, the New York State Parks & Historic sites blog (nystateparks.blog), was cheerful (“From Ashes to Awesome!”), reporting all the sprouts of new growth, and the return of all the birds. An update from last December, however, was far less salutary. The fire “burned hot and quick,” the blog said, leaving the duff soil layer intact, which smothered the pitch pine seeds and kept them from germinating. Seventy-seven percent of the trees were now dead, and the only ones coming back are being painstakingly raised in a greenhouse. Why was the fire so “exceptionally hot” that it incinerated the trees, and blocked the natural course of things?

The blog includes a photo of young park staffers who toiled in the burn area last year planting pitch pine seedlings. They will never see the trees grow to be as old as they were when I first fell in love with them. But then I noticed that the young staffers, their faces charmingly smeared with soot, were smiling brightly. Perhaps they were contemplating the joy of a generation they will never meet, but who will know them by their work. And that will have to be enough.

Trail: Verkeerderkill Falls Loop: Shawangunk Ridge Trail/Long Path (teal blazes); turn right onto the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail (coaligned with the SRT and LP); turn left onto High Point Trail (red blazes, coaligned with the LP); turn left onto the High Point Carriage Road, then back to parking lot via the SRT/LP.
Length: 8.3 milesTrailhead: Sam’s Point (Nature Conservancy), Cragsmoor, N.Y.