The Forces of Nature on Display

THE American poet Walt Whitman once attended a lecture given by an astronomer who presented facts and figures, charts and diagrams, to support his lecture. Whitman listened as the audience applauded the astronomer's ability to reduce the stars and planets to mathematical simplicity. Soon, however, Whitman had had enough and, as he wrote in his poem ``When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer'' in 1865, ``... I became tired and sick,/ Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,/ In the mystical night-air, and from time to time,/ Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.'' In the two years that have passed since forest fires burned 1.6 million acres in and around Yellowstone National Park, I have often felt as Whitman did in the astronomer's lecture hall that evening over a century ago. During these two years much has been written and said about Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the largest system of its kind in the continental United States. The National Park Service's ``let burn'' policy has been criticized. The methods of fighting large-scale fires have been analyzed. The flora, fauna, and fire sites have been studied and restudied. And I'm glad that there are people with knowledge and energy to do all the criticizing, analyzing, and studying necessary to keep the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem alive and well.

But I am not one of them. Regarding Yellowstone National Park, my job is different. Yellowstone is only a two-hour drive from my home so I try to see it in different seasons, different weather conditions, different moods, and this is even more true since the fires of 1988.

It would be easy to bemoan the loss of trees, wildlife habitat, and scenery resulting from the fires. But Yellowstone, above all else, is a showcase for the forces of nature.

Rivers have carved out several canyons, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which features both the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls. More water, in the form of snow, has disfigured thousands of trees, bending them at the base like a bow ready to launch an arrow, as gravity pulled the snow downhill and pressed it against young and developing trees. Those pines which lived to adulthood often carry the bend of this pressure for life.

A wind sheer in 1985 between Norris and Canyon felled hundreds of trees and an even larger high-altitude tornado struck south of Yellowstone in the Teton Wilderness in 1987. Both of these events left the landscape littered with downed timber, prime fuel, dry and ready to burn hot and fast in the summer of 1988.

Volcanic forces were responsible for lifting the region and leaving, after a series of three eruptions, a caldera which outlines a good portion of the central park area. This volcanic activity also left a maze of cracks beneath the earth's surface, pathways for the water and steam which power Old Faithful and hundreds of other geysers. The geothermal energy of these geysers can also cause change, as it did a year ago when Pork Chop Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin exploded and instantly became Pork Chop Hot Spring.

These forces of nature are strong. They have, throughout the centuries, changed the look of the Yellowstone landscape. Now, fire has done the same.

These fires burned for three months and overcame the best efforts of thousands of firefighters. Only when winter arrived in October did the fires stop, snuffed out by the snows which in earlier years had bent many of the now-charred trees.

The next spring I saw them, stark black poles rising out of the snow, like the masts of a thousand ships burned and sunk into an icy harbor. In some of the open regions, where the snow had already melted, I walked on blackness. It was easy to sense the destruction, to imagine the walls of flame which had swept across the ground I walked, to hear them roar, drowning out the feeble cries of men and animals. My boots crunched on the cold coals as I returned to my car and drove on to once-again wait for Old Faithful and walk the trail to stare, mesmerized, into the bluish depths of Morning Glory Pool. I drove past other burn areas and through thick green forests and, at last, through the Shangri-La that is the Hayden Valley.

On successive visits to the park, I have watched as the charred carpets of the burns began their regeneration. I've walked through some of the same areas and seen the fireweed and goldenrod. Through the force of this regeneration, the landscape of Yellowstone is changing yet one more time, or perhaps it is better to say continuously. These changes are small, subtle. The fires of 1988 were dramatic, even drastic, but they are only one force affecting Yellowstone.

When I walk there in future years, I won't dwell on the fact that some of the burn scars will outlast my lifetime. I won't spend my day worrying about the policies and bureaucracies that control land and wildlife management. I will leave those problems to others who understand them better. Instead, I will go about my job of appreciating the wonder of Yellowstone and, like Whitman when he left the lecture hall to stare at the night sky, I will look for some of the subtle changes, the unique opportunities that are provided by wind, fire, and water, the natural forces of Yellowstone.

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