When the Forest Dies

“Home is where you feel like a local” — that’s what a friend told me on a recent conversation about the idea of home. If measured by that standard, then the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains is my one true home. I know the roads, the animals, and trees. I know the flowers and the people, the trails. It’s the landscape of my heart.

I’ve been visiting the Sierra Nevada mountains consistently since I was three months old. Every year, the week after school was out, my parents would haul our old motorhome up the mountains for a week or two of camping in a place called Pinecrest, situated an hour and a half east of where I grew up. When I was old enough to ride without a carseat, I insisted I go in the motorhome with my dad and twin sister, making sure I had plenty of books and pages to color for what felt like a long drive.

We’d stop halfway to get gas and Taco Bell, one of the few times we were ever allowed such a treat, and it was only because we were with our dad. We’d climb back into the motorhome, and after about 20 minutes further into our drive, I knew we were close. Not because I could actually see we were close — my twin and I sat in the back of the motorhome sandwiched between bikes, floaties, and every other thing you bring camping with kids — but because I could smell it. There’s a distinguishable point in the drive to the mountains where you’re steeped in the smell of pine that surrounds you. To this day, when I enter the treeline and smell the pine, I’m filled with the same excitement from my youth. When I was in 6th grade my parents bought a cabin near Pinecrest and visiting the Stanislaus National Forest went from a thing we did once or twice a year to something we did every free weekend, every Christmas break, and for long stretches of summer. Going to the mountains felt like going home.

This is why, on my most recent trip home to this forest, I had a pit in my stomach when I saw the vast green mountains and valleys spotted with full patches of orange. Orange trees mean dead trees, and there’s a full forest of them. My home is experiencing a large scale death that I cannot be stopped. There’s a beetle that boroughs through the Pine Trees that are weakened from California’s drought until the tree hollows and becomes a shell of a life that was. It’s still a tree in stature and form, sure, but it’s orange and lifeless. I was thinking about all of this — how fast the beetles attacked, how I felt hopeless in the wreckage left behind — as I was winding through the backroads on my way to the cabin. On that drive I reminded myself that with those trees gone, there will be room for more trees and new growth. It doesn’t make the rapid destruction these beetles cause less sad, but it does make it palpable: the trees are not dying in vain, their death is making room for more life.

What then, does this mean for humans, if we are of the earth and the earth of us and we all subscribe to similar rhythms of life and death? Approximately 108 billion humans have ever walked this earth. If everyone of those people were still alive, earth would be overrun. Even today, at 6 billion humans living on earth, entire communities face struggles of overcrowding, overuse of natural resources, and food shortages. People, like trees, have to die. It’s in our nature. I know this, but it doesn’t mean I like it. Annie Dillard writes in For the Time Being “We know we must yield, if only intellectually… Okay, we’re a tree. These death loved ones we mourn were only those brown lower branches a tree shades and kills as it grows; the tree itself is thriving”.

That’s when I got a text from my sister:
“Dennis is in the hospital with a massive stroke”

In every relationship there are those whom identify to you with a noun, verb, or both. Dennis, while not my grandpa in any sense of the noun, was my grandpa in every sense of the verb. I like to call him my chosen grandpa, and with the news of his stroke, I left the mountains to see him. He was almost completely unresponsive — the stroke affected the speech part of his brain, and while I was there, it was the first time he was able to swallow food in days.

Two days after my visit, on Christmas Eve — twenty minutes before sitting down to eat — my twin sister, Mckenzie looked up as if to say something and stopped abruptly.

“What!?”

She was hesitant. I looked at her.

“Dennis died.”

I was in shock. I had just seen him. To be fair, Dennis was not in good shape before he was in the hospital. He was legally blind for much of his life, was deaf in one ear, had severe diabetes, and in most recent years, was struck with swift and harsh Alzheimer’s. Even as I left the hospital after my visit with him, I felt a sense of urgency. I called my sister, Lauren, and told her that she had to see him soon; time was running out. By my estimation, he had a few weeks. Maybe months. But never thought he had two days, a mere 48 hours.

After the millisecond of shock, I wanted to laugh. Of course he died on Christmas Eve. Of course, on the day that I’m wrestling with my own heart pains over the death of my mom, I have another one thrown at me. Of course Vicky, his wife, is dealing with this almost two years to the day that she lost her son to brain cancer. Of course the universe works like this.

Instead of laughter, I crumbled. My older sister, Lauren, held me as I closed my eyes and softly sobbed on her chest. Dennis is gone. I could try to remind myself that just like trees, it’s natural for people to die. I could remind myself that I knew Dennis was sick and death was imminent, but this logic makes the pain of his death no less sharp or painful. And while I believe there is room for logic in the broad brushstroke of death, it stands no chance in death’s initial pointillism.

I can remind myself that death makes way for new generations to grow and flourish, but when you see the forest of your childhood and the loves of your life die, the “why” of it all takes a hard back seat to the feelings of loss — of beauty, of goodness, and in a lot of ways, of love. So for now I grieve the man that was so central to my life, knowing that Dennis’ life is one of the more beautiful growths in the tree of humanity. We are more alive because of him.

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