Majestic Ponderosa pines stretch skyward while sunbeams slip between boughs dappling the forest floor. Crisp brown needles carpet packed earth, crackling as my footsteps release the scent of fresh pine. I breathe deeply and feel a sense of peace settle over me. As I enter a clearing, I see a large flat rock where I can sit and contemplate the loss of these beautiful forests. The memories of the lush green Blue Ridge Mountains floats through my mind, and I find myself comparing the two.
In 2004, Arizona struggled through the ninth year of drought, preceded by two summers of massive fires; I grieve for my noble friends, my family and my dreams. One day, I hoped to own a cabin in the woods near the town where I was born and to leave my children a small refuge. I dreamed of sharing Christmas in a cabin under snowy pines with great-grandchildren. I planned to retire to that cabin with my husband and leave the city behind. I believed I could return to the peace of the mountains for the rest of my life.
A few years ago, I watched the birds feed babies in nests outside the second story window of my home in Georgia. The trees flamed with red and orange colors, and frisky squirrels teased our cats by running up and down the screens surrounding the patio. We enjoyed Civil War reenactments and hiking along waterfalls. Yet, I was too far from the family to share these wonders. I loved Georgia, but I had no roots. I felt like I was just passing through. As it turned out, I was.
Much of the eastern U.S. is still very green. The droughts in those areas haven’t permanently changed the landscapes—not yet. Our friends live by a lake in North Carolina. They still have a lake to enjoy. My most recent memory of an Arizona lake where I camped with my parents and children is of a muddy crater in the ground. I crave a green rural area where I can retire and renew my spirit. I feel that I owe my children and grandchildren an opportunity to experience something that may disappear within their lifetimes.
The lovely mountains and gentle culture of the northeast wraps around me like a soft blanket. Yet, there’s conflict inside. Can I make a new place home? Is it too far and too unfamiliar? That feeling of being in alien territory for the first couple of years after moving causes more distress at the age of 70 than at 30. Nature embraces anyone who loves it back. That’s not always so with people and communities.
Now, weather predictions indicate ten to twelve more years of worsening conditions. Without water, the forest flora and fauna cannot regenerate and the end of the drought is nowhere in sight. I hear a few less damaged areas may become forests again in fifty to one hundred years. Maybe. However, after suffering over a decade of fire and drought, forested areas such as the Mogollon Rim may also evolve into yet another Arizona high desert area.
A picturesque winery on the Blue Ridge Parkway remains lush and beautiful. Cherokee Village in Georgia and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina trigger happy memories of a special vacation. Do these places may look different to past generations who grew up there? I have no other memories to compare. Is that why we move on and don’t realize what we’ve lost?
My youngest grandchild will be middle-aged in fifty years; the oldest will be a senior citizen. The campgrounds and forests where they created childhood memories with parents and grandparents and great-grandparents will never exist again during their lifetimes. They’ll never share those places with their children. Is that what’s coming for the lovely green mountains and beautiful lakes of the northeast too? For now, I can move to pursue my dream. Where do the next generation, and the next, go?
Today, I got a letter from a woman in Virginia. We’ve been talking to her about arranging a visit to a town that seems to fit our long-term needs. Yet, it seems so far from home. My roots are not there. My children are not there either. Although, I could go “home” only to have the children and grandchildren move away. There’s no doubt that a few of the six grandchildren are likely to migrate to new places. The dry climate, the heat in the valley, and the high elevation of the northern mountains are not healthy places for me to live, and it hurts to think I may not have that choice.
Now, when I stand beside the Senator Highway, I barely recognize the landscape surrounding my birthplace. Chills run through me as I look out over the town of Prescott and view the magnitude of the devastation. Fire blackened mountains to the south create hideous charcoal landscapes. Gaping brown streaks reveal hundreds of acres of dead and dying trees on mountains to the east, west and northwest. Trees starved by years of drought and then ravaged to extinction by bark beetles.
As a preschool child, my personal friendship with the forest began during long walks with my father. He let me play and explore when we hiked along Christopher Creek and collected pine knots on the Mogollon Rim. Then, he issued his standard announcement. “Penny, you lead the way home.”
There’s no age or geographic limit on memories. What remains is an engraved photo in our mind. That photo is hard to replace or rebuild, whether you remember Ponderosa pines or magnolias and forsythia. We return to the origins of those experiences for comfort and healing. We return to share memories and to share the treasures upon which we built a life that made us who we are. More and more often, I hear people talk about feeling as if they have no connection and no roots, no real home. Perhaps, the loss of these sanctuaries is costing us our health and happiness in ways we have yet to discover.
Dad doesn’t point out landmarks or the direction of the sun. He doesn’t suggest I turn left or right. He follows me. My father skillfully teaches me about nature and survival by making our outings a game that I take pride in winning. As I grow older, my time in the forests no longer revolves around outings with my father, but the relationships with the forests and with my father endure.
In 1959, when I finish first grade, we move to the small logging town of Payson. My mother never issues warnings as I run out the door in bare feet and summer shorts to play in the woods across the street. I ride horses alone and no one mentions strangers, wild animals or helmets. Honey, a gentle palomino mare from the local stable, faithfully brings me home by dinnertime, and I make up endless outdoor games. My favorite game is climbing saplings and jumping treetop to treetop like a squirrel.
My father enjoys my made-up game and joins in by coaching me. He watches while I select a sturdy sapling, shinny almost to the top and lean side-to-side to start the tree swaying. Then, I pick a target for my landing. Too much sway will break the sapling. Too little sway and I won’t reach the other tree when I jump. He counts, “One, two, three, jump!” At least, that is until Mother catches us.
“What are you two doing?” Mom’s shriek startles both of us, almost causing me to miss my mark. I remember clinging to the tree to hide my laughter while Mom scolds Dad like an angry blue jay. Tomorrow, we play the game farther from home and Dad makes very sure he isn’t caught coaching me again.
As I grow older, I find comfort in the forests for many other reasons.
At the age of seven, the pine trees become stalwart friends who comfort me. After my mother suffers two heart attacks, I assume the responsibility of caring for her while she is bedridden, which includes administering nitroglycerin tablets so Dad can leave to work. We face many challenges, but my forest sanctuary never changes. I climb trees and ride Honey. I fly with smoke jumpers in the bubble ‘copter over Payson—experiencing the thrill of flight, albeit without the fire, thanks to my father’s friends and customers.
By the age of nine, we’ve moved again, and the woods near our home in Prescott become my refuge and my private playground. Our neighborhood is so quiet the resident squirrels eat out of my hand. During the next few years, my parents’ marital problems often erupt into noisy disputes. Once more, I escape to the sanctuary of nature. Weaving pine needle necklaces and doll-size baskets fills many hours as the soft light and soothing scent comfort me.
During junior high, my summers morph into a carnival of campfires, sing-alongs, swimming and hiking at the Methodist church camp in thick forests near the top of Mingus Mountain. I fall asleep listening to wind whisper through the pines, and I wake to the pungent odor of sap warming under summer sun. The second summer, a love of children begins to emerge when I earn the privilege of helping teach younger campers.
Before I start high school, our family moves to Phoenix. The move is traumatic. I don’t like big cities, and I harbor a passionate dislike for the desert. Hot and harsh and bright, desert life is also dry and barren. There is no familiar sanctuary. My sole memory of the move is crying all the way to the new house.
During the next ten years, I seldom travel north even though Prescott is only 100 miles away. School, work, and starting a family occupy all of my time, until my parents retire and move back to Prescott.
Visiting my parents renews my connection to the forests of my childhood and provides new experiences to share with my young family. Camping and hiking soon become a regular part of my children’s lives. They attend Scout camps and YMCA camps during several summers during their childhood. The forests I treasure fade into the distant background of their lives within too few short years as they grow up and leave home.
However, I continue to seek opportunities to share the forest wonders. One year, I take my girlfriend and her two children on their first camping trip. On our first anniversary trip, I lead my husband to my favorite creek, and as a honeymoon gift, we send my son and his wife to Strawberry Hill, to begin life together in a place of peace and beauty. On a grandchild’s trip to summer camp, we take him hiking to see an old schoolhouse near where his mother went to camp.
One summer, when my husband can’t take a vacation, I camp alone with our grandsons. We hike to ruins and fish new lakes everyday, while I watch the boys grow. One child loves the woods as I do. He sees friends in the sun, the trees and the animals. One child is careless and irreverent. One is too young to understand. Two others are too inexperienced for me to see what they will find. Sadly, they may not have time to explore nature’s mysteries throughout their lives.
My parents chose a picturesque creekside in a forest, near my birthplace, as the final resting place for their ashes. Nearby, recently discovered ruins guard centuries of history. Generations came and went without noticeable change, but we measure time in days and years, while Mother Nature measures time by centuries. Now, we can only wonder, what will replace the patchwork of death where forests once stood?
Each time I see another area of total devastation, the sadness grows heavier. Immense, magnificent blue-green forests blanketed Arizona mountains for centuries and like others, I became complacent and believed my world would never change. As drought and destruction force unwanted endings and unknown beginnings, I struggle to comprehend a barren future without a sanctuary.
When I look at the remaining sanctuaries, I wonder how long it will be until the families that live here and love them will feel as I do. I wonder whether I can offer these dreams to another generation by moving to a new place where the dream still exists. Will that be enough to help another generation recognize the treasure that’s left and try to save it?