Over the last decade or so, I have had the priviledge of watching a big change.
Believe me, change is never easy. It took me a couple of years to realize and accept this experience as a ‘priviledge’.
I know this sounds like I underwent some big transformation. Or my life took some unexpected turn. But really, I was mostly an observer. Sure, I went through the stages of grief and denial for this thing I loved so dearly. (‘This really isn’t going to be that big of a deal, right?’)
It turned out to be a very big deal. And one that also affected some of my friends. But in the summer of 2012, my thoughts were already changing, and one afternoon it just hit me:
You are never going to be this tall again.
I was at work in the Colorado River District of Rocky Mountain National Park. I was setting up for a Junior Ranger program which I was assigned to lead later that afternoon. So I was walking up the hill behind the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, setting out things for a game I would play with the Junior Rangers. Anyway, I sort of got lost in my own thoughts as I put my props in their places. I just sort of wandered around the hill, looking at the wildflowers blooming in the dappled sunlight on the forest floor.
As I walked, I knew it was a bit unusual to see that much sunlight reaching the forest floor, especially on the western slopes of these peaks, where the forests are a bit thick. But sunlight shining on the carpet of pine needles and Kinnikinnick was becoming more common. The Mountain Pine Beetle had really done a number on our magnificent pine forests, and it saddened me to think of all of the grey, needle-less trees on the slopes around me.
I knew the science behind the pine beetle epidemic; I explained it to park visitors every day. Understanding the process should make it a bit easier to take. I tried to keep myself away from the mindset I often heard visitors express, “Why are the trees all dead? Can’t the park do anything about it? It’s so ugly!”
But you see, it was easy to slip back into their mindset, focusing solely on the dead trees. Rocky Mountain National Park was my favorite place growing up, and still is today. And it hurt to see the widespread death. It just hurt. It was personal.
I’m not sure what shook me back to the present moment that afternoon. Perhaps it was the chattering of a squirrel. Or maybe some park visitors talking nearby (in a ranger uniform, you are rarely alone for very long, especially around the visitor centers). I took another glance over the slope and saw something amazing. Sure there were lots of dead trees towering over me.
But they were the past.
The future was all around me. All over that hillside, there were new members of that forest community standing tall, taking their place in the sun. Spruce and pine seedlings were popping up everywhere. Most of them were just small enough that some people might have disregarded their importance. I decided then and there to NOT be one of those people.
For once in my life, I was taller than the living forest.
Imagine that. At 5’2″, I am rarely taller than anything, except maybe some of those Junior Rangers. But here was this massive ecosystem renewing itself right at my feet. It’s hard to not be impressed when you get to see such an extensive changing of the guard, right before your eyes.
It made me appreciate the national park even more. This place is special because here we can experience things far bigger and more complex than our own existence. We can get a glimpse of our place in this system and the far-reaching effects we can force upon it.
I suppose I will put pen to paper again and talk about all of those forces another time. But for now, I have a bunch of friends all descending upon Rocky in the coming weeks for our annual snowshoeing get-together. I just hope everyone pauses to realize how tall we all are for this brief moment in the forest’s history.