Podruznik via Wikimedia Commons From The Harvard Review

Slow Flame

From The Harvard Review Online, April 2014. Listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2015 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015.

Once, in Northern California, she and I were walking through a redwood park with old growth trees, when we heard something up a side canyon, a kind of whispering. Curious, we walked up the draw along a deer trail and discovered a wildfire burning unannounced in the forest, a line of flame hardly wider than my hand. It was windless and quiet—not even the sound of wrens—and the fire was moving a few inches at a time. You could stand there and watch it come forward as if it were creeping on its belly, and I remember thinking: Even a newt could outrun this.

There is canyon next to my old home south of San Francisco, one among many, and as in most canyons, the legacy redwoods were cut a century ago. The massive stumps remind of wrecked ships. But a few great trees remain higher up, still clinging to the steepest ground, the most difficult to cut. Almost all of them are fire-scarred: their fibrous bark singed, or their hearts fully hollowed and charred. Redwoods survive fires because their wood is saturated with tannins, a fire retardant and also a mild poison, which gives them their sunset interior.

In this forest and the surrounding oak woodlands, during most times of the year, one can find California newts, Taricha torosa, ambling carelessly, it seems, in all directions. They are the color of decaying needle: deep brown on top, their underbellies a brilliant orange. They hatch in cold creeks and ponds, where for a time they have feathery external gills, but they become terrestrial during the late summer, walking off into the duff in search of bloodworms and sowbugs. At the first hard rain, they return to their natal waters to spawn and, each winter, a few adults returned to our concrete basement, to the flooded drain where they were born.

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