The View from the Big Woods


By Eliot Katz

About a week before leaving for a 12-day summer vacation, I sent The New York Times a Letter to the Editor, which they published on June 20, 2006. In my letter, I addressed an op-ed column by David Brooks in which he wrote that he has a “personal War Council” that believes “success is still plausible” in the Iraq war. I wrote that such a belief simply shows “how callous some of our mainstream policy analysts have become toward the value of individual human lives,” since the war had already caused the deaths of up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians and over 2,500 American troops. Little did I know that my partner and I would soon find ourselves in an unexpected position to try to help save actual human lives.

In his book, The Future of Life, biologist Edward O. Wilson writes: “It has always been clear that the struggle to save biological diversity will be won or lost in the forests.” In terms of slowing down global warming before it becomes global heat stroke, one of the planet’s most important forests in need of preservation is Canada’s expansive boreal forest, which the Natural Resources Defense Council website notes is “among the largest intact forest ecosystems left on earth.” According to the NRDC: “Like the Amazon, the boreal forest is of critical importance to all living things. Its trees and peat lands comprise one of the world’s largest ‘carbon reservoirs’; carbon stored in this way is carbon not released into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat and accelerate global warming.”

For the past 14 years, my partner, Vivian Demuth, has been working summers for the Canadian forestry department as a fire lookout in the middle of the boreal forest in the province of Alberta. For the past 12 of those years, she’s been working from mid-May to mid-September on Nose Mountain, a beautifully scenic 5,000-foot peak in the Canadian Rockies, where she lives alone–or sometimes with a cat–in a simple, but solidly built cedar cabin. She has a generator that she can run for electricity a few hours each day, a satellite phone, a propane-powered stove and refrigerator, a radio tuned permanently to CBC, and a TV that picks up rough images of two local stations. There is no fresh water source for many miles. Big barrels below the corners of the cabin roof catch rain water for taking solar-bag showers and washing dishes, and the forestry department drives or helicopters in big bottles of drinking water, along with her food supply, every four weeks. The nearest town, Grande Prairie, is about a 2-1/2 hour ride down a dirt road, so quick trips to the nearest convenience store are totally inconvenient, and Vivian doesn’t have wheels up there anyway.

Vivian spends most of her days looking for smokes from inside a 60-foot tower adjacent to her cabin. It is a mystery to me how they either build or truck these towers up to these mountaintops and plant them deep enough into the ground to withstand the wild mountain winds. The network in Vivian’s part of Alberta has about a dozen of these tower lookout stations. When a tower person notices a “smoke” (the initial flames of what could potentially become a raging forest fire), she or he uses an Osborne firefinder spotting-scope to try to pinpoint its location. When a second lookout is able to see the same smoke, it becomes possible to identify the exact location by noting the intersecting measured points from the two different scopes. Once the location is pinpointed, a firefighting helicopter or small plane can be dispatched to the smoke to put it out before it turns into a fiery monster that would eat up acres of leaving, breathing organisms in its path.

Thinking about Emptiness from North America’s Skull

Over the horizon bright
jagged bolts of white lightning
are thrown like javelins
from the top of the continent.

Where are they landing?
Who is throwing those electrified spears?
No one.

I’d never spent time in a forest until I started going out with Vivian, a Canadian poet and fiction writer, six years ago. She spends her winters with me in New York City, and once each summer I head up to visit her on Nose Mountain for a week or two. Although the mosquitoes occasionally get under my skin (in both senses of that phrase, especially now that the West Nile virus has reached this part of the continent), and although I sometimes worry about potentially dangerous grizzly bears when I’m walking down the dirt road to throw vegetable scraps far away from the cabin, my previous trips had all been beautiful, relaxing getaways with lots of time for reading, writing, and enjoying the wilderness.

While we met briefly in New York City after a poetry reading, it was Nose Mountain where I traveled in the summer of 2000 to see if it would be possible to start a relationship. In bed on some nights during that first summer, we would sometimes joke that we were looking for smokes. I’ve written many poems up there, and in those poems I’ve taken to calling Nose Mountain “North America’s Skull.” The mountain actually looks like a nose when one is helicoptering in from just the right angle. The view from Vivian’s Nose Mountain backyard is stunning, with millions of forest acres visible, although each summer one sees more oil drilling sites in the distance and more figure-8-shaped clear-cut areas engineered by an ever-expanding logging industry. As a progressive poet and news junkie, I do miss my daily fix of Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, commondreams, mediachannel, alternet, counterpunch, a cable talk show or two, and The New York Times–I admit to feeling guilty about my daily newspaper habit when I’m in the middle of the forest–but it’s amazing how much poetic inspiration one can draw from drastically changing scenery, not to mention taking a few weeks off from a day job.

When I arrived at Nose Mountain this summer, Vivian was in the middle of her busiest fire season ever. Almost every day, the fire hazard seemed to be at “extreme”–the result of too little snow in late winter and extraordinarily hot and dry weather in the spring and early summer. Recent studies show that the increased danger of forest fires is likely the result of global warming, and my sense is that global warming is taking on a mind of its own, attacking those very resources that we humans need to defend ourselves against it. I guess this is the feeling of a tipping point approaching. (Has anyone else noticed that global warming shares the same two initials as our president?) After about a week of consecutive days of precipitation-less heat, July 3rd arrived as a day of lightning strikes and thunderstorms. When lightning strikes in the forest, the forestry radio system turns into a manic talkathon. Lookouts report the instant they see the first strike hit, and helicopters–staffed by a mix of firefighters and forestry department supervisors–patrol the area all day, reporting their take-offs and landings, and letting all those on the area’s radio network know what is found at locations where smokes have been reported.

Outside the cabin window after the storm
the tops of some of the mountain’s evergreen trees
have become a dirty orange
as if they were everorange trees.

I wonder what natural processes
or acts of industry
have turned the tops of these trees orange?
Is industry a part of nature’s course?

Each fire lookout station has a helipad and a fuel tank. When the helicopters on smoke patrol are running out of fuel, they land at an accessible tower to re-fuel. On July 3rd, soon after a brief thunderstorm had passed, a helicopter came down to refuel at the helipad on Nose Mountain. Vivian was in the tower, and I was sitting at the cabin window watching through some trees. The helicopter seemed to stay on the ground longer than I’d expected, and I figured these guys had been out all day and could probably use a little down time. When it started to take off, I saw it spin around one time, and I thought that seemed pretty odd, but what did a city guy know? I figured helicopters probably spun around sometimes when they were taking off. A little ballet move, either for practical reasons or just for show. It was about 10 or 20 seconds later that Vivian screamed, and then yelled over the forestry radio: “The helicopter crashed! Emergency! I’m going down! Send help fast!” Or something like that.

I pictured a helicopter crashing with an explosion or fire, so my first instinct was to grab Vivian’s fire extinguisher in the cabin and run down to help as fast as I could. With my chronic bad back, I don’t think I’d even tried to run at full speed for about seven years until that moment, but I knew that adrenaline would overcome any physical pain for at least a short while. When I got to the edge of the mountain, Vivian was already close to the crash, which was only about 30 yards down the side of the mountain, but it was a pretty steep drop with lots of brush and some poplar trees to walk through or around to get there. I tossed Vivian the fire extinguisher and she yelled to get the first-aid kit and a sheet. I ran back to the cabin, and luckily I’d remembered where Vivian had shown me she kept the first-aid kit. I couldn’t find a sheet quickly, so grabbed a thin blanket instead. On that trip or a subsequent one–I can’t remember which–I also grabbed a portable forestry radio so Vivian could continue calling her coworkers for help.

At the crash site, Vivian had sprayed the helicopter with the fire extinguisher. Looking back, I’m not sure, but it’s possible that this act alone may have helped save some lives. The helicopter was flipped on its side and still smoking, but Vivian was getting into it to help a guy who was seriously hurt in the back seat, and who I couldn’t see. Two other guys, the pilot and another passenger, were thankfully walking outside the helicopter; they seemed to be in shock, but didn’t seem that badly hurt physically. I opened the first-aid kit, gave Vivian a pair of latex gloves and put a pair on myself. That was about the only thing I remembered from a short first-aid class I’d taken a few years ago. Vivian started calling out for things, mostly bandages, and I did the best I could to find those things in the kit & toss them to her in the helicopter.

I knew Vivian had EMT experience before she was a fire lookout, but I was still deeply impressed by her courage and physical strength, by her knowledge of first-aid, and by her ability to act quickly and decisively in a mountain-environment crisis. And I was doing the best I could for a 49-year-old city guy with a bad back and no experience with this sort of thing. It was probably about 15 or 20 minutes later when a second helicopter landed to provide additional help. I can’t really be sure about the time that elapsed–things seemed to be moving simultaneously in slow motion and faster than sound. Soon, there would be a third helicopter coming to help and, I think, a fourth. When the first new helper came down the side of the mountain, he and Vivian somehow pulled the seriously wounded guy straight up and out of the downed helicopter, put him on the ground, and started trying CPR. The pilot had told us the injured guy’s name was Darcy, and Vivian was calling Darcy to hear her and stay with us. At Vivian’s suggestion, I took a piece of gauze and pressed it against a big gash on Darcy’s forehead. I had a strong feeling that I was looking closely into the eyes of the dead or the dying. It’s possible that Darcy had passed away on impact, but we weren’t sure, and Vivian was doing her heroic best to save his life.

I ran a few steps up the mountain and, again at Vivian’s appeal, yelled to the guys still arriving to bring down a stretcher board and make sure a medevac helicopter was on its way. I’ll never forget one image I had when looking up at the mountain. One of Vivian’s favorite supervisors, Don Cousins, was standing up on the mountain without a shirt, running to help. Don is about 55 or 60 years old, and in winters he races a dog sled up north. So he is probably in pretty good shape. He’d recently told Vivian that he named one of his newer dogs Eliot. It was a comfort to me to know that someone with Don’s decades of experience was on the scene, although with the mosquitoes out in full force I wondered why he had taken off his shirt.

Soon, six guys came down the mountainside with a spine board, and they put Darcy on it. I helped put Darcy’s arms on the board and helped clamp the straps around him. The six guys carried him up the mountain. Then they came down a second time and went to the other side of the helicopter. Vivian and I looked at each other with surprise. The pilot and the other passenger walking around somewhat in shock had answered yes when we asked them if there were just the three of them on board. Perhaps they had misunderstood us. But now we realized there was a fourth guy whom we hadn’t seen, lying beyond our sight on the other side of the copter. When they were putting him on the spine board, he was conscious and even joking, though he said he was fading out a bit. His name was Rob and he knew that something serious had happened to his leg. It turned out that a part of Rob’s leg and a part of his arm had somehow been cut off in the accident. I later realized that Vivian’s supervisor Don may already have been down the mountainside and taken off his shirt to use as a tourniquet for Rob. I’m also pretty sure that the pilot, who I originally assumed had been walking around in shock, had also been putting bandages on Rob.

When they’d gotten the two guys up the mountain, Don said that a medevac helicopter was at least an hour away, so they were going to take the two seriously wounded guys by helicopter to the Grande Prairie hospital, which was about a 40-minute flight from Nose Tower. The first helicopter off the mountain took Darcy, Rob, Don, Vivian, and the pilot of the crashed copter who seemed in decent physical shape except for a hurt shoulder.

When they left, I was up at the cabin with about a dozen other firefighters, mostly Native Canadians, who’d been flown in at some point to help. All the humans were walking around in a daze and the mosquitoes were going crazy. I figured Vivian would be flown back soon, but instead the forestry department thankfully decided to fly me to Grande Prairie so that Vivian and I could spend the night in a hotel instead of back on the mountain. They gave me about three minutes to gather up a change of clothes for both of us, and sent me right out to the helipad for the flight. I’d been brought in to the mountain by helicopter a week earlier, but I have to admit I was pretty nervous going out so soon after the crash. I remember asking the pilot a silly question–if he could please take his time taking off.

At 11pm, the sun has gone down
and the treetops look green again
What kept me from seeing what was there?
What in this cabin window creates illusion?

With record-breaking heat, the fire lookouts
are on “extreme hazard” all week
They are calling smoke locations into the radio
all day & through the night.

Are there really other humans listening
at another end of the radio?
Who heard Vivian call in that smoky ridge?
If she didn’t see it, would someone else?

The helicopter that flew me off the mountain also carried the fourth passenger, Earl, from the original craft. He still seemed pretty much in shock and there was an ambulance waiting at the airport to take him to the hospital for a check-up. There was also a windowless van. Gwen, Vivian’s forestry coworker who was coordinating things at the airport, told me that the van had Darcy’s body in it. Darcy hadn’t made it. As Vivian and another forestry worker had been trying CPR before the guys had carried Darcy up the mountain, Darcy did not have a pulse. I knew it would have been a miracle to find out that he’d been revived after the 40-minute helicopter flight to the hospital. But it was still a psychic jolt to have his death confirmed.

A guy named Jason drove me by car to the forestry office, where Vivian was waiting for me, and we took a cab to the hotel. I was worried about how Vivian was doing. I knew I felt pretty shaken up, and Vivian had tried so hard to keep Darcy alive. Plus, the tragedy had taken place among her forest worker colleagues and on a mountain that had served as her close friend for 12 years. We held each other a long time that night.

A few days later, on my way back to New York, I saw an article about the crash in the Edmonton Sun. It had a photo of Darcy Moses. The pilot, Jack, and Earl had been released from the hospital. Rob, who’d lost part of his arm and leg, had survived and was in intensive care. Darcy was a 20-year-old Native Canadian with a 15-month old son. His mother said he was on only his second helicopter trip, and that he’d told her how much he loved his new job. He said he could see their home in miniature from the air, and he’d assured her just a few days earlier that it was safer in the air than on the ground.

When I got back to New York City, I checked the internet to see if there was any more news about the Nose Mountain crash. There was indeed a new article: the day after the accident on North America’s Skull, another Bell 206 helicopter had crashed in a different part of Alberta, killing the pilot, who was bucketing water on a fire and who was the sole passenger on board. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five, “and so it goes.”

On the FM radio, I listen to local gossip.
No war talk. The disaster in Iraq must be
over up here! For global warming, the locals
know it’s past the tipping point.

At midnight, it finally gets dark
Soon all appearances will vanish
Goodnight Vivian, goodnight Eliot
With luck we may all meet again in the morning.

I called Vivian every day from New York for the first week after I returned. She seemed to be doing okay. She’d visited Rob in the hospital and said he was in pretty good spirits. And Darcy’s family had visited Nose Mountain to do a ritual at the crash site, which seemed to help both Vivian and the family. Vivian had recently finished a manuscript for a novel entitled Eyes of the Forest, which included a then-purely-fictional helicopter accident–I think that strange, prescient coincidence had somehow helped prepare her a bit for dealing with the real thing. Now she was back in the tower, back on high hazard, looking for smokes.

Before moving to New York City, I spent nine years in Central New Jersey working as an advocate with Middlesex Interfaith Partners with the Homeless, so I’ve seen up close a good number of folks going through unfair and difficult times. But there was something different about looking into the eyes of the newly dead on the side of a remote mountain. I have a new appreciation for the risks people are taking to protect this boreal forest that is “of critical importance to all living things.” I wish the oil and logging industries would sacrifice some additional profits to match the sacrifice these courageous firefighters and forestry workers are making. And I have a new appreciation for one more area in which the vast resources currently being spent on an unwarranted and disastrous war in Iraq could be put to better use.