Mesa Verde was gorgeous. All the national parks out here are. I tell everyone that if I wasn’t a teacher, I would be a park ranger just do I could be in this natural beauty all day. We took a tour of ancient cliff dwellings, sighing in awe at what the Puebloan Indians did centuries ago, and how well preserved it is. Getting to the dwellings involved climbing up and down rough hewn wooden ladder bolted into the side of cliffs (hi, mom)and following carefully, yet deteriorating paths constructed by the civilian conservation corps created by FDR during the Great Depression.
If you want to get anywhere out here, you need to drive. And drive. And then drive a little bit longer. Mesa Verde was no exception. Driving through the park to get to the museums and tour sites, we saw acres upon acres of burnt and dead trees. White and flaky, black and withered, they came with us on miles of travel down the winding roads. In 2003, a wildfire tore through Colorado and caused this damage. Park Rangers say experts expect the park will take about 300 years to fully recover from the damages. It’s only 10 years later, so if the experts are right, the park still has a long way to go.
What was more interesting than the destruction of the fires was what came after they went. New growth is slowly, but surely making its way to the landscape. Green is bursting out of the charred earth, wrapping itself around the limbs of their predecessors. It’s a slow progress, but it is still progress, and it is beautiful even in the tough landscape. You see multiple levels driving past. You see the trees that lost everything and remain a shell of their former selves. You see trees that were badly damaged but hung on and stand a decade later with their scars proving their worth in battle. You see the new life, springing forth of its own accord and at different intervals. Young, strong saplings that began soon after the fires were extinguished, and plants that are still new and weak and fragile.
If you only saw the dead trees, if you chose not to look because you saw something ugly, you would also miss the beautiful parts. If you turn your head away from the blacked trunk of a tree, you might miss its other side, which is still holding on to life. The leaves maybe a little more droopy than others, but still resolutely there.
As I slowly begin to gather my things and prepare to travel back to the East Coast for a new adventure, I keep thinking about those trees. Their first impression was a little misleading. They looked a little scary, kind of dangerous. But there was more underneath that first glimpse. The reservation is similar. At first glance, it can be scary and unknown, but once you actually look, you see how beautiful it really is. If I looked at the reservation and chose to focus on the negative aspects, this year would have been miserable. If I only looked at how many alcoholics were here, or how prevalent the abuse rates are, I might have run, closed my eyes, and dreamed of a better place.
Instead, I looked. I accepted that there were damaged, diseased parts, but I looked for the green undergrowth that makes it worthwhile. I held onto the vibrant life that I did find and encouraged it to grow. Progress is slow, but it is steady. I see the growth in my students who graduate this weekend and prepare to go off and do great things with their lives. I see it in the community events I attend, the handshakes at mass, laughter in the hallways at school.
Forest fires can be created by carelessness; by a campfire forgotten, a sneaky cigarette gone awry. Stereotypical fires can be created by misinformation; but putting too much credit in a story and not enough in what you see for yourself. If I had allowed myself to believe the stereotypes of the reservation, I would not have opened myself up to the many experiences I have had this year.
I would have spent all my time looking at the burnt shells of trees instead of seeing the beauty that was thriving right below.