The Fire is a Lion: Writing at Rock Creek
October 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Emily H. Freeman
On the way to write with the boys from the group home, we turn off the highway at a piece of land adjacent to Rock Creek, the pristine fly-fishing stream that attracts anglers to Montana from around the world. Mountains loom in the distance, shaded in varying grays from the 20,000-acre wildfire burning in their midst — the Sapphire Complex, it’s called, a joining of what was once three smaller fires, each with its own evocative moniker: Sliderock. Goat Creek. Little Hogback.
Lily, my partner from a local watershed restoration organization, stops the truck and unlocks the gate, and in the distance I see a vast fenced-in area of dried-out dirt surrounding a small pond. It’s a construction scar from a failed development project, Lily explains, putting two words to something I’ve seen, but never named: construction scar. A thwarted attempt at change.
A white van rolls in behind us: four teenaged boys and two staff members of the group home where they live.
We hand out notebooks and pencils at the base of an old cottonwood snag, its sides stippled with perfectly round holes where birds have made feasts of what once lived beneath its bark. My job this morning is to write with these boys, and to be as present and encouraging as I can, in the hour that we’ll spend together. After we write, we’ll take care of the land.
The boys tell me their names, their ages. One says he loves to write, is working on a novel. Another, politely unabashed, tells me he doesn’t like writing at all. A third tells me that he sometimes writes raps and poems, and the fourth, a shy redhead, mumbles something inaudible, barely meets my gaze.
A woodpecker flies to the tree above us, perches on a high branch, as though listening. Lily points it out to the group. “Pileated,” she says. “Largest woodpecker in Montana.”
One by one, the boys turn their heads to look.
We talk about wildfires, about the smoke that’s been filling the valley for weeks, and I ask the boys to write about it.
With such a short time together, and little knowledge of their backstories, I throw out my best hopes for quick and fruitful writing prompts. I tell them to use their five senses, to imagine the fire as an animal, an emotion, metaphor.
Heads bend down to notebooks; pencils start to move. It’s quiet now, save for the intermittent roar of semis in the distance, the chattering of kestrels wheeling overhead. Through the trees behind us, Rock Creek throws its voice into the song.
When it’s time to share, the boys’ voices start quiet and tentative, growing in strength as they realize they have the group’s full attention. The fire is a lion, they say, a tiger, an unnamed mythical beast. It is greed, it is violence; it is an insatiable hunger. Some of the adults share what they wrote, as well, privileging the boys with their own vulnerability.
And then: it’s time. Too short, but writing is only a part of what we’re here to do. Bodies shift and notebooks are rounded up.
We shift our attention to the construction scar, brightly colored plastic flags marking spots where young plants are growing: black cottonwood and mock orange, choke cherry and rocky mountain maple. These are the plants that will restore the soil, create habitat, and heal the land.
The boys know the drill, having worked with Lily all summer long. They walk over to her truck, its bed filled with a 150-gallon tank. She opens the valve, and water drains through a hose into a large container set on the ground. We scoop out bucketsful, then slowly walk through the warming mid-day air to pour out the contents at each flag. At some, a foot-high wild rose grows, branches prickly and resilient-looking. At others, a small red twig marks a willow, and at still others: nothing. Lily insists they be watered anyway, that roots will get established even if there’s nothing to show for it above ground.
For an hour we fill, and trudge, and tend. In the center of the pond, a duck family floats, nearly still, on the water’s surface. Two boys across the pond spot salamanders, catch frogs. Another finds a snake. The reemergence of these small and fragile creatures is a sign that the project is working.
Water gone, we circle up at the truck. Lily sits on the tailgate and pulls up a wildlife identification app on her phone.
“What kind of frog do you think you found?” she asks the boys.
“Leopard Frog?” one offers.
“More likely a Pacific Chorus Frog,” she says.
She finds the frog on the app, turns up the volume on her phone and holds it in the middle of the circle for the boys to hear. Conversations fade, and the frog’s call – a kind of guttural chuckling — fills the air.
In the next two weeks, the fire in the distance will grow to nearly twice its size, with no signs of slowing, evacuation and pre-evacuation orders in place for the houses at its borders.
In the next three weeks, the boys will start school again, moving through already complex channels with an added burden that most of their classmates will never know.
In the next few months, one of them — a high-school senior — will turn 18, and age out of the group home system entirely. He’ll have to move out on his own, and, as much as the staff of his home has done to prepare him for this inevitability, he’ll nevertheless be a not-yet-high school graduate, somebody’s still-young son, navigating the world largely on his own.
But none of that is happening right now.
Right now, we are a motley assemblage of kids and adults, standing within an ember’s throw of a fiery mountain, crowded around a phone from which emanates the call of a small amphibian.
And somewhere in the pond, another frog turns to listen.
Emily H. Freeman has taught writing in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. Her work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.