Essay Notes/Draft: "AfterBurn"

Phenomenology of an aesthetic experience in the landscape of a burn zone two months after a forest fire in the Gunks.


Charles Carver

You walk in darkness, flashlight in hand, upon an overgrown carriage road. After a 15-minute walk, you’ve become acclimated to the nervous thrill that every pre-dawn adventure provides, but you tentatively scan the trees for signs of a trail marker. Finally, the foot trail up to the ridge is abundantly evident even from the tiny cone of light that transports you through the woods. You are welcomed to the trail by a small village of pink-orange mushrooms— their pulpy white flesh and colorful caps, visible at the fringes of your world. South of Sam’s Point Preserve, on the opposite side of route 52, the trail leads up to the Shawangunk ridgeline and runs further south along the less traveled spine of the Gunks. It is there that the fire had raged only two months earlier, in early May. Not far into the ascent, the damp smell of old smoke still lingers, providing the first confirmation for the journey. In the twilight of dawn, you encounter intermittent sections of burned debris and spared growth. Gradually, there are abundant and clear signs from a large tract of burn on both sides of the trail. With a mixture of anticipation and slight confusion, you move through the twisting branches upon blackened earth, frequently scanning the rise for the blue luminant trail markers that still pin themselves with unapologetic announcement to the deep furrows and brute textures of charred pine trunks. Ironically, the laminated pads of layered bark now glaze the trunks with a metallic luster, returning a soft iridescent light to the environment— their upright resilience showing little sign of the deep ashen core that proximity reveals to be the culled remains of their vulnerable parts. The scarred regions of the trees harbor a deeper, more velvety black than regions where the integrity of the surface has not been breached— disclosing only striated hints of ashen wood in neat cubical stacks. Black has a great diversity of variations in this environment, but its multiplicity is manifest primarily through contrast— through participation with other kindred areas devoid of color.
On the steep rising trail approaching the ridge, it is at first the darkened soil that provides the bass tone to anchor this rich variety of blacks. Like a southern dish of blackened fish, the deepest tones offer no reflecting sheen, but they are understood to crisp up a crackling surface, peppering patches of sultry brown-reds and burnt-yellows to provide cover to the sustaining substance below. The dull olive color of singed moss, browned and blackened at the edge, and topped with auburn pine needles, plentiful from the heat and stress, add to the pan-seared effect underfoot. This is your introduction to the edge of the burn in the soft dawning light approaching the ridge. But you are confused because you remember the local news footage. You know the heartfelt reaction to images of nearly three-thousand acres of pristine landscape raging in fire. It has only been two months since the burn; so why does it now feel as if it were only a leaf-burning run amuck? Surely there must be more devastation above, in the heart of the hearth. As you begin to round the apex, it is not the rich blacks, but the green of new growth that welcomes you to the deeper burn. Rich and spring like— tender glowing shoots of berries, mountain laurel, and a variety of other shrubs begin to dominate the senses, even in regions of scorched earth. New pitch-pine shoots emerge like a skirt at the base of burned pines, and very often, directly from the body of the trunk itself. Thin snaking trunks stripped of foliage rise from a black padding of soil, as twisting branches from fire-adapted pines cork through the air above— providing necessary contrast for the bright fleshy growth beneath. The message in this odd land of contrasts is overwhelming, but it is subtle, even confusing at first, because the environment still comes off as stable. The slightest contemplation reveals the error, but the first feeling suggests that the forest has always existed as it now stands.

This is the after burn.

The Scribe

Not far into the greater burn zone, a transition occurs. Burned shrub formations still entangle, like hundreds of black snakes swimming in shallow waters, but many of them now texture their upper reaches with a lichen coating, adding a barnacle-like crust to their display. The lichen seems to grow only at their tips, or in the notches between interlocking twists, providing a coral-like environment for the swaying forms. Your shallow sea submersion is abruptly over as the trail transiently supports the bristling overgrowth of these very same hardy shrubs in the guise of their former life. This section had been bypassed, as the fire’s advancing front rapidly changed direction. Abruptly again, the trail clears into the open landscape of the burn, this time, exposing areas of more intense activity. White rocks breach the earth in scattered islands up the incline, and then immediately, just off the trail, a charred pitch pine bursts an explosion of looping branches addressed to your passing.  Sweeping lines arch back in frozen gesticulations as the tree seems to gesture a message of warning. Is it an omen? In its expressive conformation, the tree holds the moon enclosed within its cursive branches. The moon had been ensnared as it tried to rapidly descend beyond the tree’s branches, to the horizon below.
You turn now to face it, with the dawn gathering at your back. Sun and moon in the same heavens; dark and light disclosing form; death and life as a single process— there is no need for symbolism here, all is revealed in the blatant and discursive language of the real. The warning is not dire after all, it is but an expression of coveting that the scorched tree seems to manifest, an embrace of the moon without offering to share. In the tree’s vicinity, no other apprehension of the moon is possible. Still, even with this act of possession, it appears to be only performing the will of the moon, as it offers itself for sacrificial capture— and you do as well, as you follow its light. You discover that it is not a coveting gesture that is articulated by the looping branches at all, it is a presentation of the twilight sky written in the tree’s own embellished language. It has earned its secret lettering by paying heed to an incessant chatter, the ever-present wind upon the ridge— but its scrolling style was only revealed through the sacrificial burn. You have made an offering as well, though you do not fully understand it. You have offered your senses as a channel of disclosure, granting the tree its earned status as door-guardian to this strange and transitory landscape.

No One

Not far beyond the Scribe, before rounding the local apex of the ridge, just above the conglomerate formations that have cropped out of the earth to navigate the ridgeline trail, glimpses of open forest solicit your attention. At first you respond with only a series of unconscious glances, but a spacious presence has been gathering with your approach. It reaches a sufficient threshold to halt your trajectory at precisely the moment that you pass an informal opening into a mixed forest of tall trees. From the trail, it is not the trees themselves that provide the calling, but the spaces that intervene between straight, slender trunks, viewed from the distance of nondescript existence. The space is occupied with the growing luminance of dawn. New shoots and expansive ferns will later be revealed as the worthy recipients of the fertile soil at the base of the open space, but initially it is simply the presence of an intriguing openness that invites your body. Moving off trail, you follow the invitation, dropping down a couple of meters, and rapidly transition into a mixed forest of widely spaced trees. Completely burned stumps are scattered on the ground near patches of exposed earth. Tall crispy remnants of sacrificed trees rise out of lush ferns, along with many charred trunks. Spared, but now sparse oaks and other hardwood species provide testament to the direction and intensity of the burn at their base. The evidence suggests that a wide expanse of herbaceous shrubs provided rapid kindling in this region, but fortunately for the survivors, the fire efficiently burned the debris in a burst too quick to ignite the mature trees. Many of their neighbors were not so lucky, thus reinforcing the transitory beauty of the open expanse that is now so newly revealed. Here, as elsewhere, life is active in its own burst, rebuilding its many-tiered and intertwined dimensions— but the feeling, strangely, and very powerfully, is one of static peace. It is the combination of straight forms in sparse numbers and intervening spatial depth that provides the stasis, which in turn relaxes the senses into a calm acquisition of the territory. But the depth, though peaceful, is filled with grace and enticing beauty. It is not a stationary external witness that is solicited by the aesthetic character of the place; it is, instead, a meandering occupation that is enticed. It is very easy to drift off into the expanse of ferns and trees— and indeed, there are abundant features in the landscape to move the body in every direction. But movement remains gently and calmly enticed, not energetically incited by the strange and spectacular, as is the case only a few meters up on the ridge. Wrapped in this stasis, it is all the more appropriate that the dawn discloses one of its most profound and secret subtleties here. Just before the sunlight reaches forth with streaming feelers, a pervasive and delicate mist rapidly congeals. The mysterious mist enters, and then dissipates within minutes. The temporary apparition is nothing short of sacred, as depth gains a new progenitor during its appearance. You look and feel, and in the same breath you utter outload, and to absolutely no one, your professed emotion. The emotive utterance and the unspoken beauty catch you off guard, simultaneously snapping you back into everyday thoughts. These momentarily taint the experience, because you know that there is no way to convey such a feeling: the expression that was outwardly proclaimed but addressed to no one. Somehow, even out here where not a soul resides, the self-chatter of thought makes it mandatory that a retrospective misapplication be now invoked in order to justify the utterance. By rehearsal, as if an antagonistic dialogue ensued addressing those who might take literally such utterances, a defense is marshaled. Distance now intervenes. Thought has congealed and the everyday witness has arisen.

But the pull of the mysterious atmosphere is still too great a gathering, even for thought. You enter again, and allow yourself to be swallowed. Following the allure, you wade knee-deep into the expansive ferns before determining that a plan of navigation through the turbulent growth is required. Like white water rafting upon a makeshift raft of burnt trunks, you ride tentatively into deeper waters, your raft splitting apart in the journey, providing additional fodder for the roiling abundance. All the while the land throws up islands of forest and rock above the sea of ferns. Mindfulness is not simply a methodology to partake of here. It is a clear and bold environment in which you now swim.

Painted rocks catch your attention even before the strokes are followed back to the sun, now clearly visible amidst the  base of distant trees. Streaming long, the long streamers target sparse, slender trees at their base, just above their dirty knees, marking the height of the burn. For many trees, a black stocking gives way to sun-painted artistry before transitioning to rough textured bark that has been enhanced by speckled lichen. The trunks rise straight to pierce the treetops, now bottom-lit by the sun’s yellow glow. Abundant leaves sway in the light, but only half of the tree’s crown glitters in gold. The other half, ironically, has now the more potent capacity to draw sight— pointing, by the suggestion of graceful movement, to the unlit and mysterious expanses that are still hidden from full disclosure.

The sun-sourced graffiti provides reminder that time is not static. Paying heed, you move back toward the ridge trail. After all, you are here to see the burned landscape during the day’s first light. The trail turns toward massive sloping platforms of exposed conglomerate rock— but you already know the Gunks, you know that there cannot be another rock more alive and present to experience than Shawangunk conglomerate. After only two months of recovery, you want to know what the heart of the burn zone will look like. In one great expanse offering fully round views, you are provided the answer. The offer is dizzying. You turn round in every direction without stability, not because the view is open to sky-level views as if at the apex of a great mountain, but because strange features exist in each of the four quarters of your body-centered compass. Looking north, Sam’s Point is to your right, while a heavy bedding of morning fog blankets the slowly stirring town of Ellenville to the left. Rolling mountains move forward to greet you from the distance. Despite the temporary openness that allows for a greater presentation of distant views— views that will not be available very shortly as vegetative growth matures— it is still the local environment that presents the distant features as part of its interiority. Distance is only another robust feature quite at hand. But it is still the local environment which calls forth the greatest participation from you, as you engage in a sense-based dialogue through proximity. Yours is a perceiving body, and you lend to the space the silence of your sense apparatus until it is now your space, the space that you inhabit. Even through these mundane objects and the space they occupy, you have friends, acquaintances, oddities and curiosities to attend to in your space. You have confrontations, expectations, indications and even reincarnations to address. But you must commit. You must anchor yourself into a single perceptual momentum and a single vantage amidst a compilation of dizzying choices. And you do so unconsciously at every moment. You can, as usually happens, succumb to the nondescript— to the functional and only partially manifest, as you necessarily do when movement is a priority. But you are here to see, in the deeper sense of the term, so you do commit, consciously. This, after all, is an aesthetic experience, so you are only asked to receive. Yet beneath your attentiveness, mysterious processes actively engage in dialogue.

You had intuited the possibility for an aesthetic experience, but it delivered beyond expectation because the weight of reality smashed to pieces the flimsy content of imagination and forethought. Now that weight bears your own being at its gravitational core. The rock, with its subtle hues and glistening presence in the morning light, has organized its fractured form to uphold you, in the manner that is similar to the way that one of Braque’s early cubist works hovers just in front and just behind the canvas at the very same time, until you anchor it into the palpable and gritty physicality of a real surface. Its materiality and thing-like quality prevails, and that is precisely its magic, beyond anything that an ideal or representation can muster. Seeking that quality, you feel your way to the appropriate locales: spaces that achieve a cohesive unity of 'place' despite being a transitional mix of proximal and distal forms. It is all proximal during the aesthetic, all of it intimate. Even the distant mountains are drawn into this interiority. And you know, as you always have, that images of such moments are but journalistic reminders, and never momentary "captures" as the photographers like to say. But that is the subject of another essay.

After the Onslaught

Your experience was aesthetic in character, but the functional clarity that moves in to replace it had already been anticipated in its latent trajectory. You want to know more about the things that you have experienced perceptually without much reflection. Your first inquiry is addressed to the relationship between the sign of the charred trees, and that to which they refer— namely, the original fire, and what it must have been like during the height of its rage. “What it must have been like”, oddly, has two poles of inquiry: one from the perspective of the resilient firefighters reacting to the emergency; but strangely, a twin wonderment addressed to the forest of charred trunks themselves. What was THAT like? It’s an odd but overwhelming feeling, although literal projections of emotions granted to the trees does not enter.
These budding inquiries find fruition not in the rich stratum of sense presentation which had set them ablaze, but in their natural fruition as sensation naturally transforms into a functional representation for everyday thought. In a similar way, the dawn has transformed itself into a functional day without being replaced by it. So it is with the transforming flow of sentience and its ever-maturing momentum. Still, we may remember that both the dawn and the day arose from a mysterious and undisclosed horizon. Perhaps it is that which drives forth the impetus toward expression— to feelings made manifest in aesthetic works that are really just the taking up of that original momentum, and not mere copies of the experience— as if that were truly possible. Is that not also the lesson of The Scribe— discovering and expressing its own articulate language in the wake of the onslaught?