Since the Slide Fire was first reported on May 20, the blaze has burned 21,217 acres of Oak Creek Canyon and is 90 percent contained. Below, photographer Larry Lindahl shares his thoughts about the fire and its aftermath.
The smoke blanket hangs motionless, obstructing majestic Thunder Mountain into a blue-gray ghost. Out of sight, over the rise, hidden from the masses, the burning of canyons and cliffs between Flagstaff and Sedona continues a slow but certain death. All we see is the smoke, transient evidence of mass destruction.
Many of us grieve, feeling the sadness of loss, knowing the jewel of Sedona, West Fork, will be severely altered by this devastation. The media has the maps and incident reports, numbers of personnel, lists of equipment, measurements, action plans and the reassurance that no structures were lost. And, thankfully, no human lives.
But for many of us, the loss is deeply emotional, a feeling of helplessness, anger, depression, longing for what was and remembering. Oh, yes, remembering. For me, West Fork was a church and a school, a playground and a sanctuary, a friend and a favorite relative, the ancient past and now an uncertain future.
Assuming the maps and reports of the fire are accurate, I brace for the reality that West fork is burnt beyond recognition, a disfigured and charred presence that once breathed as a beautiful and vibrant living being.
Some avoid the pain of loss with anger, withdrawal and denial. Some give the quick answer that West Fork will return, nature heals, fire is natural. Yes, and so is death and dying, and deep sadness. In the darkness of what has been lost are memories, only memories, and a grieving soul knows it can never return to what was.
Being with the mystery of emotions is not easy in our culture. “Get over it and move on” is our society’s way of handling the uncomfortable. I am not one who can escape these emotions. It’s been hard many times, but I feel the entire spectrum. West Fork, I cried for you yesterday.
My emotion slowly shifted, I’m entering the void of acceptance, walking through the pain of loss, and then last night it rained, and I felt the sky was crying, too.
West Fork was my church and school. I married my wife, Wendy, in West Fork on a brisk winter morning with a dusting of snow in the shadows. Our two lives were meeting to flow as one at the confluence of West Fork and Oak Creek, two streams meeting to flow as one.
Months earlier, I was photographing Wendy, on a warm afternoon near the confluence, doing her favorite yoga poses for a promotional flyer. We felt that first flutter of attraction not far from where we would give our vows to each other there in West Fork.
West Fork was my school as well as my church. It’s where I learned to connect with the subtle energies of nature. It’s where I learned to preserve a temporal moment in a photograph that held the imprint of those subtle energies.
And from that school I began having my photography published in Arizona Highways. A two-page photo spread of West Fork in early morning, the water making a crystal-clear reflection of what was above — a mirror of heaven on Earth — opened my second photo portfolio. The magazine article was titled Secret Sedona and garnered the magazine an international nature-photography award.
From that magazine article came a book with West Fork pictured on the back cover, one of seven photos of the canyon in the book Secret Sedona. On a special day in my life, I sat with the Arizona Highways books editor at Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market in Oak Creek Canyon. We sat in back and ate lunch, and I signed the contract, a moment that would change my life in so many interesting ways.
Afterward, we took an afternoon hike together in that very special place called West Fork. Halfway in, a bright-red, black and white bird caught an insect in mid-air only a few feet in front of me. Those moments in West Fork are so very special in my heart: so much beautiful history, so many vivid memories.
West Fork was my playground and sanctuary. Several summers ago, I backpacked, with one of my best friends, the entire length from near Flagstaff down to the confluence in Oak Creek Canyon. He and I scrambled along with his two boys, plunging into pools of cold, clear water and floating our gear through slot canyons before setting camp on a sandy beach in the heart of the canyon.
Our trip ended as a warm and gentle rain fell quietly from the summer sky. The glisten of rain made the rose-and-peach sandstone deep with color. Delicate flowers and grasses grew between river cobbles and cracks in the bedrock. It was moist with life, vulnerable and open. Secret gardens were waiting where hidden pools invited us to swim. The warm mists were primal and welcome. We shared our experiences soul to soul. We explored and played in this Eden.
West Fork was a sanctuary and a playground. It comforted me and healed me. It held me in its silent embrace. The breath of God touched it on a daily basis. It was nothing less than my vision of true paradise.
I’ve hiked in West Fork with my parents, authors, photographers and photography students, and my wife and friends, yet mostly by myself.
In the solitude, uninterrupted, listening and discovering, I found hummingbirds raising their young, fish darting to the next pool, butterflies by the dozen on one cluster of flowers, bergamots in bloom, monkeyflowers, golden columbines, lupines, penstemons, great blue herons, Cooper’s hawks, Steller’s jays, Coconino sandstone, red cliffs of Supai formation, maples and alders, clouds and blue sky.
But not today. Right now, as I write these words, the sky is thick with gray smoke. West Fork is burning, and there’s nothing we can do. The church is on fire, the school is burning, the playground is in flames, and the sanctuary is covered in ash. One of my best friends is dying today, just over the horizon.
I mourn the loss. Don’t tell me fire is natural — this one wasn’t. Don’t tell me it will come back again — not like the paradise I knew. Don’t tell me to move on, that life is about change — I need to feel and not turn away from these emotions. I am truly sad, and there’s honestly nothing I want to change about that. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain. If the sky can cry, so can I.
27 responses to “Guest Blog: The Lost Jewel by Larry Lindahl”
Beautifully said, Larry. Thanks for sharing – and caring.
This is beautiful
That entire area for me is engrained in my soul. I truly understand and even share your heartbreak. For those who say it is gone…two weekends ago, I took my parents up to Mt. St. Helens. I have not been there for at least 8 years. I was ASTOUNDED at what mother nature has done in recovery. Yes…it will never be the same again. But the new is as beautiful as the old…if you have eyes to see, and understand that change is inevitable in ALL things. Yes…take time to mourn the passing of this old friend, but do not be so closed hearted that you never go back and see our old friend West Fork as it recovers…..and recover it will. I will challenge you to visit often and see the miracle of re-genisis, I will say as you watch the recovery, it will be like holding the hand of a sick friend. Peace to you and do ALL affected by this tragedy.
Great Sadness, Great Foresight, and a Great Challenge…
folks, can we convince our dysfunctional politicians to spend money in America for americans. how about a major “haircut” for our forests. it would likely reduce the number of fires and/or the severity. it would employ citizens, and all the economy around those americans………
we can hope.. and let them know that that is what we care about Our America the most beautiful.
Beautifully written Larry…I feel your pain. I too, am still grieving over this loss…feels like like I have lost an old, dear friend, yet being urged by others to “get over it”…. Only memories and pictures remain of that sacred place for now.
According the firefighters the West Fork was mostly spared. The Slide Fire Info page on Facebook had several photos from 5/26: https://www.facebook.com/SlideFireInfo/photos/a.716416725071071.1073741831.713380245374719/716416858404391/?type=1
What a beautiful reaction to such a sad, terrible event. My hopes are that these emotions will help stop the next person out there in nature from being careless and destroying another precious spot…
Reblogged this on christyw789 and commented:
Thought pic was breathe taking.
Wow…Larry’s words express exactly the way I feel. I have been gone from Arizona for many years but this part of the state is where I learned to love the beauty of the canyon. Slide Rock/ Oak Creek Canyon were hidden treasures discovered long before it was made a state park. My time at NAU was enhanced because of this beautiful area and free time was spent looking for places to hike off the beaten path. Thank you Larry for the wonderful memories.
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My experience with West Fork began at Mayhew’s Oak Creek Lodge when I visited with friends from school in Flagstaff in the mid-1950’s. Sunday afternoon drives down to Sedona to get a “milk nickel” (chocolate covered vanilla ice cream on a stick) was a BIG treat for us and a beautiful drive too. As I followed the progress of the fire, especially the news reports on the TV, I was close to tears many times – although I haven’t been to Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona in many years, the memories will live on forever – I agree Larry, it was a beautiful school, church, adventure spot of our lives. Thank goodness we have cameras in our minds so that we won’t forget some of the very special places that God made for us to enjoy. Thanks for sharing your insights too Larry.
That made me cry Larry. I’ve hiked there for years and new it was the perfect place to feel safe to learn and practice my photography. I completely understand and appreciate you sentiments, respectfully. I don’t get the people saying “get over it and move on” either or we should care more about this or that or how people need to make a living, etc. Let us care and grieve our own personal way. I’ve cried over West Fork and I can’t wait to see her again and watch her return.
Beautiful words, thoughts and expressions Larry- west fork was on my bucket list but unfortunately some put a hole in my bucket.
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Your tribute is eloquent. Made me cry!
Very eloquent and giving to share your deep emotions over West Fork Larry. I enjoyed that canyon in my way many times and always found it
to be a magical place, I hope that the magic helps it to heal and be a beautiful place we can enjoy again.
I feel your pain gent but, I grieve not only from the fires terror on the Wilderness but, also the onslaught of human decimation of over building into this great creation (Oak Creek and Sedona area). As kids in the 1960s we spent many of days too hiking along the Canyon as far as we could see and never batted an eye on the distance traveled. Rarely had we seen another soul in our frivolous play. Today commercialization has destroyed a lot of the true sense of Nature in the area.
An illegal camp fire more than likely caused this unfortunate instance.wet wet wet… not dirt dirt dirt when snubbing a camp fire(legal or illegal).
Man needs Wilderness but, Wilderness doesn’t need man.
I am moved by your truly beautiful heartfelt description of your love for this area. Remember to look up and see the beauty that still surrounds you in the blue of the Sky, a gentle summer breeze and holding the hand of the woman you love. Be well.
Larry, let us know when you actually go there in person so that we have the total picture.
I feel your pain.There are so few truly beautiful things any more. Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona were the first places I’d ever seen that were beautiful enough to make me shed a tear. It’s why I moved across the entire country to live in Arizona. I was always a little jealous of the people, like you, lucky enough to actually live there. Yet since I’ve moved here I haven’t gotten to see it as much as I would have liked and now, maybe I never will.
I hope that nature will bounce back and it’ll be better than ever, but it’s likely to be a long time and, yes, it will never be quite the same. I”m so sorry that we’ve lost one more awe inspiring beautiful place in our country and my heart is with all the people who loved it so much that they made a life there and now have lost much of it.
Great News about the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon! Photos of the West Fork area, including the Call of the Canyon trail, received low intensity fire effects. Fire moved primarily on the ground with flame lengths of 4ft and less leaving tree canopies and riparian areas intact. 7 photos (click to the right) https://www.flickr.com/photos/coconinonationalforest/14090021748/in/photostream/
Post Slide Fire Coconino National Forest video “Riparian areas along the bottom of West Fork remain largely intact.” Yes! (still shots of the West Fork trail starting at 2:22) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAtm8PNr-Cg
Yesterday afternoon, June 9th, I flew over West Fork with Ted Grussing in his motorized glider. The canyon walls are burned, no doubt, but hiking below might not be as impacted as I had thought. The riparian area of the canyon looks green. Very surprised, happy to say, and I saw it with my own eyes. Still waiting to see the canyon from the ground.
Thanks for giving us hope Larry. Can’t wait to be allowed into West Fork and see what indeed has been spared from the fire!