I step through the doorway and silver light settles on me like a benediction. The moon is gibbous, waning, but still casts sharply-etched shadows. Oblong and featureless, my shape seems to mirror the white face in the sky: the edges crisp while the interior is murky and undefined as if infected by some inner decay.
Winking above the Peak, the three stars on the belt of Orion -- the dominant constellation of the winter sky -- stand upright in severe vertical formation. Their alignment is so precise that it appears artificial, like a man-made beacon. North of the Peak, Venus hangs suspended above the horizon. Even with my unaided eye, I can see that she too is waning, not round but slivered like an eyelid. As I snake my way down through open timber, a shooting star slashes between Orion and Venus, a split-second streak so brief that later I question my memory, wondering whether the glowing trail was merely a product of my desire.
In the nadir of the U-shaped canyon, the steady exhale of wind is the only sound. The movement catches my loose hair, tangling it around my face, and I pull the zipper higher on my fleece vest to cover my neck. In a month, this wind will be constant, a river of air flowing up from the south channeled by the Absaroka and Gallatin Ranges until it roars through Livingston like the gray spring run-off of the Yellowstone. The fall wind funneling through Paradise Valley is so strong it's been known to flip semis. When the September blows arrive, Interstate 90 sometimes has to be closed and traffic routed through downtown -- long distance haulers, Winnebagos with SUVs hitched to their rears, F350s with broken-down cattle loaded in broken-down trailers -- bumper to bumper as they crawl past the Teslow grain elevator and the Burlington Northern switching station.
I climb out of the meadow and up to the Forest Service road. From here, I see the lights of Livingston, yellow and red and blue like costume jewelry in a smoky velvet box. The wind is quieter here, a chuffing purr, and I hear the murmur of cicadas. Last month, every dawn awoke with bird song but the exuberant summer rush to breed has passed. The western tanagers and yellow-rumped warblers are gone south, and the flocking robins now only call: musical chuckles and whinnies that seem hollow without the accompaniment of song.
The flowers, too, have faded as most of the plants concentrate on setting seed. The few blossoms that remain are writ in black and white: weedy margaritas and flat-topped angelicas, tall rayless sunflowers with their black inflorescences like clusters of bullet-headed men.
As daylight strengthens, I angle down toward Lost Creek through the wilderness. The Douglas Firs, the dominant tree species in this forest, are haloed by dun-colored flutters: each tree harbors hundreds of dime-sized moths. Their constant movement is reminiscent of fall aspen leaves in the wind. The color of the fir trees themselves is autumnal: the needles on the tips of the branches are all rusty brown.
The moths are the mature stage in the life cycle of spruce budworms. The adult moths are laying their eggs on these fir trees, eggs that will hatch next spring into small, squishy-bodied, worm-like caterpillars that dedicate their short lives to feeding on the already-weakened trees.
Some of the Doug firs -- saplings and trees in droughty soil that suffered during the prolonged dry spell -- are already dead. West of here in the Deerlodge National Forest, the pine bark beetles have followed the spruce budworms, preying on the weak trees. Over one third of the Douglas Firs in the Deerlodge are now standing dead.
Spruce budworms have always been a part of our ecosystem here, but their numbers were held in check by cold temperatures. As our winters moderate, populations of both spruce budworms and pine bark beetles have exploded throughout the state of Montana. The dead trees left in the wake of these infestations are not merely unsightly: they pose a serious threat to the continued existence of this forest ecosystem.
On Saturday when Barack Obama and his family visit Yellowstone National Park, they'll see bison and bears, wolf dens and geysers. They'll see new growth that has sprung up through the ashes of the great fires twenty-one years ago. But I hope that they also see the thousands of acres of rusty Douglas Fir trees, the dead and the dying. I'm hoping that they can look beyond the crumbling roads and deteriorating infrastructure to realize the most pressing problem faced by our oldest National Park: the dominos of environmental changes brought about by global warming in the twenty-first century.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources