“Your mother can’t be with you anymore,” the Great Prince of the Forest says to Bambi, and that’s where I lost it. As a four-year-old living in a forest on the South Fork of Bishop Creek in the High Sierra of California, sitting in front of a television watching the Disney film Bambi, I must have been a sight. My face reddened and contorted, my cheeks swelled as a river of tears poured down them, and my hands balled up in fists around my eyes, as if to hold in the immense sadness. There I sat on the floor inches from the screen as Bambi and his mother fled from hunters. The scene tapped into the biggest fear of every child, and the worst anxiety of every mother—separation from one another. I was not at all certain I could live through watching this. Bambi’s mother is shot by the hunters “off camera” with no blood or falling animal shown. My imagination filled that in. Then, a few scenes later when Bambi is a young buck, he and the animals flee a deathly conflagration sparked by a campfire that got away from the hunters. The deer leap over burning embers and falling branches, pursued by flames that grow ever larger as they meet with the trees. I held my breath watching that forest burn down. But the fleet feet of the deer escaping down the river bottom did not just save Bambi, but it surely saved my sanity. I think I would never have recovered had Bambi perished.
Those Disney writers knew what they were doing. You can’t kill off the main character. Did they also know they lit a fire inside me about the natural world, too? Though it is impossible to say for sure exactly which childhood experience fostered my abiding love for trees, flowers, bunnies and deer, I know this for sure: story connected me to my environment like nothing else had ever done up to that point or since. Story made me feel that trees should not burn and that animals should not be harmed. Story taught me about love, story taught me about cherishing every living creature, story taught me that men in the forest are up to no good. Story showed me that death could be followed by life and new beginnings.
I know now that Bambi vilified hunters and set people against the animals and the forest. I know now that wildfires are not always set on purpose. And I know now that persistent dryness here in California and the warming climate, coupled with decades of putting the fires out, means that fires are now bigger than ever before, and it’s not just Bambi that’s at risk. It’s all of us. Rich or poor, no one escapes this wrath. As of Sunday morning, 76 have died in the Camp Fire in Paradise and more than 1,000 are still missing or unaccounted for. Three people died in the Woolsey Fire in Malibu.
Some 128 million trees in California are dead, right now, dried out from not having enough water. Is that more than in the past? Has California had this many dead trees before? We know that Native Californians used fire to manage grasslands near the coast to keep soils and food supply healthy and to thin out trees in some areas. Lighting ignitions in the times before European settlement set fires that burned on their own.
Now, too many little trees in thick stands means there is literally more fuel for fire. According to scientist Kristen Podolak of The Nature Conservancy, too many little trees keep snow in their upper branches in winter, meaning less snow on the ground melting and sending water to rivers. Water to rivers flows to cities, farms and people. More than 23 million Californians rely on water from the mountains and forests to drink and eat. And California’s farms feed not just Americans, but Europeans, the Chinese and Canadians, among others. California trees ought to matter to everyone.
We also know that periods of dryness have occurred many times before, thanks to the science of paleoclimatology. About 3,000 years ago California experienced a period of drought lasting some 1,000 years. Finally, we know that ever since more humans have settled in California, we have made a mess of the water-fire-people connection.
So what can be done? Are the odds stacked against us? With the climate getting hotter, the trees dying and the fires destroying our communities, are there any actions the 39 million people living in California can take? Can California be a learning laboratory to help other drought-ridden lands, from Cape Town, South Africa, to Canberra, Australia? Can we learn from others? Wildfire is not limited to the dry and arid Western United States; destructive fires have taken place in Indonesia, where we can’t afford to lose carbon-eating trees, and even in Germany and Sweden in recent months.
Perhaps it’s time to create a new story. Maybe one that goes like this, that I heard a couple of weeks ago from the elders and spiritual leaders of the Arhuaco people in the other Sierra Nevada mountain range, in Colombia:
Humanity has been sent on a detour, we have taken ourselves away from nature. This is dangerous to us. You are in the Sierra. See each other from the point of view of brotherhood, live as brothers. Let’s go back to the natural ways of understanding each other. The sun, the water, the rivers, let’s listen and obey. Mother Earth is directing and gathering us to take a different route. This is an invitation to begin unifying for the good of the universe. We invite you to understand it. We invite you to be allies, to be messengers and spokespeople. The way we live now, it hurts our mother. We want to heal. It’s not a life of rushing, but understanding how to live better. The idea is not to change the world but to care for it. This mountain, it is the birth of water and liquid, where the raindrops come from, if we can understand the life that water has, can we learn how to respect it? If we ruin this mountain, this home, we can’t create another mountain, another planet. Now is the time and space to think like elders. The trees are the father and the water is the mother. We are like you. There’s no difference. We need to conserve the trees and the mountain. But how are we going to reach the others? Walk together, work together. We still have time to make progress, our mission is the same.