Everything to the left of Forest Service Road 5070 was closed due the fires on Mt. Emerine. To our right a distant pillar of smoke connected blue sky to another fire behind the ridgeline of the Sapphire Mountain Divide in western Montana.
Just beyond the front bumper of our SUV, an orange and white painted sawhorse blocked only the very center of the gravel road. There was a notice stapled to it. I got out and read it twice, then stood there for a minute choosing the words with which I would assure my family that it was not only a go but perfectly safe and sane to proceed to Bowles Creek Road just a quarter mile beyond the sawhorse and then on to the hidden campsite we had discovered two years ago. And now, thanks to these blazing bookends, we’d probably have the place to ourselves on this Labor Day weekend.
I mustered a smile and looked over my shoulder. I rehearsed my pitch once more. The road itself and everything to the right of it definitely seemed to be open, just as the fire closure report on the Forest Service website indicated it would be every time I had checked over the previous twenty-four hours. Still, I could feel Cindy looking right through me, seeing only orange and white.
I memorized the number for the office in Phillipsburg, shoehorning it in there next to the coordinates of the closure, and got in the car. We drove about a mile back down MT HWY 38, the way we had come, until we got reception on Cindy’s phone. Would the office even be open? Was the road? Were we nuts?
They were, it was and who’s to say. The kids’ placentas were in the Lil’ Oscar cooler in the back and we knew exactly where we wanted to bury them. Solvei’s had been in the freezer for seven years, Quinn’s for nine. I’m not exaggerating. It was time.
If I had fifty lives I would spend one of them reading everything that’s been written in the field of Evolutionary Biology. That way, after my fifty were up I’d at least be able to tell the creator if I got to meet her that I’d made an honest effort to find her while on Earth.
Among terrestrial forms, functions and the organizing principles by which they evolve and persist it is hard to ignore the possibility of a Mind at work.
In a photo taken shortly after Solvei’s birth, the placenta rests in a stainless steel mixing bowl on the floor below the kitchen window. The mid-wife’s assistant had set it in good light to make sure it was all there. It looks like a bloodwood bonsai, except that it is leafless, symmetrical and encased in what appears to be a beached jellyfish.
A placenta is a collaborative work between mother and child. The two now in the cooler originated on Cindy’s uterine wall and on the first flickers of Quinn and Solvei: They began forming soon after conception when the first cells to differentiate from the fertilized egg, called trophoblasts, docked in the endometrial lining in search of nutrients.
In the process, maternal blood vessels were opened and this trophoblatic space was flooded with blood, thus becoming fertile ground for the root of an embryo. And just like the root stem emerges first from a seed to lay the ground work for a plant or tree, the cluster of blood vessels at this terminal of the umbilicus, fully developed by the end of the first trimester, sets the stage for all development to take place on the other side of the belly button.
Sand Basin Creek comes from the south to join the West Fork of Rock Creek just upstream from the turn-off from HWY 38. Here we turn right and lose the West Fork as the road starts to climb to the northwest. We turn left and bump along a perfectly crappy road for a half-mile, drop back into the basin, skirt a small pond on the right and pull into a dusty patch under two ponderosas on the edge of the meadow that accompanies the meandering stream.
The road gets even worse here, barely passable to our SUV and pop-up camper, but just a tenth of a mile farther we’re in a grove of pines that spills from a low ridge of buff-colored rock outcroppings and shades a couple of nice camp spots cradled in an arc of the stream.
I maneuver the camper into position a few yards from the cutbank above a deep pool. The kids and Rocky the Cockapoo spill out and run through tall grass and pines to the creek. Once the camper is unhitched, Cindy offers to get everything set up if I’ll keep an eye on the kids.
Quinn and Solvei are already yipping and yahooing — yes, kids still yahoo under the right circumstances — because the water is cold and the sand piled even deeper this year below and, in some places, on the banks.
Small beaches heaped here and there are remnants of granite mountains. As coarse as stale breadcrumbs they glitter with crystal fragments and throw sunlight everywhere. Sandbars streak the creekbed below green-gold water. Shoes and shirts are off, feet in the water, fly rod still back at the car. Midstream, we hop onto a mushroom shaped but grippy boulder just above the pool where a few casts paid off last year.
A moth floats by in the current, its fluttering wings dimpling the surface. Solvei mistakes it for a butterfly and so is not afraid to rescue it. She scoops it up and places it on the boulder in the sun. But she’s worried about the breeze and airlifts her patient to the sandy bank. She crouches with her hands cupped around it as if she is warming them over a candle flame.
“Do you think it will live?”
“I think it will.”
Quinn is knee-deep in the stream, eyeing the pool like a heron. His knuckly spine looks frog-like, though pale in bright sunlight, as he scans the depths. Without turning, he says “If it doesn’t get eaten.”
Solvei says,“Wait. What do you mean? Like by a raccoon?”
Now he turns. “No, Solvei. By a bird or a snake. Those eat moths.”
“Wait. Moth? It’s not a butterfly?”
Sol wipes her hands on her shorts. “There are snakes here?”
Quinn says, “Probably. Right, Dad?”
“I assume there are snakes. Hey, let’s go see how Mom’s doing and have some lunch. Then maybe we’ll go check out the canyon.”
“What canyon?” Sol asks.
“You know. Just upstream, with all the boulders.”
“Oh Yeah! Where we, like, cross and cross.”
Quinn says, “But I want to fish.”
“We’ll bring the rod. Remember all the pools?”
Solvei says, “Wait. Are you and Mommy going skinny dipping again?”
“Probably. Somebody has to do it.”
Sol fluffs the moth into her hands and moves it into cover in a sunny patch of tall grass. While she worries a while over her bug, and Quinn, I can just tell, is thinking about going back for the rod, I stand on the boulder and, turning a slow circle, assess the neighborhood.
Compact, lime-green meadows swish in breezy sunlight to the languid trickle of a patient, pool-happy stream. Breeze-bobbed pine boughs dribble flashes of reflected light on the forest floor. Turbulence above the creek, and the current, itself, strum vibrating shoots of alder and chokecherry that droop from low banks. Red and orange lichens and sun-basking moths reveal the molten hearts of granite boulders. It is a richness of light and melody stirred by a breeze that makes even the poorest of fly fishermen feel like a million bucks.
After lunch and a hike up the canyon, Cindy gets a fire going for grilling.
While the flames begin to withdraw into embers, we grab the Lil’ Oscar from a shady spot next to the camper and carry it over to a lodgepole sapling near the base of a rocky slope. We dig a hole in the duff and soil slightly uphill from the tree, then lift the two Ziploc bags from the cooler. The placentas, freezer-burned and beginning to thaw, look like last year’s Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.
Solvei sits on her shins rubbing her palms on her shorts. Quinn stands bent at the waist, his fists on his knees tugging at the hems of his shorts.
Cindy asks, “Sol, do you want to bury yours?”
“Um … suuure. But wait. Which one’s mine?”
Cindy turns over one of the Ziplocs, then the other. We hadn’t bothered to label them.
“I’m not sure, Sol,” Cindy says, an unspoken oops tugging at the corners of her mouth as she glances at me.
“Well I don’t want to touch his,” says Sol.
Cindy says, “No offense, Quinn.”
“You sure?” says Quinn.
“Let’s bury these two and they can work it out underground,” I suggest.
“Dad, that’s just wrong,” Quinn says.
“I meant the placentas.”
Cultural beliefs regarding the placenta vary. Some believe it’s a newborn’s twin, for others an older sibling, or just a friend. Burying it properly is a nod of recognition to the relationship between humans and the earth. Yesterday after I checked the fire reports I went to Wikipedia and read, “The Kwakiutl of British Colombia bury the girls’ placenta to give the girl skill in digging clams and expose boys’ placentas to ravens to encourage future prophetic visions.” And these are people who hunt six-ton sea mammals in dugout cedar canoes, so they know something of the yin-yang nature of things. Root the earth; seek the sky.
Elsewhere, placentas get ritually eaten. Hospitals burn them in incinerators.
The kids help Cindy slide Jane and John Doe out of their Ziploc body bags and into the hole. As they land mostly frozen and absolutely inert I start to regret not waiting to do this until the placentas have thawed, but I don’t want to spoil the moment, or the placentas, so I keep the thought to myself. But then I remember our original plan, which was to give them to the Blackfoot River.
“It’s not too late to give them a burial at sea, Babe,” I say.
“I think it is.”
Solvei says, “Wait. What?”
“Remember the look on Kevin’s face when we told him our plan?” Kevin is a friend and compulsive fly-fisherman.
“Wait. What did Kevin say?” Quinn asks.
“He said, ’Please don’t.’”
Cindy says, “No, this is the place.”
Quinn starts looking in earnest for a poker stick as Cindy and I arrange the placentas side by side in the hole with our bare hands. After all those years in the freezer they seem to want a warm touch.
Quinn and Sol use sticks to push dirt into the hole. We all say thank you and goodbye and then take a good luck around to commit the plot to memory. We predict a growth spurt for the young pine and make a pact to return often to check on it.
We grill chicken and corn on the cob for dinner; for dessert, a slightly smoky sky with a few clouds now lit from below in shades of rainbow sherbet. Before dark a little smoke sinks on currents of cool air onto the meadow and drifts along with the creek.
On Monday morning, the end of summer is palpable as we pack up the camper and fix lunch for the road.
But the noon sun is warm and the windows are down as we drive out on FS Road 5070. When we come to the paved road Solvei waves goodbye to the orange and white sawhorse.
The West Fork ushers us out babbling its own, long adios. So many deep pools, I can’t keep my eyes on the road. Then, just before a bridge crossing where we’ll go our separate ways, the creek slams into a logjam, throwing out its arms as if in protest for being left behind.
When we reach HWY 1 near Phillipsburg, a few of the peaks of the Pintlers to our right are wearing scarves of smoke from the Ermine fire. We turn left toward I-90. To the west a long smear of smoke from the Divide fire streaks north over the Long John Mountains. Two fires less than ten miles apart and the smoke goes in opposite directions? The meteorology is beyond me, but the sky above the West Fork is clear.