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Lightning Creek


 fire  earth  metal  water  wood

     I went hiking with my mother in the burn zone, expecting to see only blackened sticks where ponderosa pine and douglas-fir had towered on the slopes. I found nothing so dramatic. Instead, where last year's wildfire had cleared out the bitterbrush and arrowleaf balsamroot, invasive cheatgrass and skeletonweed now thrived in the hot sun. Trees singed and yellowed from the burn stood next to others that appeared unaffected. Near the fire's origin, erosion from the spring thaw consumed the trail up the mountainside.

     Both individual moments (a campfire in a drought) and massive transformations (pine beetles thriving in warmer winters) alter the subtle cycles of the forest into unforseen patterns. But there are also unmistakable signs of human care: the diversion of stream water and the clearing of hot-spring pools are labors of love. And what the forest gives back: emerald-green eddies in rivers fed by pure snowmelt and the pine-dry, grass-sweet wind that shifts the flow of time.

     These currents swirl with the ghosts of human history. I grasp at vague tales of Cantonese immigrants sifting gold from abandoned claims and growing vegetables to feed the ten thousand who once scraped this land in search of fortune. Their boiled bones were spirited away home by their compatriots. A few are still in the forest, lost or abandoned.


     He said he had gone up to the cemetery to watch the men dig up the bodies. They uncovered the body of a Chinese woman that had not decomposed. When they realized it was a woman they covered up the body. The grave diggers were not paid to exhume women. There are several local stories that mention that a Chinese woman, Too Hay, and perhaps one or two other individuals never exhumed. It is believed that these are the only remains at the site.

     Allen Pinkham, Nez Perce tribal historian and great-grandnephew of Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (Chief Joseph), tells the story of the people's first encounter with Chinese people in the 1860s: When we tried to talk with them, all we got was a blank stare. So we called the Chinese 'zelmin', which means 'blank stare.'

     After the tribe's defeat in the Nez Perce War of 1877, a white photographer took this image of the young Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it in captivity. In it, he wears a Chinese collar, shirt, and sash. Pinkham believes that the photographer gave him the clothing to wear, a common practice by photographers with Indian subjects in the era: The irony of this thing — they put this photo on the U.S. bond issued several years ago.

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