I believe that when we become attached to a particular part of the environment, when we try to understand a place and feel at home there, we don’t just learn about that place, we learn about ourselves. But then how do we change with a place as the place we’ve come to know changes? That question has been with me since Tuesday, August 28, 2018. That was when the US Forest Service reopened highway 108 through the Sierra Nevada Mountains following the Donnell Fire, and a few of us went back to Camp Jack Hazard to take a look at the condition of the place.

On that day, as I walked ankle deep in ash past still smoldering trees, that bothersome question hid behind sadness for the loss of an area in camp that many of us knew as the “Enchanted Forest.” The densely shaded grove of towering pines, a concentration of some of the oldest trees in camp, had always lived up to its name. I remember its enchantment, always dark and cool on a hot afternoon and a little bit foreboding at night: a sanctuary where deep pine needles and thick, rich humus gave a spongey bounce to one’s step. There, the reddish-brown tree trunks, neon green wolf lichen, and dark green needles created the perfect backdrop for bright red snowflowers and pure white puff balls. When we walked up past Cabins 3 and 4, the sound of people in camp was muted; the sound of the trees moving and birds chirping dominated. The Enchanted Forest was a place where the landscape and the soundscape changed in such a way that it had the power to change us. Whenever I walked into it, I couldn’t help but feel that an adventure was beginning.

I can’t remember the point of our game, but I do remember one summer leading a wild run from the lower village up beyond the flagpole and into the Enchanted Forest with my cabin’s worth of campers in hot pursuit. We dashed past the other cabins hooting and hollering, trying to be as disruptive as possible to the post-lunch rest hour. But as the ground under our feet and the sky above our heads changed, we changed. We slowed our pace and hushed our shouts. We moved deeper into the forest. Out of breath, we threw ourselves down at the base of those giant trees. Some, on their backs, looked up through the branches at the rich blue of the sky, while others, their attention drawn downward, dug into the pine needles to find bugs and sticks. Except for our breathing we became quiet, focused. We had, in just a few moments, fallen under the forest’s spell. That is the power of such a place.

The Enchanted Forest was special to many of us. It was a sanctuary of sorts, where you could find a great walking stick, huge pinecones, a quite spot for peer counseling, a much-needed nap in the shade, or maybe even a secret meeting with your camp crush. But its real enchantment was more than that. It was a place to marvel at the beauty of nature. A place to feel small in a vast world and yet connected to everything — and then it wasn’t. 

The enchantment was over. The Donnell Fire had seen to that.

At least that’s what I thought that day as I walked through the ash. I see now that my sadness was masking other things. Enchanted can be defined as charmed, delighted, enraptured, fascinated, or under the influence of. I certainly was not charmed or delighted that day but fascinated: Defiantly fascinated. I was still under the influence of the place, but I didn’t know it. No longer the Enchanted Forest, it had become the “Burn Scar.”

I found the Burn Scar fascinating in ways both frightening and, I later realized, hopeful. On that day, the frightening ways were obvious. Smoke rose from holes in the ground where the roots deep below still burned, and the soil itself had been reduced to six inches of sterile ash. On top of that was the frightening knowledge that climate change had fundamentally altered the role of fire in this environment. Frightening because it seemed I was looking into the future. If, like me, you have a love for the natural world, for both specific places and land anywhere left in wilderness, then I’m sure you’ve felt my same fear and grief. Over and over since the fire, campers, staff, and alumni have expressed those feelings of grief. In different ways kids and adults have expressed the feeling that camp had been diminished. That the place is now less than it was before the fire. Each expressed it as a material loss; the trees, if they returned, would take a hundred years. The rocks, charred and fractured by the heat, would never look the same. But the loss expressed ran deeper. “The spirit of the place is different” is how some explained it to me. I felt that same change in spirit. But was it the spirit of the place or my spirit?

Thinking back, I can see hopeful signs were there too. Camp Jack Hazard had survived. The summer program could continue. Even the Burn Scar offered some hope. There was water seeping out of the hillside. And then there were the ants. Even that first post-fire day, as the earth smoldered, ants burrowed up out of the ground to build their circular mounds, carrying with them tiny bits of soil.
It really wasn’t until the following spring and summer that I recognized my fascination for the Burn Scar — and perhaps even a slow turn toward something like enchantment. By late spring that seep of water had expanded, and in the middle of a muddy patch of ground perhaps seven by nine feet a few small ferns, some clumps of horsetail grass, and tall yellow coneflower began to sprout. Dominating the scene were the hundreds of burnt trees standing on the hill of ash. The rather daunting task of removing this dangerous deadfall had just begun, and grief was still my predominant feeling in this place.
In his teachings on grief Francis Ward Weller had this insight: “The work of a mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That is how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I will bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.”
This way of thinking is akin to an approach I learned as a leader at Camp Jack Hazard. When a child expresses homesickness at the beginning of the week or camp-homesickness at closing campfire, the best approach is to acknowledge the sadness and reflect it back as gratitude. “It’s hard to leave something we love, but aren’t we lucky to have had that in our lives.” Here was a lesson for and attitude toward the Burn Scar that I saw from a few others — and I found it helpful. While sharing with others I found moments of gratitude for the Stanislaus Hotshots (professional wildland firefighters) who had stood for three days against the fire on our site, gratitude for everyone who had worked to thin our overgrown forest in the several years prior to the fire, and gratitude for the partnership Jason Poisson, our executive director, had made with a local logger for post-fire tree removal. These were positives, but could they balance the loss of the Enchanted Forest?
The need to remove the burned trees was obvious but it still pained me to see the horsetail grass, ferns, and those few coneflowers disappear under the tread of heavy equipment that summer. The area became for me an industrial zone — the sound of saws and trucks an intrusion that dampened thoughts of gratitude for camps’ survival. I could appreciate the need for this work, but mostly I felt a desire to look away. Camp staff rerouted trails and avoided the area as much as possible, focusing on programs and giving the kids a camp experience to remember. 
Leave it to a kid to shake my perception, to give me new eyes and a camp experience to remember. While walking back from Ragger’s Point, on a rerouted trail skirting the worst of the Burn Scar, a camper turned to me and asked, “Was there a fire here once?” I was taken aback. How could her experience of this place not be marked (as mine was) with the absolute certainty of fire and smoke, destruction, and loss. Why couldn’t she see it, or perhaps, what did she see that I overlooked? Her question drew my attention to the burned ground level stubs of manzanita plants, each now marked at its base with a new clump of dark green foliage, and to the water flowing and pooling along the trail where a variety of grasses and ferns had eluded the tread of logging equipment. I confirmed that there had been a fire and when prompted she remembered more shade in Upper Village during her first two summers at camp. She expressed curiosity and acceptance. We drifted from the topic of fire to what she remembered about her first sessions at camp: her cabin leaders, the overnight, the stars, friends. From there we moved on to this year’s experience, old friends, new friends, and new overnight plans. 
As has happened to me more times than I can count over a career working with children, I was called back to the now. I was reminded to live in this moment. It might have been the conversation and perhaps camp’s persistent call to “look up . . . 
and lift” that led me to look more consistently for healing in the Burn Scare. Though the daily life of camp largely avoided the area, I found opportunities around the edges of the logging operation to notice the water, the returning buckthorn and manzanita, the ferns, and the deer who came down the hill for this returning bounty.
The following summer, when COVID-19 necessitated canceling the summer program, logging and cleanup continued, but mostly in areas more on the periphery of camp. In the scar that had been the Enchanted Forest the ash had vanished, replaced by soil — and that small patch of ferns and grass that had disappeared under the wheels of the logging trucks returned with a vengeance. By late summer there was a meadow covering almost an acre of ground. Added to the horsetail, ferns, and coneflowers were thistle, three or four different grasses, sage, and cattails. The thistle was a concern. This European invasive species was abundant throughout camp from the creek bed at the front gate to Chapel Rock on the edge of camp where the fire first touched our community. Having gotten a foothold in areas disrupted by fire and logging, it quickly spread throughout the camp grounds. We hand pulled a lot of the intrusive thistle, in a race against the purple blooms’ release of thousands of seeds. 

Another change that had come to camp was the proliferation of toads, butterflies, and quail. At least for some creatures this opening in the forest was a boon.

The reemergence of life on the Burn Scar only seemed to accelerate the following summer. Nature hikes into the area to learn about fire ecology turned into explorations through fire-hollowed logs looking for spiders and climbs over newly exposed boulders. Much time was spent catching (and releasing) Pacific chorus frogs — a species I had never before been aware of in camp. These tiny (about the size of a fingernail) creatures were present in abundance. Stepping through the horsetail grass in the wetter areas caused 20 or 30 frogs leaping ahead of you at every step.

Spending time in the Burn Scar with children helped me to see the land in a different way. It rekindled my enchantment and helped me to focus on the life of the place as it now emerges. It is connected to what once was, but there is an undeniable momentum toward the life of the mountain in its next incarnation. This place has helped me to understand the power of resilience and adaptation in the face of adversity. It has reminded me that endings are beginnings, and it taught me that trusting the process is still an option.

The changes on the Burn Scar continue. The meadow now covers several acres. Last summer campers enjoyed building small houses with rocks and sticks for the frogs. These rookie campers, with no notion of the Donnell Fire, called the area “Frog Town.” I like that, a better name than Burn Scar to be sure. Behind the upper cabins during rest hours campers use branches and bark left behind by the loggers to build kid-sized forts. This fort building behavior (too important to be called a game and common it seems to all children) is both simple and profound. It reveals children becoming attached to a place. It is quite literally kids making a home in the world.

So, in spite of continued worry and concern over climate change, the state of the world in general, and my sadness for the loss of that much beloved Enchanted Forest, I remind myself that one definition of a scar is a permanent mark upon the skin caused by healing. I will keep an eye out for healing. I will try to follow the advice of Wendall Berry who thought it important not just to figure out what the land can offer us, but also what the land requires of us in return. I will try to understand how I can create in myself the kind of resilience, patience, and abundance the land exhibits.

Next spring I will go look for frogs among the cattails. I will pay close attention to what the kids see when they look at the world — their eyes are better than mine. I will look for some enchantment in that new meadow. Perhaps we can reroute those trails again, this time to bring us closer to the changes happening on our hillside. On a new trail we may find new enchantments.

Operated by the Jack and Buena Foundation Executive Director Jason Poisson, Camp Jack Hazard is a High Sierra resident camp for children ages 6 to 17 located in the Sonora Pass. Since 1924 it has provided outdoor adventure experiences and leadership training to the youth of Central California and beyond.


  • Weller, F. W. (n.d.) Quotes. Good Reads. goodreads.com/quotes/10556742-the-work-of-the-mature-person-is-to-carry-grief

Don Pestana is an outdoor enthusiast who began a lifelong association with Camp Jack Hazard in 1978 as a cabin leader. Over the following seven years he held a variety of positions at CJH. In 2015, after retiring from a career as a Montessori K/Pre-K teacher, he returned to camp, first as a volunteer and then as a member of the program staff. He considers introducing young people to nature in a wilderness camp setting a vital service to our shared future and “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”