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Lytton Holds a Scorched Place in My Heart

I ache for its people. And for a dream of a safe and happy home that seems to be melting away.

Jonathan Van Elslander 2 Jul 2021TheTyee.ca

Jonathan Van Elslander is an ecologist and master’s student at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna who lives in Nelson. Originally from Winnipeg, he has lived in B.C. for 10 years. Find him on Instagram @jonnyvan1.

In 2017, I spent 40 days straight fighting fires. I was 23, newly working as a forestry technician and living in 100 Mile House. That summer and the next summer the nearby forests burned, and I dreamed of being somewhere far from the smoke. For too many years I hadn’t had a proper home. But I believed someday I would have one. And when I drove to the coast, I always felt an affinity for Lytton.

If you live in British Columbia, there’s a good chance you’ve been through Lytton. Or heard it’s the hottest place in the country. Or maybe you’ve just heard about the Stein Valley, or about white water rafting on the Thompson River, or about Skihist Mountain, the tallest in southwest B.C. If you haven’t, I’m fairly sure you’ve heard of it now. But you probably don’t live there. Lytton is home to a small few. Or at least, it was.

I’ve cried in or near Lytton three times. When I was 22, I had just abandoned difficult times in the city. I had chosen a self-imposed exile. I was on my way to a small town north of Lytton. But first I needed to stop my car and give into pain and anxiety.

When I was 24, I cried in a tent next to Antimony Lake below the shadow of Skihist Mountain, speaking quietly to myself in anger over why I had to be there, alone. Why I had to climb this mountain, wondering what point I was trying to prove. I had fallen that day. Slipped on a patch of snow and slid down into a rock pile, certain halfway down that this was my final mistake, the last time I’d overlook some small detail while in the mountains and really hurt myself. I careened into the rocks almost completely unscathed. Except for the tears.

Last year, I cried while trail running in the Stein Valley. I was in the middle of a very long run. I was tired and sore, and it was and still is the farthest I’ve ever been into that valley — a valley that holds deep significance to the Nlaka’pamux people, their territory bountiful and resonant. The valley starts at the junction of the Stein River with the Fraser River. The land there, almost desert, is studded with giant ponderosa pines spread out, licked lightly by fire, the charcoal still leaving a dust on your fingers hundreds of years later. Spread beneath the ponderosas are soopolallie and saskatoon berries, providing food for any person or animal passing through.

The valley transitions slowly as you go west, eventually entering a deep, lush forest. That day I passed the medicinal Devil’s Club and the 100-year-old huckleberries, and the pictographs drawn centuries ago. I felt the weight of all who’d passed through previously. Part of that history was written by flames. The giant ponderosas and their ancestors have felt their understory decimated by fire on a regular basis since the end of the ice age. Fire in this place, often used as a tool by the Nlaka’pamux, helps regenerate the underbrush, provide habitat for mule deer and their predators, and nourishes new soopolallie and the grizzly bears who crave its berries.

By the time you get to the heart of the forest at the west end of the Stein Valley, you have arrived at the edge of the temperate rainforest that sees the final throes of coastal weather systems. All that rain that comes from the ocean to deluge the western slopes of the Coast Mountains also dampens the Stein’s tiny island of Douglas fir and red cedar and hemlock forest, enough that it persists and gives you a whiff of the coast.

960px version of Fraser River near Lytton
The Fraser River viewed from Lytton. Just north of Lytton, the Stein River leads west from the Fraser, a journey from near desert to cool, coastal forest. Photo by Jonathan Van Elslander.

Yes, but why was I crying? It happened as I was running and came upon a cottonwood. A black cottonwood right on the trail’s edge. The tree was wider than I am tall and taller than I could understand. I had spent my undergrad doing research with the people who had mapped the fire history of the Stein, and this tree, sitting at the east end of the rainforest, as if reaching out to touch the dry country, brought out years’ worth of feelings that had festered in me. Feelings and ruminations on the woods, on fire, on rain, on my past and my future. It’s not hard to cry sometimes when you’re trail running. It can be hard to stop. The clammy throat, the feeling that if I had to talk I’d start to sob, held with me all the way back to town. To Lytton.

Look, it’s just a town. It’s just a valley. It’s just a spot where the Thompson and Fraser rivers come together after carrying fish and water and stories all the way from mountains hundreds of kilometres away. It’s just a place where people have grown up and gotten hurt and gotten back up and lived their entire lives for more than 10,000 years. I had felt hurt too. And when I rolled back into Lytton, I got an ice cream at the gift shop on the main drag. And a sandwich in the café. I walked slowly through the streets, photographing the quaint homes, eavesdropping on local conversations about the ferry schedule or the lack of fishermen this year or who had been down to the city recently and why.

I took a picture of the gold panning prospector painted on plywood with a hole for your face, so you too could be a gold panning prospector, laughing for a picture. I remembered the time my dad took a photo of me poking through that hole. I was 18 and had just moved to B.C. I recalled my dad telling me how he had hoped to get rich on gold when he was my age. I chatted with the friendly people of Lytton and did not adequately thank them for the smiles they gave me.

Today I see the devastating pictures of their town blackened and smoldering, and I remember being there and thinking, “Maybe one day I could retire here. I could have a spot to be happy. Friends would come visit. A basecamp for my adventures.”

What tense should I now be using as I write of Lytton, real and imagined? Lytton was. Lytton is. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know how to say it. Lytton as a set of buildings that signified a town is now gone. Completely. Lytton as a geographic location is still there. Lytton as an idea of home is now floating through the air amongst the smoke, and I don’t know where it will come down.

960px version of Wildfire near 100 Mile House
‘I want to live somewhere that has not been destroyed.’ The writer of this essay working as a forest technician during one of 40 straight days helping to fight a fire outside of 100 Mile House in 2017. Photo by Jonathan Van Elslander.

In addition to “I hope to live in Lytton one day,” here are some other things I have told myself.

“I hope there are still forests left in this province by the time I’ve retired.”

“I want to live somewhere that has not been destroyed.”

What tense is that? What tense is my future?

On Wednesday I listened to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson say this is something we’ll have to get used to, something that is already “baked in.”

“We have to be thinking about how we adapt to some of the impacts of climate change that we’re seeing today and that are already baked into what we’re going to see over the next number of years.” He did not admit to who had done the baking.

Lytton may live on. It may be rebuilt. But the most integral part of it as a home is gone. That would be the belief that when you are home, you are safe, you are protected, you are in a place that will endure and support you for as long as you need it. That is gone. It can never be reclaimed.

Does such belief remain, really, for any of us in this era of climate crisis?

My own belief that I would live out my days happily hopping around the mountains and valleys of British Columbia has been consumed by flames, and it will never come back. I don’t want to live in B.C. when it’s like this.

But I don’t want to live anywhere else. My life is intrinsically tied to the woods, to the joy and the peace and the calm they bring me. You have taken that from me, I say to the people who run the government and corporations and media who stall real action against climate change.

For your own ends, you have stolen what was needed to preserve our futures. You have made us feel we will never be able to feel safe and happy, because we have to live every day afraid of the damn weather!

I am thinking now of the people of Lytton who are sitting in evacuation shelters or in friends’ homes or in their cars and saying to themselves, “What will we do? Where is my home now? Will we ever go back? Is there a point in going back?”

All I can hope is that each and every one of them has a shoulder to cry on and a minute to take a break. To sit under a tree by a river and feel the cool air and maybe feel calm for one minute. I hope more than anything in the world they have that right now.

My heart goes out to the neighbours I wanted, but now may never have.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing, Environment

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