We'd initially returned to Sowbelly after the fire thinking we needed to develop a plan to help restore and heal the land. But as summer turned into autumn, Sowbelly taught us that it was pushing a reset button for itself, clearing away the hopelessly fouled mass of overly-dense, spindly trees that had grown up due to grazing, and restoring a distribution pattern of pines and other plants that was healthy and sustainable. We laughed with glad recognition when we read ecologist Richard Hutto's comment that, "We talk about forest restoration after a fire, but it just got restored. That's what fire does." (Footnote 10)
As we studied more and more scientific literature about wildfire and forests, we learned that the hopscotch or mosaic burns in Sowbelly are a type that leave "sufficient local seed trees that survived the fire (including dying trees with abundant seed crops)" to naturally replace any excessive loss of trees. We wouldn't need to replant (Footnote 11). Further, the biodiversity of the stands of young trees that would eventually regrow would "rival that of old-growth forests." (Footnote 12) Numerous publications told us in no uncertain terms that as unsightly as the dead trees might sometimes look, they provided critical habitats for wildlife and thereby further increased the canyon's biodiversity. Dominick DellaSala's 2006 compilation of recommendations for "after a burn" included a phrase that struck a deep responsive chord in us because of everything we'd been seeing: "intervene only in ways that promote natural recovery (i.e. do no harm)" (Footnote 13).
We were careful where we walked because of that. We knew that soil was a critical factor in the forest's resetting recovery, and all the soil sampling and measurements we made in the first days of a burn assessment study we carried out ourselves confirmed that. In some places the soil had been burned off entirely, laid bare to bedrock by the heat of the flames. But in most places it remained with varying levels of damage. The places where trees had survived, in the hopscotch pattern we were recognizing as a reset of original tree distribution, had the best-preserved soils; grass started coming up there the moment the fire was out and the ground had cooled. Within a month, many of the more severely burned areas had broad swaths of bright green grass despite the autumn season (Figures 34-36) . Trees that were singed but still showed strong sap flow under their bark began to grow new needles even as the trees that could not survive their injuries dropped a protective carpet of needles over the black earth. Singed lower branches died, but a tree can't survive if it has more crown than root mass. We knew each tree with dying branches had injured roots below the soil trying to heal. We tried not to walk on the severely burned soils where grass hadn't grown in yet, or to step in places where injured roots lay inches below the surface. We were witnessing a miracle, and we knew it.