Part memoir, part diary, part poetry, The Last of the Living Blue: A Year of Living and Dying Among the Trees propels readers into the haunting landscape surveyed by author Gin Getz from her remote mountain home in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. Here readers will find the magnificent blue spruce and pine forests of the Rocky Mountains dying from a beetle infestation once prevented by frigid winters now diminished by a warming climate. In a small entry like a poem, Getz introduces us to the problem she faces every day:
Confessions heard in dying trees
a small woman looking
at a big forest ravaged
by tiny beetles
As this passage portrays, Getz’s memoir is a story of witness, a lone woman’s voice compelled to detail the loss through the hope of raising awareness before the tragedy is complete: “I can only tell you what I see. I see our hillsides turning pale green, yellow, brick red, then brown, and eventually gray. If you were here, you would see this too.”
Between descriptions of the disappearing treescape, Getz writes of her life in the mountains with her son and husband, of difficult transportation for goods and services, hard work for daily needs, and welcome isolation for many snowy months of the year. She shares a diary of “digging ditch”—the tough physical labor of clearing a wilderness river diversion of trees, stumps, and rocks with horses, saws, and picks. The work is grueling but the pay-off is large: “Silence. Space. Air. Wind. Rain. Wilds.” The appeal of these everyday scenes carries us through the grief of Getz’s interior conversation.
One summer, drought and fire threaten Getz’s home and guest ranch business through smoke and blaze worsened by the forest’s death: “Beetle kill burns well. This fire has gone huge. We’ll never look at a dead standing hillside the same way again.”
Still, Getz and her family remain on the mountainside, choosing to build a new home from logs they themselves will clear from the other side of the frozen river. This home will be full of light, with room for books and baking bread, a place from which to watch her “beloved trees.” Despite the changing climate that threatens her way of life, Getz knows the mountain will endure. “If I am to have faith,” she asserts, “I shall find it in the wind and wild.”
Sometimes, Getz’s verdant prose lulls us into forgetting that what she’s describing—the death of the trees she loves–conveys the opposite of the rich imagery with which she describes their demise: “Sap emerges in sparkling drip lines from almost invisible pin holes. A new batch of dying trees. A new generation expiring.”
Lush language pulls the reader—the often-addressed “you” Getz hopes to persuade into caring—toward empathy with Getz, the mountain, and the disappearing forest. To those who consider such devastation “natural,” Getz counters with a small dose of science and a large dose of observation: “I take out the draw knife for the first time this season and peel a small log we need for a remodel project on a guest cabin bathroom. With every pull of the knife, tiny white life revealed. Ten, twenty, maybe more. Slicing through life. Larva.”
Readers unfamiliar with the beetle infestation of Colorado’s Front Range eastern slope may require more context before they’re convinced of the link between “the last of the living blue” and global warming, but for those who are interested in this environmental tragedy or remember the Rockies before they withered brown, Getz’s memoir will remind them why testifying to such a loss matters. By many accounts, any policy actions—should the will to enact them ever transpire—will be too little and much, much too late. But for Getz, what matters first is the sharing: “Perhaps there will never be comprehension, but at least there should be compassion.”
As an ecology-based memoir, The Last of the Living Blue falls into a category I call “ecobiography” that connects a human life with the larger ecosystem in which it exists. Ecobiographies are testimonies that bear witness to the natural world around us. Insightful authors like Getz see and evoke beauty for us so that we, too, may understand. As life on earth changes lamentably and inexorably, books like The Last of the Living Blue will become important records of a world once lived with abundance and hope.