Cathedrals on Fire

The Domes of the Yosemite, by Albert Bierstadt, 1867 (Wikimedia Commons)

Notre Dame is on fire! one of my oldest friends, Jessica, texted me from New York the morning of April 15th

I saw. So awful, I typed back.

Then I lost cell service. Pete and I were driving toward Yosemite, taking advantage of his spring break from teaching high school to explore the park. After paying the entrance fee, Pete and I drove through a natural arch formed by two massive boulders, like granite gargoyles touching noses. With the burning spire still flickering in my mind, I turned off my phone.

It was strange to be in Yosemite that day. Feeling tired, Pete and I chose the easiest path in the valley, a paved boulevard that leads straight to the base of Yosemite Falls. We raised our faces to the mist, surrounded by international tourists. A few spoke French, and I wondered what it felt like to be in Yosemite’s so-called natural cathedral while the world’s most beloved human-built cathedral collapsed in flames.

Both cathedrals were destined to burn. As I (and everyone else) learned later when I Googled the fire, Notre Dame’s wood lattice ceiling was made of roughly 13,000 oak beams, including trees so big they likely started growing in the 8th or 9th centuries. After nearly 100 years of policy suppressing low-intensity fires that would normally sweep Yosemite, the park is increasingly vulnerable to fires so hot they threaten its oldest residents, giant sequoias.

Notre Dame Cathedral Nave, ca. 1877. Source: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library

Sequoias have an unmistakable smell, as potent and alive as the scent of horses. Their bark is the color of cinnamon, soft and almost furry to the touch. Just seeing a picture of them can’t convey what it’s like to walk in a grove — spongy decaying wood underfoot, dust motes swirling through golden columns of sunlight — any more than looking at a photograph of Notre Dame can convey what it’s like to sit and walk in a place that embodies centuries of human effort, or the cumulative faith of millions of people.

Some fires occur in hours, others over decades. For me, the Notre Dame fire was terrible to watch because so much history was consumed so quickly. Watching climate change consume Yosemite and its sequoias is no less painful — just a slower burn.

One of the best things about being offline as Notre Dame went up in flames was that I had time to consider what it meant to me without getting too swept up in other people’s reactions, or reactions to reactions on social media. Instead, as I walked around Yosemite, I thought about when I first met Jessica.

She was sixteen, I was fourteen. I plucked a ladybug off her shoulder, and just like that we were friends. A year later, she came along when my family visited Paris, and we spent hours sketching in Notre Dame together, soaking up the cathedral’s slanted, multicolored light.

At the end of the day, when I finally turned my phone back on and started reading about the latest damage, another text from Jessica came through:

I’m glad we spent so much time sitting there.

Me too.

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