Have you ever visited the site of a forest fire? If you live in the western United States, your answer is likely yes, as the frequency, size and intensity of forest fires has increased significantly in the last several years. As the climate continues to shift and the base temperature rises, conditions change. Beetles that used to die off in colder climates no longer do so and eat their way through the pine forests, turning the mountain sides red and then grey. I worked at a wilderness camp in the northern Rockies of Colorado in 2003, and the landscape is completely different now as the lodgepole pines meet their demise in the form of a tiny insect. At camp and in all the other areas where this is happening, other than manually removing the trees [aka not practical for most situations], the only remedy is fire. But with the increasing popularity of living in the picturesque mountain villages where these beetles now thrive (and feast) in addition to the continually increasing population, fire is not welcome. Fire is the enemy, and it makes sense, doesn’t it? If I lived in a mountain town in Colorado, even as I watched my beloved hillsides turn red and then brittle grey, I wouldn’t want them to burn. I wouldn’t want to have to flee, or watch my neighbors lose their homes. I would want people to be safe and happy and thriving. It was sad to watch those trees at camp come down, even though it had to happen. I wanted things to look how they always had. After all, I had good memories from that place.
The catch is that I also want my beloved forest to be happy and thriving. Skeletal trees left to act as silent sentries don’t conjure up feelings of “thriving” in my mind. When the trees die, the forest needs transformation. It needs change. It needs a blast of energy to invite newness to enter into its realm. It needs fire.
Phillip Conners writes, “Smokey Bear’s message – that fire was to be stamped out always and everywhere – represents one of the most successful public relations campaigns in American history.” Threats of fire invoke fear into most humans. And it makes sense, right? If there was a fire coming at your village, you’d be scared. I’d be scared. I’d want to put the fire out.
And yet. Conners goes on to describe his work as a fire sentry in the mountains of New Mexico. He recounts hearing a manager say, “Every fire is a birthday for the next forest.” And despite the stigma and the fear around fire, he began to “see that a burned forest as a beauty of its own.”
It’s like that in our own lives, too. Sometimes when we are stuck, in a rut, completely unsure where to move next in life, the only thing that creates the movement we need to thrive again is fire. When we can embrace the heat, the uncertainty, and the intensity that can come with transition and change, transformation takes place. We evolve into a new way of being in the world that can only arrive because we allowed something in ourselves to burn up and move out. When we can let a fire burn up our internal beetles, even though the process can be painful and full of sorrow, we create space in which to shine a light. We invite an opportunity to explore an area that might have otherwise remained unnoticed.
So there’s a sense of emptiness and mourning that gets left behind after a fire goes through, whether it goes metaphorically through a life or literally through a forest. But that emptiness allows a new space to be visible. When something old passes away, it shows us to a gate that leads to a world that lies beyond what we can see clearly at first glance. Jim Hubbell writes, “Our task is to walk through and discover where the gate leads.”
This issue is more complex than simply accepting that forest fires are a part of life, of course. There are real threats to human life, livelihood and communities to be dealt with when wildfires blaze their way into the picture. But perhaps there is something to be learned from the outcome of being forced to deal with the ramifications of natural transformation.
Have you ever visited the site of a forest fire? Immediately afterward, it’s black and smells of soot and acridity. It can look pretty bleak for awhile. But as the months roll on, life slowly returns. And the life there was never totally gone, mind you. Under the soil, microbes and rhizomes and roots, even while the surface was scorched away, continued to live. Seeds that need heat to open were granted the gift of life. After a burn, new trees and plants are offered an opportunity to grow now that the sun can reach the ground. Eventually there is a tint of green mixed in with the black, and with the help of a little nourishment, the new seedlings begin to make their way to the light. Wildlife returns and a new forest is born.
Photograph by Ben Christenson (Sun Valley fire)