Wildfires have become a rather poignant, running theme of my year, both literally and figuratively.
Literally, it started in July, while I was spending a month in the lower mainland of Vancouver, British Columbia. Forest fires began cropping up in the news. My grandma and I would check and re-check the papers every morning for updates on how far they had grown, and where they were reaching closer to. At some point, the tally of fires burning in British Columbia surpassed the 270 mark.
Now, while I write this, people are asking for prayers for the fires in Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon, and my family sends me regular updates while I'm on the road, about fires burning in our national parks between BC and Alberta. I drove through them when I returned to Alberta at the end of July, and I drove through more in Wyoming and Idaho, early in my trip. Though I haven't physically been in the path of any danger, wildfire has been spreading through other parts of my life with reckless fervour.
At every step of the way through this road trip, I have encountered evidence of past fires: marred and charred trees, crooked or fallen, limbless and delicate; landscapes set barren against a harsh sun; rivers dammed with scorched brush, thrown now by pervasive winds. As I drive or hike through each one, I can't help thinking about the loss. The lost life of age old trees, habitat, trapped animals and birds, maybe even the family members of loved ones who have been lost protecting their homes or in the desperate battle, fighting the thrashing of hungry flames. I hear only what's missing: bird song, the whistling of wind and rustling of leaves, the scurrying of squirrels. Almost every single national park that I have visited in my seven weeks on the road has been, at some point, marked by the tragedy of fire; made especially tragic are those that are started by the negligence or intent of humans.
In parallel, I have been experiencing a life-burning of my own, and it began long before the news reports. As a strike or spark, it ignited within me, first burning through the underbrush until its heat rose, and rose. Someone explained to me recently that a house fire started by an accidental cigarette butt or unsupervised candle begins slowly, until it reaches a certain threshold. It is not the size or breadth of the fire that ignites a whole room at once, it is the temperature. It's called a flashover.
"There is a season for everything. A season to go, a season to stay. A season to burn it all down, a season to root and rise from the ashes." Amanda Sandlin
I reached my proverbial 500 degrees celsius in March; that's when I really began to melt down. The final resounding structures of life as I knew it had been totalled by the end of April. Ties were cut in every direction: relationships, my job, my home. I watched as everything I thought I knew went up in flames, and I drove in the opposite direction of it.
I can still feel the heat from this distance, and as I prepare for my return travel, I know the coals are still hot. Whether caused by my own negligence or unconscious intent, my own wildfire has robbed me of so much, and some days it is hard to see what, if anything, has been spared.
Somewhere along the highways and parks that I've traveled as I fled, these burns and scars of forests and meadows began to transform. No matter the devastation, we all know how valuable forest fires are to the natural world. The remnants of tombstone trees become food to smaller plant life that begins to reclaim it, and fire begins to reveal the natural miracle of Mama's fortitude and cleverness.
For some tree species, fire is necessary for reproduction. Sequoia seed cones for instance, are sealed with resin. The intense heat of wild fire opens the cones, and clears a path for germination. While the young trees prepare their roots, wildflowers begin to creep out from every nook and cranny, introducing brilliant colour into previous devastation.
In the quiet, I begin to hear bees, buzzing from bloom to blossom, carrying the promise of change beneath their wings. The quiet hum of wind delivers and turns nourishing top soil. Seeds are delivered by curious birds, and gone are the obstacles by which rain must pass to reach new roots.
Perhaps my most favourite metaphor for how life is replenished after a blaze, is that of the sunlight. For the first time in who knows how long, the sun is reaching deep within my forest, and is kissing me. My sheltered forest canopy removed, the deepest parts of my forest floor are receiving the warmth and encouragement of the sun's energy. Even the darkest places are awash with an intense glow.
While my heart breaks for things lost, and at the thought that I may not see some of my favourite forests at their prime again in my lifetime, I have learned to see now what little remains, but the potential of what lays ahead for both the forests, and for myself. Sometimes, like forests, life needs to burn down in order to receive the world's sweetest gifts: those of growth and revitalization. Like seasons, we must trust in the cycle of life and death.
"A garden has to be turned in the fall in order to prepare it for the spring. It cannot bloom all of the time." Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.
First: Yoho National Park 2016| Second: Grand Canyon National Park (north rim) 2017