May 8, 2022

What Forest Fires can Teach us about Right & Wrong.

Currently, the largest forest fire in the United States is closing in on communities neighboring my own.

Wildfires are raging over the southern Rocky Mountains. Plumes of smoke appear over Sangre de Cristo peaks like low-hanging storm clouds, but there is no rain in sight.

The wind has been persistent. Wind season came early and strong to northern New Mexico and has not stopped. Wind that knocks over chairs, throws trash across the sage fields, causes fence panels to shudder and hammocks to spin. Relentless. Wind in our face, blowing our jacket open, the brim of our hat displaced, pushing us backward as we strive forward. With it, the wind has fueled wildfires, turning multiple small ones into one massive one and will not abate.

Towns are being evacuated. The higher the wind gusts, the quicker people need to leave behind everything they have. Ranchers are at risk of losing homes that have been in their families for generations. It is heartbreaking to imagine what it must feel like to have your whole life charcoaled. I imagine animals too running for their lives, fleeing their forest homes in search of new habitats.

Often, when we think of wildfire, we think only of the negative repercussions. We forget that fire is an important part of the ecosystem that helps to cull abundant overgrowth. We know from observing the forest after a wildfire that something spectacular happens after everything is destroyed.

Beautiful vibrant flowers bloom. Fireweed, hollyhock, manzanita, fire poppy, snapdragon, lupine, phacelia, and many other fire followers thrive off of the soil created when dead trees are returned to the earth. They use heat, smoke, or charred soil as signals to sprout. Large pole pine has cones that require the heat of the fire to release their seeds, and the fire creates favorable conditions for the seeds to germinate.

Fires are crucial to forest renewal.

They release valuable nutrients stored in the debris on the forest understory. They open the forest canopy to sunlight to stimulate growth. Fires can also kill and contain diseases and insects that might otherwise spread. With less plants absorbing water, streams are given new space to expand.

Fires wipe the forest clean and kill many trees, yes, but they also create a new template for new growth to prosper, and in time, a new forest will emerge.

If humans could, we would choose to live forever. This shows how far our worldview has diverted from the natural world from which we are a part of. We see the way nature operates and yet we do not see ourselves as part of this natural system, but above it. We are fighting our own aging, our own natural evolution of our physical form. We understand the value of an old growth redwood tree but not the value of our human elders. We resist death, even though immortality would never be sustainable on our small planet.

In nature, death and destruction are not “bad” or “wrong,” as humans perceive them to be. Destruction brings regrowth; death brings rebirth. Without death there would be no balance. There would not be enough resources to go around; there would not be room for new things to be birthed. Even the most irritating creature on this planet—mosquitoes—serve as food for fish, birds, frogs, and bats.

Everything in nature serves the purpose it evolved to serve. We live in a web of interconnectedness with all beings, including fire. No matter how we choose to perceive it, everything is important and has its place. Those things we view negatively in nature have a positive purpose. So next time we are quick to judge something adversely in our lives, we may consider what greater purpose it holds to the whole of our existence.

I selfishly want the fires to end, to stop people’s homes from burning. I anticipate the harrowing hole in my heart when I will drive through those decimated forests in the months to come and mourn for the trees, even though I know their consumption by fire was a part of their life cycle. Even though I know in a year there will be fields of bright flowers popping out of the decay, with my own sense of time as limited and linear, I will still feel heartbroken by the forest’s demise.

Scrolling through the forecast of endless days of wind, which means smoke-filled afternoons indoors and blazing, colorful sunsets, I can only pray for rain, calling down the water to quench the thirst of the insatiable fire, to soothe the scorched earth, and to nourish the upcoming regrowth.



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