The Fires Of Change
Passion and Transformation, Destruction and Renewal
A Wallow Fire Retrospective
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Sniff the wind, and it’s not hard to imagine the acrid smell of smoke or the fires of change ever lapping at our heals. They threaten not only our drought-plagued forests and homes, but also old illusions about management, protection and “control.” And it’s by their light we come to know what to hold on to and what to let go of.
As I post this article, the horrendous Wallow Fire of June, 2011 has been officially contained at around 540,000 acres in size, the largest in the region of Arizona and New Mexico in recorded times. It generally lifted and leaned toward the northeast, often rushing directly at us ahead of 50 mph gusts of wind, filling the western horizon above our wildlands sanctuary with an ominous flame-lit wall of towering smoke. The first few drops of rain seem to bless this moment, with promises of the much needed monsoon season, and we breathe a deep and relaxed breath for the first time in three weeks of stress and worry, hurried preparations and painful considerations. Unless there’s a flare-up, our precious riparian refuge and ancient place of power is now safe from the Wallow’s crimson scythe, but the seasonal threat to the Southwest’s forests and ecosystem increases each year unabated… calling for a shift in how we think about fire, protect our homes and care for the land.
A pall descends as dark as the great unknown, as dark as any real or imagined terrors that might dwell there. From our home in the canyon, we can see a dense black cloud to the west, rising as if to meet the descending shade, its bulbous base glowing a sulfurous yellow as though lit from within. How incredibly beautiful, we think, and also how ominous and awful… filling us with awe.
As we watched this latest wildfire’s progress, the first word that came to mind was “inferno,” evoking Dante’s vision of a punitive hell. The flames were a brilliant red, the color of danger and traffic stop signs, of the gaping palate of sharp-toothed predators, mushrooms too poisonous to eat, and passion beyond reason — the color of the insatiable in mindless search of fuel. Fire has no ill intent, so it can’t be called “greedy.” And yet it acts much like greed itself, growing ever larger with no hint of satisfaction, consuming more and more, faster and faster. Unless otherwise suppressed, it will not stop until there is nothing left to gorge on, when it will at last have starved itself to death.
For some reason, my intuition didn’t tell me we’re in certain danger yet, but it would be utterly foolish not to prepare for the worst. My first concern was for my family… and this land I’ve so long cared for.
We cannot afford expensive disaster insurance, and the possibility of losing everything we own hits us like a blow to the gut. What exactly will we take if it turns out that we can get only one truckload of belongings to safety in time? It seems that we should concentrate on the practical items such as a tent, clothes, herbs for the liver, a mattress and cooking utensils such as would make our continued survival possible. But what about my stockpiles of the books I’ve written, which are our means of helping the world, as well as one of the few sources of income? Or those impractical items that are especially sentimental and impossible to replace with any amount of money, such as family photographs, original artwork and hand-carved Kachina dolls, the heirloom clock and table from Mama, the cowboy booties I wore as a tiny, grinning tike? Should we bother with expensive stereos, when we may have no electricity to run them, no unmelted CDs to play, and no house to play them in? We gather what we can into piles, wrapping the more fragile items for what could be a rough trip out, then pause to look around.
What is most precious to us, we realize, cannot possibly fit into the back of an old truck. Certainly not the forest of riverside willows, flourishing where once there were none. Nor the swaying rows of 70-foot-tall cottonwood trees that I planted 36 years earlier. The giant vines of wild grape, started from arm-length sections. The gnarly grandmother mulberry tree that was producing fruit long before I arrived. The hundreds of species of songbirds that build their nests among the willows and alders. The bald eagles and kingfishers that nest here. The deer who feel safest here and the ringtail cats that join us in calling this their one and only home. It doesn’t help to know that a century after a conflagration, this canyon could be just as stunningly beautiful, as verdant and teeming with life as it is right now. When the flames of whichever fire one day ever overtake this place, it will be a devastated landscape that we return to, harsh and blackened, devoid at first of all green.
Surrounded by National Forest like we are, our nearest neighbors live a full two miles away, including a mix of ranchers and retirees that we care about. And the help that we’ve gotten on the ground – the actual sweating physical work of clearing brush and preparing a water pump system – has been from our closest friends in this area, fellows that were helping even before the threat of this latest fire. Against a backdrop of swelling black smoke, friendships really stand out and concepts like community shine brighter than ever.
The last of the smokey pall has lifted from this canyon, and all creatures including ourselves take a first breath of relaxation and relief. I sit out amongst the sadly trimmed trees and reworked ground around the structures, staring out at the cottonwoods I’ve grown and cared for and choked up over their at least temporary reprieve, feeling blessed by the deep greens of the Ponderosas waving from across a river depleted but neither discouraged nor stopped. Beautiful nature, dangerous nature, in which all acts of creation or destruction are meant to be harbingers of life more than death.
Even if and when the worst is to happen, we will not move away. We’ll camp in the soot and make plans to both rebuild and replant… and near as reasonable to the ever morphing river, where things would be first to grow back.
One of the hardest things for us to do, was giving attention to a sprinkler system to protect our structures with no idea how we might protect the larger land. Another was the recommended clearing around the cabins, the trimming of low branches that we easily recognized and easily missed once cut and removed, the dropping of dead-standing Junipers that were not only habitat for wildlife but also strikingly and wildly beautiful. In the sparse Southwest, river canyons like this are oasis and every bit of plant growth inspires affection… even the tipped over branches that act as ladders for encroaching flames, the dried bunchgrass that serves as tinder beneath the sun dried faggots of lightning killed wood. But what were were doing in all this cutting and raking was simply to replicate what nature herself would otherwise seek to accomplish through fire. When natural, fast burning flames race through regularly, woody debris is converted into fertile soil and the larger trees and wildlife mostly survive.
Smoke from the Wallow Fire came not only from small trees and fallen slash, alas, but also from old-growth ponderosa and fir hundreds of years old. Giants that would usually survive a fast-moving brushfire, ignite like Roman candles largely because of decades of woody buildup on the forest floor. This kindling, piled at the bases of the big trees, exists thanks to the well-meaning but misguided policy of complete fire suppression — and the unfortunate efforts of well-meaning conservationists not unlike myself who may have once pushed for “zero cutting.” Many foresters and conservationists have come to agree that careful selective thinning could have approximated native conditions, while employing locals and increasing biodiversity by creating meadows and encouraging the kinds of plant species that make ideal wildlife forage. Instead, it is the flames that claim the wondrous forests that activists had hoped to save.
Our current “caring” President claims to both care about our forests, and to care about the problem of unemployed Americans. One of the surest ways of addressing both issues, would be a federal program that put folks to work trying to make the forests more healthy. Like the Civilian Conservation Corps that helped ease the sting of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a forest corps could provide a service as well as put food on plates. It’s said that there is no profit to be made from ecologically cautious thinning operations, and that small diameter trees can only be used for making pressboard lumber, but with government subsidies it could be made to work, and millions of acres of forests and wildlife habitat preserved.
The Role of Fire & Results of Drought
Scientists and Forest Service administrators are in agreement now that fire is a natural and essential component of the ecosystem, as much as the deer and its predators are, as much as are those trees and the mycorrhizal fungi that help pass nutrients to their roots. The mistake was in thinking that we knew more than nature and more than the Native Americans who had for so long used wildfire as a beneficial tool. Our relatively recent shift in understanding is more important than ever, given the degree of woody buildup during what is likely to be an increasingly difficult drought cycle.
Climatological research indicates that we likely came to the end of a long wet and cool period in the last 50 or so years, and that we may be entering a 500-year period of increasingly hotter and drier weather. This prediction is based on measured historical cycles without figuring in any additional increase in overall global temperatures due to human impacts. As it turns out, what we call drought conditions are actually the norm for this region, necessitating shifts in how we think and act. One result is the shortage of drinking water and water for our endangered rivers. Another is an increase in the number and intensity of fires, as we’ve seen again and again.
A recent report by the National Science Administration, “Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millenia”, presents an analysis that indicates the area burned each year in the western United States from even a 1º centigrade warming in the average temperate will likely increase between 73 percent and 600 percent compared to recent levels. If you weigh in even the most conservative future global warming projections, assessments exceed 1º centigrade over the next century and as much as 6º centigrade depending on the actual extent of greenhouse gas emission effects, it begins to look grim.
Combined with an unnaturally high volume of combustible material, this drought in portions of the Southwest has already meant more fires, with greater total number of acres burned as I write this in the Summer of 2011. Much of New Mexico and Arizona is shown to be in moderate to exceptional drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor map, with both the drying out of the Southern U.S. and increased rains in the North expected due to a shift in the circulation of the atmosphere. The jet stream will retreat poleward, and rain-bearing storms that travel along the jet will have more moisture to precipitate out, since more water vapor can evaporate into a warmer atmosphere. The desert regions will expand towards the poles, and the Southern U.S. will experience a climate more like the desert regions of Mexico have now, with sinking air that discourages precipitation. This year’s record rain and flooding in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as the worsening drought in the Southwest are attributable to La Niña, intensified by whatever degree of climate change is resulting from continued industrial emissions.
Even while dealing with fire’s very real dangers, we need to keep in mind that it’s not our conscious enemy… it’s a process to be understood, used when possible, and respected always. Early tribal peoples had good reason for considering it a spiritual power and seeing the way it served the people as nothing less than magical. Many of those cultures also observed the four directions, assigning each one both a totem animal and a signature element. Not surprisingly, fire was generally regarded to be the element of the east, of life growing out of the fecund soil of death and the defeat of denial, of the sun rising on a world continuously renewed, of inevitable transformation.
It is the incessant transforming of energy that feeds the flames of Ol’ Sol, without which life in this corner of the universe would be impossible. At Earth’s core a molten fire lit billions of years ago continues to burn, heating the deep waters that rise to the surface as the hot springs we soak in. When new greenery sprouts, we note that it is to the fires the plants turn for sustenance and growth, their eager faces tilted to the sun. The salads we eat and any plant-consuming animal that we ingest are provided through a mating of earth and fire as much as water and air. Lightning strikes an old dead tree, and a blaze is kindled. Animals flee from it, while humans, for millions of years, rushed to try to collect it. Whatever the result of its flaring, seemingly harmful or beneficial, fire is always a guiltless agent of change: Anasazi fires kindled for warmth, with wood they found increasingly difficult to find. Grass fires deliberately set by generations of Apache as one way that ensured the fertility of the meadows and, in ancient Australia, to drive forth the game that filled their larder. The fires of conquistadors that seared and lent taste to the flesh of goat and corn. Mongolian torches capped with crimson flames. Fires dancing with shadows cast upon the cliffs of six of the planet’s continents. Fires in rock rings, in the tin stoves of ice-fishing northlanders, and in the fireplaces of houses equipped with thermostatically controlled heat.
A sculptor friend of mine from Santa Fe coined a term for a house’s fireplace or woodstove, pulsing and throbbing in its own breathing rhythms: the “hearthbeat” of the home. It is the heart, found in the room where a family comes together around the promise of warmth, holding a living fire in its cast-iron chest. But it is also the fire we fear escaping its safe confines, swallowing our fragile wood structures in heated gulps, easily spreading to destroy whole neighborhoods. One rightfully fears the fire from the sky, lightning striking down the statistically unlucky, sparking events that can all too quickly level entire forests. Fires exploding on cue in our internal combustion engines, converting oil from the corporal bodies of prehistoric beings into noxious airborne gases. Fires lit by white-robed racists to drive some family out, by occasional dishonest home owners in order to cash in on the insurance, by the shivering homeless people lighting trash behind an urban convenience store. The Indians coveted the early colonists’ guns, calling them “fire sticks.” And of all the things in the world that scare us, we perhaps fear most the atmosphere itself set ablaze by a thermonuclear warhead, hundreds of times more powerful than those set off above devastated Japanese cities in 1945.
In the psychological sense, it seems the cycle of destruction and rebirth manifests early on. The lives we bind so tightly often come apart wildly. Carefully mended and tended psyches unravel when we least expect it, responding to the disorientation of an increasingly vicarious and abstract society: The rootlessness of modern generations, the loss of tradition and impounding of elders. The retreat to drugs and alcohol, into facile entertainment or constant activity. The dominance of the future and the past at the expense of the present; the repressing of emotion and rejection of adventure. In the process we feel “burned” — our homes, careers, families and identities sometimes going up in smoke. What psychotherapists call a “nervous breakdown” primal cultures considered shamanic transformation, the necessary total consumption of one’s old form by the purifying fires. Beneath the ash — the ash of our hubris — lies the miracle of seed . . . and, as with every seed, the potential for new life and new ways of living.
“From ashes to ashes . . .” the conventional eulogy reads. And in between are birthed ever new forms, ever new manifestations of spirit and bundles of atoms — the flooding of the hottest plain with life-sustaining rain, and the steam that rises as clouds where death meets life and fire meets water.
But the very best fire burns not outside of us but within us. It blazes away in the eyes of lovers and explorers, stokes the hearts of the brave, and melts the ice that collects above the lip when we turn a ship’s prow into forbidding seas. More than the wind swelling the sails, it is the fire of the heart that pushes one onward toward the many faces of the unknown. There was a fire housed in the hearts of those who defended their homestead caverns against the encroachment of giant cave bears, and it still sparkles in the pupils of children calling upon hesitant adults to join in their play. “She’s all fired up,” folks might say about someone, meaning that she has no shortage of energy and that there is “no stopping her.”
Learning To Welcome
While we can’t stop the occurrence of all fires, we can and must learn to do what we can to stop contributing to its frequency and intensity. We need a new relationship with fire just as we need ever deeper awareness of and relationship with the living land we are an inextricable part of. In this way, we can serve the ecosystem as we make ourselves – and that which we love most – most secure.
One is never completely safe, of course, and that is part of the lesson of this and coming crimson Summers. Security lies not in legislation, nor even in courageous fire lines, but in the secure knowledge that whatever comes we will deal with it. And whatever happens, we will still know ourselves as “home,” in place, where we feel we belong.
I close this piece as our friends test the new fire pump bought with donations from the folks most impelled to assist, not necessary for this Wallow it seems, but crucial for the inevitable fires yet to come. The smoke has almost completely blown away, leaving just enough to give the last rays of the sun a still impossibly yellow glow. The volcanic cliffs that I love so much, the trees that I have worried so much about, and even the river are bathed for moments in brilliant gold. Gilded, and blessed.
In the Northwest and other parts of the world, there are certain coniferous trees whose pods open only after being ravaged by a quick burn. Like with those stubborn cones, it often takes a firestorm to expose in us the seeds of our potential. I intend to give my life to this place, to see that the Anima Center can continue to host folks for deep connection and life-changing realizations, to try to see that this restored sanctuary never burns down. At the same time, I hope to one day learn how to welcome — like those tightfisted cones — the release of flames, the heated passion of fire and change.
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