We Northwesterners think of where we live as blue and green, like those pictures of the planet from outer space. Lots of water. Lots of trees. Which is why fire shocks us so. Suddenly, a deliciously warm week becomes ominously hot. Suddenly, landscapes we know and love explode in flames.
This week, it was the Taylor Bridge fire, just east of Cle Elum, a scant 90 minutes from downtown Seattle. More often, the fires burn further east.
When I was a child, we rarely crossed the mountains into fire country. Forest fires were something that happened far from my blue and green world. But in the past twenty years, my family has crossed the North Cascades to backpack, hike, camp and rent a cabin in the Methow Valley every summer. We were there not long after the terrible Thirtymile Fire of 2001, in which four firefighters were killed. That summer, the valley was as thick with stunned grief as it was with the heavy smoke of a fire that’s been doused into ashy mud.
Then and now, we hear the usual reminders of the benefits of fire. Of how fires are part of the forest ecology; vital for the transmission of seeds and regeneration of dozens of species. All true, but hard to hear when a place you love has been charred to nakedness.
This summer, we drove up the long east branch of the Chewuch River Road, where a succession of fires has scorched thousands of acres in the past decade, to hike up Tiffany Mountain. The landscape was lonely. Eerie. Mile after mile of giant black toothpicks: no branches, no leaves.
But when we got out of the car and onto the trail, we saw a different story. Abundant fireweed—tall, bright green plants with purple tops like oversized sweet peas—filled the forest floor. Waist-high pines and knee-high fir trees waved in the breeze. Alpine flowers—lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, paintbrush—crowded the clearings. The ghostly tree trunks, surrounded as they were by all this growth, took on a sentinel quality: gaunt elders watching over the next generation.
It’s an irresistible metaphor: how fire clears the way for new growth; how we have no control over when and where the blaze will occur. Over the terror of the flames; the pain of the burn; the shock when it’s over.
I didn’t think it applied to me, right now, not really. Not until I got home from our hiking trip and suddenly, without warning, got kicked in the gut with a whole messy smoky stew of fears about the future, about work, about money, about meaning. You know: about everything.
There’s a writer that pastors and chaplains turn to when they’re feeling burned-out. (Speaking of fire metaphors.) William C. Martin writes this: “Discontent is a wonderful gift. It tells us something. Let it burn openly. If it is deep and valid it will burn and cleanse the underbrush and prepare for new growth. If it is superficial and false, it will find no fuel and burn out quickly.”
Some of my discontent was nothing more than post-vacation re-entry syndrome, as I like to call it, and it did burn out quickly. But some of it is real and important and I’m trying hard to let it burn openly. To make way for new growth. For the seedlings and the fireweed. Which deserves a much prettier name. It’s really the most beautiful of all the mountain flowers.
I’m teaching a non-credit memoir class this fall at Seattle Central. Six Wednesday evenings. Join me! and/or spread the word! Here’s the link.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.