I live at the meeting place of three mountain ranges in Southern Oregon. My home town nestles in millions of forested acres that are watered by clear flowing, salmon-bearing streams fed by icy snow melt. It’s paradise, until fire season strikes. Then it feels more like, well, that other place where you always want ice water.
When you live on forested land, wildfires are a natural part of the territory, but knowing this doesn’t make it easier to breathe. This summer the air quality has hung heavy in the “hazardous” range for long smoky weeks. Among my fellow townspeople there is rising collective unrest, a feeling of being smothered, cornered, preparing to evacuate.
In struggling through the smoke of the literal and figurative fires raging in these burning times, I feel not only my own anxiety and fear; I tap into the collective pain of our threatened and endangered world. In those dark smoky nights of the soul when I would give up almost any material possession for clean air and a few stars, I know beyond doubt that my body is a part of a living earth; the burning trees are my external lungs. I glimpse the natural intelligence behind this great turning of our times; I’m certain that these fires are natural and can offer healing not only to our Earth, but to humanity, if we allow our hearts and spirits to be kindled by the flames.
While global warming is no doubt exacerbating the local fire conditions, forest fires are natural and even necessary in this part of the mountain West. Our forests must have fire to regenerate. Burning clears out dense, overgrown areas reducing competition for prized water and sunlight; it removes the dead, diseased, and decaying trees, jumpstarting life. Many plants, like the California lilac (Ceanothus spp) actually need fire to thrive. Heat cracks open the hard seed casings making them permeable to water and air, enabling the seeds to sprout and bring forth future generations. And, while fires excruciatingly incinerate most wildlife who can’t outrun flames, to the hawks feasting on the exodus it’s a banquet by firelight.
Indigenous peoples the world over employed fire to manage the land. When John Muir first came to Yosemite Valley, he became an unwitting witness to native people’s shaping of the landscape. Gazing from one end of the steep-walled, then-open meadow corridor clear down to the other, he wrongly believed that the land had been untouched by human hands. But only scant decades later, after the Miwok tribe had been exiled and killed, the magnificent open cathedral of Yosemite Valley was choked with spindly, overcrowded, highly flammable underbrush.
Tribes in many parts of the continent practiced their own versions of the Miwoks’ land management regimen. Many indigenous societies believe that humans are an integral, and yes, even loved, part of a sacred, intelligent web of life. This way of grokking the world is rooted in humble belonging and grounded in respect and reciprocity. Through this lens, humans are seen as nature’s way of caring for the whole, employing opposable thumbs, fire, and song. From where our dominant European American culture sits on the sidelines of life, nature appears inert, inane, mechanistic and in need of control. We fail to see that what we narrowly perceive as our best interest – is nothing of the sort. Somehow, we have managed to forget that our well-being is inextricably knotted with clear flowing streams, an ample mountain snow pack, six inches of top soil, pollinators who get paid in sugary nectar, and healthy forests that act as our external lungs providing us with life-giving oxygen, without which, we could not live for a measly four minutes.
The official policy of the U.S. Forest Service was, until recently, to suppress forest fires indiscriminately, with the noble intention of protecting forests and profit. A century of this policy has resulted in crowded, overstuffed forests that are starved for light, nutrients and water: too many trees expending too much life force competing for resources. These weakened woodlands are prone to diseases and insect infestations. When we throw drought and record high temperatures driven by global warming on top of these already stressed-out forests, we have a tinderbox at the mercy of a lightning strike.
Just as our best engineers can’t stop the ocean from eroding prime beach-front real estate and roadways, it’s most often futile to try to suppress forest fires; in fact, efforts to do so often backfire. In this respect, fire and other natural forces resemble the forces of our own human natures. When we suppress our natural righteous anger at injustice, it smolders in our psyches, and even the most insignificant spark can ignite a fury that burns bridges and leaves all of us scarred. When populations of people are suppressed, it results in a demoralized society, abject poverty, violence, and over-stuffed prisons ready to ignite in riots. When we attempt to dam up the inevitable rivers of grief that flow from our broken hearts as we witness the great unravelling of our times, we have to deaden our spirits and our psyches, divorcing ourselves from our extended family circles made up of Syrian refuges and African Elephants. Severing our family ties makes us unutterably lonely, and many of us race around fiercely attempting to fill ourselves up with Netflix and consumer items, which just accelerates the unravelling—creating a vicious cycle of addiction and denial, adding more fuel to the proverbial fire.
And what of the real fires burning near my town? Yesterday I saw a magnificent bobcat in my neighborhood. She was lean and long-limbed, every muscly step a bulge, a grey ground squirrel swaying limp from her mouth. She lives in the blackberry thicket fifty yards from my porch. I wonder how she is faring with this bad air along with all the small spotted fawns with their tender developing lungs, each one with a straight line of white dots along their backbone. They can’t go inside and turn on the air-conditioning to filter the air. There is nowhere else to go. They are in it.
It’s the same with us and global warming: there is nowhere else to go; we are all in it. To respond by burying my head further in the sand as the sea levels rise is, while perfectly understandable and often desirable, it’s not really a productive approach. Even though I want to binge-watch Merlin with a big bag of barbeque potato chips, sometimes I have to hit the off button and sit with my fear, grief, and powerlessness, which can feel unbearable. And yet, after storms of tears and panic move through my internal landscape, I sometimes experience moments of grace in which I see global warming as our Mother Earth’s natural and healthy response to humanity’s forgetfulness of our place in the family of life. Our sacred Mother Earth is raising a fever to burn out dis-ease, overgrowth, competition, and the deadly belief that humanity exists outside the natural world, that we are separate.
And, really isn’t global warming the supreme teacher of our era? It’s obvious that we need technological and legislative fixes, like transitioning towards renewable energy; however it’s nothing short of a true revolution of the heart and spirit that will lead us through the dark bottleneck of the Anthropocene*. This shift requires that humanity pick up the ancient and evolving understanding that we are just one tiny, but important, part of a sentient, sacred, loving, interconnected living planet. It’s from this vantage point that real solutions will become evident and within reach.
How do we heal our relationships with the extended family of life? How do we shift from separation to belonging? It’s a lifetime challenge, one that I will be writing about again. But the short answer is that, just as in any other relationship, I find it best to show up with a soft, loving heart and an open, nonjudgmental mind. To bond fully with nature, we must suspend our disbelief in the ancient wisdom that animals and plants have their own intelligence, are really good at their jobs, and are capable of love.
A good gentle first step is to go on a leisurely walk, spending some quality with your Nature. As I often suggest to my students and my friends, out on the trail, we can more easily allow ourselves, like children, to be joyfully drawn into the dance of life. Maybe you partake in a timeless moment when the smoke finally lifts to reveal that simply miraculous blue sky that had be obscured for what feels like months; perhaps you find yourself up close and intimate with a fuzzy bee covered in golden pollen as she spirals around a sunflower sipping sweet nectar. Whatever, or whoever, calls to you, offer your rapt attention, your beautiful pink heart.If you feel blocked, great, you’ve noticed it. Feel into it. Sit with it. Recognize it, welcome it, accept it, investigate it, don’t get hung up about it, be gentle with yourself. Be interested in what might be blocking your connection to the world around you.
Or, on the contrary, you might find yourself in the flow of a raging river of emotions, which is also natural. Sometimes, when I feel most joyful, and at One with the more-than-human world, the dams of suppressed emotions bust open and I feel my intense pain for the world. I am overcome with compassion “suffering with” the elephants and orangutans, the orphans and octopuses. It’s impossible to be conscious in an endangered and suffering world without feeling pain. Pain is a necessary part of our collective healing. As in all organisms, pain serves the purpose of alerting the need for curative action. If you tap into the pain for the world, keep breathing, and know this is exactly what it takes to weave our hearts back into the fabric of the universe for the benefit of all life.
If, and when, you land in one of those eternal moments where manmade boundaries dissolve and you know in your rocky bones that you are but one golden thread in a mind-blowing, sentient, sacred tapestry woven with manatees and mollusks, take a deep breath from within your larger body of life and source your own natural intelligence. That natural intelligence is how the Earth will heal herself. What is your nature calling you to do in these unprecedented times? For better or worse, it’s a new era and old rules do not apply. There is no normal; there are no maps, and our wild hearts must lead the way.
As for smoke, the fires will eventually cease. The autumn rains arrive, Spirit willing. Sadly, there will be lost houses, nests, hives, lives and a long string of ruined plans, but the losses incurred by catastrophes like fire often force us to reexamine our priorities – like what to take with us in case of evacuation. Fires force change in landscapes. Millions of those hard fire adapted seeds, dormant for decades, will crack open, put down roots and riotously blossom in the charred earth, heralding in a whole new reign of life in the forest. The big question now is: How will we relate to that that new life and will our hearts also crack open to welcome it.
If you want to connect more deeply with your nature join Go Wild Institute for some classes or mentoring.
*Anthropocene: relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
Comments from Deep Times Magazine where this article was published