The West Coast of America is on fire. Normally that would be deemed a ridiculous exaggeration. Today, it isn’t. We’ve had more than a share of breathing in smoke this summer where we live along the frontline of the Rockies. As I write the now too familiar tale of growing fires, rage out of control in California, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Reports abound from friends in these states whose circumstances range from coping with copious amounts of ashes falling from the sky, to having newly been evacuated, to having escaped with only their lives as their homes spontaneously combusted behind them. At this writing Mother Nature continues to spew forth her rage at what we’ve wrought, with no immediate end to the ongoing catastrophe in sight.
I drove through Yellowstone shortly after it had been ravaged in 1988. What struck me most was the evidence of fire’s surgical precision. Charred stumps stood next to barely singed emerald evergreens. Evidence of mercy? Of a random act of kindness? Of nature’s economy? Of the hand of God? Perhaps all of the above. I talk to the fires in my mind as I hear accounts of them encroaching on friends’ communities. “Be precise”, I tell them. “Take what you need but leave what is not yours.” It is the same voice I heard in my head when I was in the black hole of depression years ago. Teeth chattering, I would say to the dark side “I acknowledge your presence and you may not have me today.” That would not solve the inner upheaval but it did get me through the next minute and the next until finally the dark abated and the skies cleared.
Three weeks after 9/11, a friend and I walked the perimeter of the Twin Towers’ ruins. Our nostrils burned with the stink of sulphur, ours and everyone else’s cheeks were wet with silent, involuntary tears as we walked on the traumatized, turn sacred pavement. At some point we stopped, rather were stopped in our tracks by the fallen, now twisted facade of one of the towers that stood before us. You’ve seen it..that mangled, once beautiful grid. In that moment I felt I was staring, plainly, into the face of evil. That’s how the fires seem to me and somehow its all of a piece with the foment we’re living in America. Democracy under threat, the recent and continued ravaging of environmental protections ratcheting up the attack on our planet for the sake of profit, the anguish of racial injustice finally coming to the fore, not to mention the ravages of Covid…the list goes on. A great deal has been unleashed on us to process, to live through and in spite of, to keep our flames of hope and joy and wonder alive.
And yet….stories of incredible generosity abound. Reports of neighbors banding together to keep watch, of dropping everything to help a family in danger evacuate. Prayer circles, inter faith and otherwise, have formed in number. Extraordinary acts of heroism on the part of fire fighters are ongoing. These outpourings of the very best of humanity, I chose to believe, will ultimately calm all the fires we’re living through at this moment. May it be so sooner than later.