(This article is reposted with permission from Starhawk.org)
Sacred fire, that shapes this land,
Summer teacher, winter friend.
Protect us as we learn anew,
To work, to heal, to live with you.
This is the chant we sing each summer as part of the fire protection ritual we do on my land in Western Sonoma County. As the fires rage, as I worry for our land and ache for our neighbors who have lost homes and even lives, I want to honor fire for the great teacher she is. Those of us who live in places where wildfire is a constant summer threat learn some deep lessons—the very lessons we all need to navigate a world where climate change has intensified the dryness and the winds.
Nature is more powerful than we are. If you doubt it, look at the pictures of the devastated neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, or for that matter, the flattened towns of the Caribbean or the flooded neighborhoods of Houston. We are part of nature, but we exist within her constraints, and we ignore them to our peril.
The indigenous people of California understood fire. They regularly burned the land to keep the underbrush down and reduce pests and diseases. The fires remained low and relatively cool, the forests open and parklike, perfect habitat for game. But conditions are so different today, and human settlement so much more dense, we find it hard to apply those lessons.
There are many things we can do to reduce the threat of fire—and we do them! Thinning, grazing, keeping a defensible perimeter around our structures, cleaning up, trimming the grass. But in the end, in a firestorm like we’ve just seen, none of that may avail. Nature is more powerful than we are.
Possessions are impermanent. We may enjoy them, even cherish them, but we cannot be defined by them. In fire country we know that they are on loan. If they go, we will mourn, but we will not be surprised. Lives are more important.
We survive by the grace of our neighbors. Our homes are protected by those brave and honorable folks who join the volunteer fire department. They go through hours and hours of training—which also require long hours of driving, and meetings, and more and more trainings. In fire season they are on call day and night, responding also to medical emergencies, and do their best to save homes and lives without judging. We are dependent on their generosity and courage.
Even more than that, we are dependent on our neighbors’ vigilance, their care of their land, their caution with candles and cigarettes, their alertness to report smoke or the glow of fire. We depend on their help in times of emergency, and their company in times of celebration.
Anyone who thinks they are entirely self-reliant does not live in fire country. Fire does not discriminate—it will not spare you because of your skin color or your prosperity or your affiliation for power, or even because of your virtue. Loss comes to those that deserve better, and luck comes to the undeserving.
Hope lies in the good will, the courage, skills and selflessness of your neighbors, and the sheer common sense of strangers to guard their cigarette butts. We are all in this together, and the conditions of life here demand that we recognize that truth and help one another.
If the land goes up in flames, there are many possessions I will miss. I will mourn the loss of structures we have built and money we’ve invested. But the greatest loss—once lives are safe—will be the trees we’ve planted, the food forests, the hedgerows of lavender and rosemary, the hours and hours of work gone into the land. We know, when we plant, that everything we do is on sufferance, yet we plant anyway. In that lies our faith—that there is value in the planting, the work, the vision.
After destruction comes regeneration.
Redwoods push out new needles; Doug fir seeds sprout. Bees return, and wildflowers bloom. Fire is the destroyer, but also the great renewer. What comes after will be different, but it may thrive in a new way.
In an impermanent world, I remain grateful for what I have, for each day when the land remains green, for each drop of rain that falls, for the help and stalwart courage of the firefighters and the devotion of the medics, for the friendship of those that surround me. I remain grateful to fire, our comfort in winter, our harsh teacher in these dry and windy autumn days. Despite the worry, the losses, the fear in these lessons, I am grateful to live in a web of relationships forged by fire.