Out of the Ashes

The ongoing fire season in the western United States has already been a horrifying one, and the extinguishing rains and snows of winter are still weeks away. Yet, it’s not all bad news. Forest fire is a double-edged sword, destructive on the one hand but potentially life-giving on the other.

Fire removes the brambles and suffocating undergrowth of a forest floor. It opens the resin-sealed cones of some trees, allowing seedlings to disperse. Fire regenerates the soil, fostering new growth and strengthening the vegetation that remains. Yes, it is a cataclysmic disaster for communities in its wake, but fire is also the means of creating life, and a forest cannot survive without it.

I wonder if this isn’t a handy metaphor for today? This year has burned hotter than any in generations, and the landscape is especially combustible. We are choking on the fumes, smoky clouds prevent us from seeing a clear path forward, and we all feel the heat. But what if some of the burning is necessary? 

Do not misunderstand me: The deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from Covid-19 is completely avoidable and unnecessary! But the foolish rejection of science, our refusal to sacrifice for the common good, and the magical thinking that this virus will miraculously disappear, should be burned away. And this isn’t the only regenerative fire that is needed.

Our political system, with its escalating polarization and its future-destroying grifting; religion’s hypocrisy, and its complicity with naked power; the unjust and seemingly impervious systems of patriarchy and racism: These are all burning, and rightfully so, as the fire of these current days – quoting the Apostle Paul – “reveals the value of what we have built.”

The only question that remains is: What kind of fire are we dealing with? Will this be an inferno, something terrifyingly destructive of near biblical proportions, or will it be a restoration, the creation of something verdant and green, bursting from the ashes?

I’ll never forget reading an obscure report from the US Forestry Service after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the most destructive volcanic disaster in our history. When officials returned to the mountain it looked like a lunar surface. President Carter quipped that such a comparison was too gracious, as “it made the moon look like a golf course.” There was nothing but gray, dead ash two feet deep for more than 200 square miles.  

But within days scientists noticed the return of wildflowers: Purple Fireweed, Lupine of all varieties, fuzzy-leafed Thimbleberry, and the crimson flowers of Columbine were exploding everywhere. Life reappeared, almost instantly, where the ground had been burning at nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit just weeks earlier.

Personally, I have never lived in a more incendiary time, yet I am hopeful, as the Hebrew prophets were, that this is “a refiner’s fire.” It is not meant for destruction, but for transformation: Through the smoke and out of the ashes, we can be remade, having passed through the flames.