Old Wisdoms, New Ways: A Fire-Sparked Reflection

Two days after an approaching wildfire chased my husband and me from our home in the tinder-dry Californian forest, one of our nearest neighbors, who had gotten permission from the authorities to return to the fire zone to check on his pet llama, called to tell us that our house had “sustained some damage.”

It was kind of Peter to try to break the news gently, but he needn’t have bothered. Ever since climate change-driven wildfires first appeared in northern California several years earlier, ever since “fire season” had begun to replace “autumn” in our vocabulary, and residents were encouraged to keep “go-bags” packed and ready by our front doors, I was sure it was only a matter of time before our home and forest were casualties.

After I’d thanked Peter for calling, and expressed my relief that he, his husband, and their animals were all safe, I hung up the phone and wept.

I wept because my husband and I had lost the modest manufactured house that had been our home for the last thirty years, the place where we’d raised our three children, and welcomed hosts of friends, neighbors, and family members, the place where I’d written all but my first book, and which had housed 7000 books written by other people, as well as art, photographs, and family treasures.

I wept for the forest, too.

I wept to think of the frightened, fleeing animals—as well as all the other creatures who were too small to flee. I wept to imagine my favorite trees on fire, my favorite meadows burning, that enormous and precious web of relationships forever altered.

I’d grown up in an open, treeless land, which I’d loved for its spaciousness, for the way that wind, light, and seasons moved across its rolling hills. Although I’d always liked living at a distance from other people, when we first moved to the forest, it felt strange to be so hemmed in by trees, beneath so small a sky.

But the longer I lived there, the more important that forest became to me. Soon after we moved there, it had been the inspiration for my first novel, “Into the Forest,” and it had been the inspiration for “Here in This Next New Now,” the novel I was working on when the fire arrived, as well. One of the many reasons those two books meant so much to me was because writing them helped me to observe, research, and imagine my way ever deeper into the groves and clearings, hillsides and streams that surrounded me. Just like the characters in my novels, the more I learned about the forest, the more I felt that I belonged there. I came to think of that place as mine not because I owned the deed to it, but because it had made a claim on me.

I learned to identify the species of every tree that grew there, and almost every plant. Each spring, I welcomed the first iris, the first fern curl, the first madrone blossom-scented breeze. In the summer, I kept a watchful eye on the ripening blackberries and hazelnuts, while in what we had once called autumn, I collected and processed acorns and bay nuts, which we ate in acorn pancakes and drank as roasted bay nut coffee on winter mornings.

I got to know the animals, too. I discovered bear scat in our yard and mountain lion scratch marks on the big leaf maple next to the old travel trailer that served as my study. I followed wild boar through the woods, and delighted in the generations of fawns who gamboled on our front lawn. Working with a wildlife rescue agency, I released foxes, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes onto the land. I came to think of the pair of ravens who lived in one of the firs at the edge of the clearing that held our house as part of the family, and they must have thought of me as family, too, since they often went on walks with me, flapping from tree to tree as I tromped through the woods below them.

Over the years, I’d discovered many treasures on those walks—hummingbird and wild turkey feathers, deer antlers, owl pellets, a raccoon’s tail, a bird’s skull no larger than my thumb, as well as several arrowheads knapped by the First Nations people who had inhabited that forest first, and whose brutal slaughter and displacement from their homeland was infinitely more violent and tragic than mine could ever be.

After Peter and I had said goodbye, I wept for the forest, and I also wept for the whole Earth, for our dear beleaguered planet and all we humans are putting her through.

“It’s just nature,” a well-meaning friend told me a few days later. I knew she was trying to console me by reminding me that northern Californian forests had evolved to burn, that forests like ours relied on fire to keep them healthy and bountiful. In fact, one of the many ways Native Californians had “tended the wild” was with the judicious use of fire. But now, in the face of global warming and in the middle of the Sixth Extinction, I knew it was impossible that my beloved forest could ever regenerate in the ways it was meant to.

Besides, there was little that was natural about that fire. Instead, it was the unfortunate conjunction of record-breaking high temperatures, a freak electrical storm that bombarded northern California with over 12,000 lightning strikes, a severe drought, and many decades of ill-advised fire suppression. It was not a natural disaster but an unnatural one, not an “act of God,” but the result of human ignorance and greed, that same lethal combination of opportunism and denial that is causing increasingly extreme weather the world over.

The 19th century British polymath William Morris begins his essay “How We Live and How We Might Live” by describing the perpetual war that capitalism has thrust us into, and decrying its ruthless competition and vast waste. Later in that visionary essay, he lists the four requirements he claims all people need for a “decent life”: health, education, useful work, and “material surroundings” that are “pleasant, generous, and beautiful.” It’s a wise and righteous list, and nearly one hundred and fifty years later, I can think of only one requirement that’s missing: unless we add an authentic connection with the natural world to Morris’s list, humanity will never have a chance of achieving his other goals.

When we sit in our warm homes in front of our glowing screens it can be easy to forget that we are dependent on Nature for everything we have and everything we are. But if we can’t find a way to respect, protect, and even reverence Nature, if we can’t claim our connection to wildness and the natural world, then we—and the Earth—are surely doomed. In our reluctance to address climate change, habitat destruction, and species extinction, we’ve been sawing off the branch we’re sitting on, shitting in our own nest. We are consuming ourselves just as Erysikhthon did in the Greek myth, when the goddess Demeter cursed him with insatiable hunger after he cut down her sacred grove, condemning him to devour even his own body in his infinite greed.

In “How We Live and How We Might Live,” Morris expresses the prevailing belief of his milieu that, “in the early days” people “had to wage a constant war” with Nature for their meager food and shelter, but that since then, “man…has indeed conquered Nature and has her forces under his control to do what he will with.”

Although I admire Morris mightily, I have several criticisms of that remark. First, as anthropologists have learned since Morris’s time, there were ancient people who led healthier and more contented lives than many modern people are able to. Indeed, many groups of hunter-gatherers had the leisure, good health, education (albeit it, not in a classroom), and beauty that Morris claims as humanity’s birthright. I am not suggesting that the nearly eight billion human inhabitants of this planet should—or even could—become hunter-gatherers, but I do want to question the idea that early peoples’ lives were inevitably brutish, and that humanity has been on a continual path toward ease and enlightenment since then. I think that is as false a narrative as the belief in a long-lost Edenic golden age from which humanity has fallen. The truth is much more complex and nuanced, but as thinkers such as Tim Jackson in “Prosperity without Growth,” Ian Gough in “Heat, Greed, and Human Need,” and Pope Francis in his encyclical on the environment have shown, in focusing on our immediate material well-being as civilization’s most important goal, we have lost sight of all the other kinds of progress and all the other kinds of prosperity that are ultimately more beneficial to us and infinitely less detrimental to the planet.

My second reservation about Morris’s claim that we have conquered nature is that it’s simply not true. No matter how much we may have managed to tease or trick or force her into doing our short-term bidding, Nature is even now having the final say. Her “nuclear option” is global warming, which she is releasing not in revenge or retribution but because she has no choice. If, as Morris claims, it’s a war we’ve been fighting with Nature, it’s long past time that we admit we are the losers and that we try—even at this late date—to negotiate a lasting peace.

After Morris declares that we have conquered Nature, he observes that, we “still have [ourselves] to conquer.” Alas, that statement continues to be as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. Whether we are capable of the great feat of self-conquest remains to be seen. We certainly have many reasons to despair. But stubborn, frightened, and self-centered as we humans can be, we have some remarkable traits, too, including our abilities to adapt, to recognize the larger worlds beyond our own lives, and to respond to needs other than just our own.

Some of the most fascinating research that biologists have been involved in recently has to do with studying how organisms communicate and even cooperate with each other. Thanks to forest ecologist Susan Simard and other researchers, we’ve learned that forests have vast and complex systems of communication, that they share resources across species, working together to strengthen and defend their weakest members. Microbial biologists have discovered that mats of bacteria do a similar thing. We must be wary of embracing those scientific findings as metaphors, but I like how those new understandings challenge our interpretation of the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest” to mean simply survival of the strongest and most self-interested. I like how those findings suggest that at least some types of communities survive best when they communicate, share resources, support each other.

The first time I returned to the forest after the fire, it seemed like a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing novel, “The Road.” A thick blanket of grey-white ash covered everything like a horrible snow. The redwoods and Douglas firs surrounding the clearing that held the surprisingly small heap of ash and twisted metal which had once been our home rose like charcoal columns from the scorched earth, while the blood-colored wood and charred bark of the madrone trees’ sinuous trunks haunted me with their semblance to raw skinned bodies. Once I thought I heard one of the ravens squawking a greeting to me, but when I listened more closely, I realized it was only two dead branches rubbing together. At that moment I understood more clearly than I ever had before what it is we humans are losing when we fail to claim our connection with Nature.

In the eighteen months since then, things in my little patch of forest have begun to look slightly more promising. Despite the on-going drought, many of the redwoods have sprouted fresh bristles from their black trunks so that now they look like huge green bottle brushes, while most of the dead madrones are ringed at their bases with new shoots. None of the Douglas firs are resprouting, and I have yet to see any rabbits, but the hummingbirds and doves are back, and wildlife cameras have captured images of bobcats, foxes, and deer. I am resigned to the fact that, thanks to humanity’s inability to conquer itself thus far, my forest will never be the same, but I can’t keep from hoping that, despite the mounting challenges of climate change and species extinction, it will continue to regrow as best it can.

One of the reasons my husband and I decided that we would not rebuild our home in the forest, but would instead move into town was because, after all our forest had been through, we didn’t want to stress it any further. But even though it will never again be my full-time home, that land is still very much a part of me. My first major purchase after the fire was a canvas yurt, which I set up above the clearing where our house once stood, and which I like to stay in as often as I can.

I am writing these words there now, in the deep silence at the end of a day of intermittent rain. It wasn’t nearly enough rain to break the drought, but it was welcome, all the same. This morning I spent a pleasant hour tending the wild by pulling a patch of highly invasive and extremely flammable genista. The black spires and leafless branches of the thousands of dead trees that circled me were a testament to all that had been lost, but as I tugged the genista bushes from the earth, I comforted myself with the thought that those standing snags could become homes for the insects, birds, small reptiles, and mammals who are even now working to create some new kind of balance.

After I’d finished my weeding, I grazed on a trail salad of miner’s lettuce and wood sorrel, savoring how their sour and mild flavors complemented each other. I admired a new hatch of shiny orange ladybugs, and was pleased to discover a pile of fresh fox scat on the trail. I could find no sign of my raven kin, but on the hill above me a robin was riffing on spring, while in the sky overhead a hawk shrieked a fierce claim to its territory. I prayed, in my godless fashion, that my forest can still find a new way to live—and that we humans can, too.

This essay was first published in French in “Socialter” (“Comment nous pourrions vivre.”
Hors-Serie #13: Summer, 2022), guest edited by Corinne Morel Darleux.
Copyright © 2024 Jean Hegland. All Rights Reserved.