After the Fire
Lessons from a Holy Place
These past few days, I’ve been away. I took my kids into a place I’ve wanted to visit my whole life: the Sequoia National Forest. Though it was not easy to do safely during an ongoing pandemic and as the single parent of two young kids, this place was calling to me, and it would not be denied.
Last September, lightning struck in two separate places near the Sequoias, originating two separate wildfires that eventually merged.
For more than three months, this “superfire” raged, and was not contained until just before Christmas of last year. It burned for six full months before it was extinguished at last.
Inside the park, fire damage is visible everywhere. Whole canyons inside the park are decimated.
And yet, alongside so much devastation, there is obvious— and sometimes incredibly beautiful— new growth.
While we were there, we took a nature walk with one of the National Park Service guides. The focus of the walk was fire– how it works, how plants and trees survive it, and what comes next in its aftermath.
Fire is a natural part of the growth cycle of the park. Indeed, it happens so often that certain plants have adapted a degree of fire resistance.
In the case of the Sequoias, the bark of certain ancient trees is nearly two feet thick, meaning that fire has to burn through that incredibly dense outer layer in order to permanently harm the tree.
If it does not, the fire-damaged sequoia will grow over scarred areas in its trunk over several years, and eventually heal itself completely.
On top of learning about various adaptations to survival, we learned quite a bit about current fire practices in the park. On the day that we visited, the park was engaging in a “controlled burn” near the biggest trees.
A controlled burn is a fire set by park officials in conjunction with local fire departments that is designed to burn off combustible material from the forest floor that is fuel for “superfires,” such as the one that raged in Sequoia National Park last year.
This is a return to the selective use of fire, consistent with indigenous practices that helped to preserve ecodiversity for centuries, to prevent the worst damage in advance of when the next superfire emerges.
The Sequoia National Forest contains the oldest living being on earth, a tree that has been here for an estimated 3400 years. The scope of the time that enormous being has lived boggles the mind.
(In classic American fashion, the tree itself has been named for a Civil War general who nearly eliminated the sacred Buffalo from the face of the earth and led mass genocide of native Americans as a part of westward colonization of North America. That gesture is sacrilegious to the point that I won’t use the name here. However, it should be noted that for a period of time in the late 1800s before the national park system was established, a utopian socialist colony took over the land and renamed the tree for Karl Marx. The history of how access to the park and its trees was created is an incredible and fascinating story.)
The birth of this particular tree precedes slavery, indigenous genocide, settler colonialism, European world domination, the Crusades, the birth of Jesus, the Roman empire, the birth of Buddha, the Iron Age, the Zhou dynasty, the first evidence of written Aramaic language, and so much more.
In short, this tree has seen a lot.
And it is not alone. It is surrounded by giants, younger than it but not by much, who have been here for longer than the imagination can grasp. The park is a place of wonder, of magic, that vibrates with history and endurance and growth through centuries of challenge.
Preserving these ancient trees was a primary focus during the superfire of 2021 that ravaged the park.
Most of the Sequoias are still standing. They are survivors.
There is good oxygen in that place, and lots of lessons to be learned.
I have been wondering a lot lately about how we’re supposed to survive this current moment in America’s devolution. A few months ago, I wrote a widely-reviewed essay about how our national house is on fire, and how we’re all in need of political firefighters.
That rescue doesn’t seem to be coming, and so now the question becomes how to survive what’s coming next.
For this reason, I’ve been focusing so much of my work lately on building community and on mutual aid. All folks of marginalized identities need to lean on each other now, and commit to mutual liberation.
I’ve also been focusing on my own survival and healing. Like many, the trauma of my life feels these days like it is reignited anew with every loss of rights, every refusal to address looming fascism, every waving of the hand at the incursions on democracy, every good old boy “reasonable republican” comment from those in power.
Like many of you, I find myself afraid much of the time, awake at night worried for my children and their future, wishing I had a magic wand that would rectify where we are and that would create a better world.
There are real questions about whether America will still be standing when we’re through this current moment, and who will survive it, given that so many already have not.
While we were in the grove of the giants in Sequoia National Park, I put my hand on a tree not far from the oldest one. I silently asked it for wisdom. My kids put a hand on the bark of the same tree, trying to listen for its heartbeat, that pulsing of water up from the roots and out to the branches that keeps it alive and leads it to growth.
I don’t know that I got any answer back to my question on survival, but I did hear this: “We were here before you, and we will be here after you.”
They know better than we do what it means to carry on.
For despite raging fires, you can’t stand in that park without knowing that everything within it is connected to everything else. No part of it functions without connection to another part of the ecosystem.
The survival of every creature in the forest is dependent on every other creature within it, down to the tiniest bug and the smallest seedling after a fire that will eventually become another giant.
We could learn something from this.
On our hike with the nature guide, there came a point when we came to a clearing. He told us that these naturally occurring circles are considered holy by the folks who work in the park– sacred, revered spaces created by nature that hold energy and grace.
They know what they are talking about.
Stand inside one, and you’ll find a sanity that defies words.
At one point in the park, I burst into tears.
I explained to my children that I needed this, to be here among these creatures, that I needed to know that something could survive so much damage and still carry on.
I realized in the moments after that I also needed to know that something good might still be standing in this place in which we live after so much violence, after all this destruction that whiteness and patriarchy and so much extractive exploitation has done to this land and this nation and its people, after all this ongoing harm.
Perhaps the fire that rages in this land will burn off what needs to go.
Perhaps what is healthy will remain standing, however scarred, once it is over.
Perhaps we will find a way to heal, and be reborn, and grow toward better things.
Perhaps we’ll find our way to a clearing, a peace, a sanity that accounts for our entire connection to one another, unremittingly proven by this moment, that leads the way toward the recognition that all of us need each other, and all of us are worthy of life.