During most of the day and a half it took us to drive home, the surrounding hills and valleys were clouded with smoke. For the most part, distant mountains were not visible at all and the sun played hide and seek. Although we never did see actual flames, we knew the extent of the burning: 30 separate fires in Montana, 33 in Idaho, 16 in Washington. One might have thought the entire west was on fire.
It was bound to happen, of course. With much of the country experiencing a long, hot, dry summer, thousands, if not millions, of acres of dead and dying trees throughout the west due to insect infestations, and years of well-meaning fire suppression, it is all a huge tinder box just ripe for burning.
Fire has been a part of earth's natural systems for eons. While we may see nothing but devastation, many ecosystems, such as prairie and conifer forests, have evolved with fire as a natural and necessary contributor to the vitality and renewal of habitats. Many plants have developed traits that allow them to regenerate after a fire. Some store energy in their roots for recovery and regrowth afterward; some are killed outright, but over years have accumulated long-lived seeds in the soil which are stimulated by fire to germinate and grow.
In some cases, it is the heat of the fire that breaks down or cracks an impervious seed coat, allowing the seed to absorb water and grow when the rains start. Smoke or charred wood sometimes produces a biochemical effect on a seed that facilitates germination. Some evergreen cones remain tightly closed on the tree for years (sometimes for the life of the tree) unless they are stimulated by the heat of a fire to slowly open and release their seeds. Spectacular spring displays of wildflowers and verdant carpets of seedling trees often appear the year following a fire.
Just as numerous wildfires move through the west, we are each, in our own way and time, inundated with troubles. Loss of a job or loved one, money or relationship/family problems, separation, divorce, illness, disability, aging, and looming death take their toll. The damage can be staggering; some of us will ultimately survive longer than others, but in the end we all will succumb. Until then, most of us will survive and somehow muddle through. We were created with the ability to adapt and are more resilient than we may think, but during difficult times, especially, we need to be there for each other. It is what we are meant to do.
Remember the burned fields and forests - after the worst has passed, new growth does appear and life goes on. Much will have changed and some places may never look the same within our lifetimes, but the land has been swept clean and nourished. Time passes, and with it the old ways of seeing and being. Damage has been done, but that does not mean that there won't be a new beginning - and new beginnings can be stunning.
For misery does not come from the earth,
nor does trouble sprout from the ground,
but human beings are born to trouble
just as sparks fly upward.
"As for me, I would seek God,
and to God I would commit my cause.
He does great things and unsearchable,
marvelous things without number."