There is a collection of poetry by Indonesian American poet Cynthia Dewi Oka titled Fire is Not a Country. I stumble across it while searching for poems about fire. I search for poems about fire because I’ve just been to the Greater Gila where, in all its dynamic unfolding, fire most certainly is a country, is Gila country. I want words that express such a force, lines to describe the wild paradox of destruction and regeneration that come in a fire-affected landscape. Alas, Dewi Oka does not explore such natural regimes; hers are wrenching descriptions of migration, familial love and obligation, political repression, and resistance. And while each human drama could be woven into a metaphor for the processes of the natural world, I’d rather not reach so far. I think the country of fire possesses lessons that apply to life in a different way.
Go to the Greater Gila and you will come away with fire in your eyes, fire in your heart. There is nowhere you can venture within the forest that does not bear the scars of fire. It is the breath and the wind and the soil of the landscape. It is the hand that shapes the tree and the river and the grass. Fire and its aftermath pervade even the loneliest mountain top, the darkest drainage, the rocky outcropping where the she-wolf dens, the mesa top where a bevy of Montezuma quail bed down. You cannot turn away from it. But in your forced witnessing, you discover something magic.
In her poem The Fire, Katie Ford writes:
When a human is asked about a particular fire,
she comes close:
then it is too hot,
so she turns her face–
and that’s when the forest of her bearable life appears,
Always on the other side of the fire.
In the forests of the Greater Gila, I think about what ecologists call disturbance events, the drivers of ecological dynamics that, when taken cumulatively, dictate biodiversity by influencing important structures and processes on the landscape. Like forests, we humans, both individually and as a collective, experience our own disturbance events: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, political revolutions, wars, pandemics. And similarly, those events are often the drivers of transformative change. But when the fire is too hot, the change too painful, we also often turn our face and look to the forest of our “bearable life,” where our experience takes a more recognizable shape.
Yet our turning away does not smother the fire. It is the same irrational response as a child putting her hands over her face to hide from the monster right in front of her. The hillsides above Willow Creek are devoid of trees save a smattering of charred trunks. I feel exposed and discomfited in their presence. But when I resist the urge to turn my face, when I slow down and look and listen, a different story unveils itself, one of life in a different form. More species of grasses than I can give count to, various leguminous bushes, bugs, birds, and beetles. I think, “Perhaps this is the bearable life, the one that perdures and even thrives in the aftermath of the burn.”
In the Gila, I wonder, what does fire ask of us? Over the summer, we experienced the two largest wildfires in state history burning simultaneously. We grieved and wrung our hands and wondered if our forests would ever be the same. But the thing is, our ideas of sameness are fallacies we’ve created in service of some familiar “bearable life.” The discomfort of the disturbance and uncertainty of the world has led us to fabricate a form of stasis that doesn’t suit a resilient self, a resilient ecosystem, a resilient planet. In our quest for control, we’ve perpetuated stagnation, not to mention genocide, theft, and violent disposession. The Greater Gila teaches us that worlds are sometimes forged in flame. That change often requires us to look at the landscape through a new lens. That life is more resilient than perhaps we give her credit for, and therefore, by design, we are too.
You will not know all about the fire
simply because you asked.
When she speaks of the forest
this is what she is teaching you,
you who thought you were her master.
I do not know all about the fire simply because I asked. But I make a promise to the forest to listen when she speaks. And to disclaim the myth of mastery. This is what she is teaching us.
Learn more about the Greater Gila, and what WildEarth Guardians is doing to help make it America’s next, great protected landscape.