Smokey the Bear Is Wrong or Why Pain is Part of the Deal

My marriage has provided me with a number of immaterial blessings –an introduction to the rich stories found in the ballet, a bigger heart for the oppressed, and an appreciation for Destiny Child’s back catalog. My favorite material blessing is a cabin named Bear Claw. Located in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona and owned by my in laws, this massive log cabin demands that you nap, write, and repeat. A massive wildfire threatened to take this cottage refuge away forever.

Every fire season in the western United States, we see on television the images of 100-foot flames spreading through tree crowns, while grim-faced news anchors report how many acres of forest was destroyed by the latest catastrophic fire.  Our distressed reaction is understandable as many homes and lives can be lost. Thank God then for hunky firefighters and the US Forest Service.

In 1905 the US Government adopted a “total fire suppression” policy and this was institutionalized by the creation of the United States Forest Department. This department and their coordinated government efforts (those helicopters that pee on stuff) is what saved my beloved Bear Claw from being destroyed. This fire suppression appexed in 1935, when the Forest Service implemented a “10 a.m. policy” which stipulated that a fire was to be contained and controlled by 10 a.m. the morning after the fire was initially spotted. See fire? Smell smoke? Get rid of it. This era was also iconized by the now 68-year-old Smokey the Bear who continues to be a pop-culture figure. Haven’t heard from him recently? Follow him on Twitter. Really.

But while the total number of fires is much lower than the early 1900s, the number of wildfires has sky rocketed (there are seven times as many today). Could there be correlation between fire suppression and the rise in wildfires?

Under ideal and controlled conditions, forest fires are beneficial.  Well before ol’ Smoky started tweeting, fire was a frequent visitor. Lightning struck and created flame. The heat revved up resin flow in bigger trees making them stronger, thicker, and more resilient. Fire cleared dead wood from the forest floor and allowed the life-giving rays to reach their roots. The ash added nutrients to the soil. Many species, including oak and pine, actually require the work of fire to initiate the blooming of the seedlings. Fire was not an ecosystem option. It was required for its health.

Today the massive wildfires claim millions of acres of land and burn at an intensity and temperature that is often too hot to leave behind the post-burn benefits those ecosystems are accustomed to. Like coffee that is too hot to drink, fire that exceeds its natural temperature just hurts things.

Fire suppression is good intentioned but is it possible that the effects of the government’s long-standing policy have done more harm than good?

Consider for a moment, not the forest ecosystem but our own selves. All of us experience catastrophic flame ups in our relationships, careers, spiritual lives, and inner selves. These flame ups claim the wellbeing of our families, friends, and psyche. They leave behind ruins that we struggle to make sense of. But could this be because we have done such a good job suppressing life’s natural blazes? That like the government’s plan of total fire suppression, we have starved our self-systems of the benefits of regular, natural fire?

In today’s world we buy things (The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months), get prescriptions, and avoid conversations so that we “overcome” the feelings of fear, pain, and worry. I am not sure that this avoidance is good. I understand that these are not enjoyable feelings, but they are inevitable and are the textures that give life its depth. Worry and avoidance do not help us skip over life’s hardships; it prohibits us from the benefits that such hardship bring.

It’s not whether or not forests will burn, but how. It is not a question of whether chaos, loss, and hardship will enter your life, but when. We can either involuntarily experience the destruction of wildfires, or we can embrace life’s natural flame and allow its benefits to seep deep into our lives.

So how do we set fire to some stuff now? How do we prevent wild fires? For starters I’d buy one of those crème brule torches.

I’m still trying to define what a “control burn” may look like for my life, but for starters I like this advice from Richard Rohr. He says,

“Do not waste any more moments of time lamenting poor parenting, lost jobs, failed relationships, physical handicaps, gender identity, economic poverty, or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal.”

Rohr is not talking about ignoring suffering. He is not talking about overlooking your unjust childhood or staying mute about the sadness you feel as you are unable to conceive. He is saying that there is goodness in the fire. That where there is flame there will be ash. Where there is ash there is nutrients for the soil. And where there is fertile soil there is a chance for new life.

While fires do leave behind acres of charred barren land, focus on the Coastal Redwoods of Muir Woods. See the tall Maple and the Tanoak of the Oregon coast. Listen to the Colorado wind blow through the Quaking Aspen’s dime sized leaves. Breath in the birch, pine, and juniper of the White Mountains. And remember that all the death that ever was or will be is nothing when sat next to life.


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