Wildfire after wildfire has been raging here in Colorado over the last few days. First I learned of the fire outside Fort Collins, 90 minutes from Denver. Although far enough away to be out of sight, winds carried smoke to the city, an acrid reminder of the destruction. While hiking last Saturday in Rocky Mountain National Park, thick clouds billowed from behind a distant ridge. We thought it was the Fort Collins inferno but it turned out to be a new blaze in Estes Park. And more fires have started in Boulder (30 minutes away) and Colorado Springs (an hour’s drive). It’s as if a noose of flame and heat is closing in on Denver, forcing evacuations along the way.
When I moved here a few years ago, I remember feeling panic when a fire roared through Boulder County. My mental image of Colorado included snow capped peaks, roaring streams and lush forests. My mind had compartmentalized wildfires, convinced me that they were something that happened “elsewhere”, e.g. Utah or any place that I wasn’t. If the current ring of wildfires had erupted shortly after my arrival, I might have freaked out and left, unwilling to accept that Colorado’s heavenly geography comes with an often heavy price.
Through hiking, I’ve had to adjust my mental images of this state. Some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve traversed are filled with dead trees, their leaves and branches incinerated by fire and the trunks scoured by snow, rain and fierce wind. Mother Nature has sculpted them into stark totems, silent witnesses to the cycles of growth and destruction.
On trails near Mount Evans, trunks lie on the earth like soldiers felled in battle. While hiking to Chicago Lakes and maneuvering around and over the burnt trees, I noticed wildflowers and other shoots springing up in between. It was the perfect visual for meditation, the slow creation of new neural pathways to bypass mental and emotional ruts, and humbling to realize that it could take generations for the fresh growth to eclipse the blackened forest, for the evidence of fire to completely disappear.
Most of the current fires are still not contained, badly needed rain has yet to fall. It’s hard to know how extensively the landscape will be altered and for how long. Those of us not immediately impacted have been told that the best way to help now is to donate money and sit tight, not rush to the rescue. So I’ve been thinking about these encroaching fires and how, in the best case, flames eradicate what is no longer serving and offer a kind of purification. And I’m reminded of what Soto Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said:
When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
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