On Fire

Coming from California, I have become very accustomed to forest fires. It seems like a yearly tradition to turn on the news and see that an overwhelming portion of the state is currently engulfed in flames. In fact, one of my earliest memories was my father taking me to the site of a wildfire to watch the helicopters attempt to put it out. Maybe this is why I didn’t blink when I was assigned to lead a fire team in the spring of 2016. The yearly reburning of already burnt ground seemed commonplace to me.

On that team, our task was to perform prescribed burns on allocated lands throughout the southern plains of Iowa. See, Iowa used to be 98% prairie, but as time has passed, that number has dropped down to around 11%, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department works to preserve it, which oddly enough, means burning it to the ground. Prairie land is an odd niche. WIth grass taller than the people working in it, the soft soiled, low tree-ed land seemed especially susceptible to invasive species. So, along with humans, these invasive species worked to destroy the land as well. And this was were the irony was in that job: in order to save the prairie, we must first burn it to the ground.

This was because the land could bounce back even better, after all of the invasive species were dead and the nutrients remained in the soil. We were told, that with our intervention or not, this process was natural, and would happen regardless. In fact, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife told us that the people native to the prairie would burn it down every few years, because if they didn’t nature would, and at least they could try and control it.

If we, as people didn’t burn down the land, nature would. So, regardless, in order to for the land to remain and flourish, it must be burnt to ashes. This is Nature’s cycle. But, we as people, especially we as Californians, aren’t fans of the this process. This is why humans worked to prevent forest fires, because of the obvious danger. What happened though, was that the deadwood accumulated and piled up, the wood that usually gets burnt off stayed, and so when the fire inevitably came, because it always does, the fire would have burnt so hot and so long that the top soil burnt off, and the ability to control it was no longer an option.

If fire isn’t continually introduced to an area, the area grows and grows, and accumulates so much dead wood, that when the fire eventually comes, it may be too hot and too intense for anything to survive. This is why we burnt the prairie. This, and, if you enter into this process on your own terms, instead of nature’s, it is easier to control and manage the collateral damage.

Maybe this is why Dr. Jordan Peterson tells us to burn off all of the dead wood that has accumulated over our years. This is why he asks how much of us is useless, is fabricated, is just a facade? Because, if we don’t continually burn it all off, like a phoenix, one day we will burn so hot and so long that we may not be able to recover. It seems, that with fire, whether we born or not isn’t the question, it is when and for how long.

The phoenix burns to a pile and ashes, and, out of the ashes, is reborn. No one's mourns the phoenix, it doesn’t feel sorry for itself, for this is the process of continual growth. See, there can never be a resurrection, without first a crucifixion. We must burn ourselves to the ground, to burn off all of the deadwood, all of the invasive species and years of accumulation, in order to see what survives, and in order to regrow and flourish. And we must not feel bad or pity ourselves for this process.

WIlliam Saroyan told us that, “Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.” and failure, it is told, is just a process of learning, of scraping off the parts of us that needith die.

The process of burning sucks, obviously. And even more disheartening is the revelation that life is a continual process of this. As if, when King Arthur’s knights went to find the Holy Grail, after they passed through the darkest part of the forest, the rest of the forest was just as dark. Or, when the knight finally slays the dragon, three more dragons pop up. This is what was symbolized when Hercules fought the Hydra, the monster that when you cut off one head two more appear. It is because, no matter how much work you do, and no matter how much you fight, the battle is never over, it is a continual process of cutting off heads.

This is why Sisyphus never complained. At least, when the rock rolled down the hill, he had something to do by pushing it back up. Or why Atlas took on the ask of holding up the world (technically, he was condemned to this faith by Zeus). Because, what is the alternative? Once you know that, “life is painful, life is uncertain, and life requires ceaseless effort” (Barry Michels) then taking on a fruitless task like this seems not fruitless, but empowering. If we must suffer regardless, if we must burn, might as well burn for a reason, and burn on our own terms.

If, all of this is a process, then life should be viewed as a circular endeavor, and not a linear path. We burn and start all over, and we keep trying and keep growing, we never just are. As Nelson Mandela said, “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.” It is never over, only unless we refuse to burn voluntarily, and nature burns us to the ground regardless, only hotter and longer.

So how do we burn, voluntarily, without the world feeling the need to burn us itself? Well, we first accept that is a truth. “The farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience, and therefore, the more deaths-the more joy and the more pain” (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled). Then, as Marduk did while confronting Chaos, we stay aware and we speak the truth. And with these skills, we pull out every shard of dead wood in us and burn it off individually, because a small fire we can handle. Similarity to the There is No Such Thing as a Dragon story, if we conquer things while they are small, and do it voluntarily, we can handle it. It is only when we ignore it, does it because able to defeat us.

We burn ourselves by continual self examination, self reflection, and self improvement. We look back at who we are, and what we have done. For a personal example, I have a tendency to assume that, since I spend so long studying and reading the literature, that I know more or am better equipped to answer than others, who may not work as much as me. I tend to disregard their opinion by lumping them into a category of those who were indoctrinated by the university system, or those who are regurgitating second hand words. I fall right into what was deemed as, “The arrogance of the intellect” and I push others away. Without awareness, and without the willingness to speak the truth, I would never notice that I do this, and before I haven't. It only is when I have pushed everyone away, and the fire sweeps through that I realize my shortcomings. Now, I attempt to burn it off myself, stopping it before it occurs, it at least ceasing it and apologizing after it does. I hope, that if I can cut this out of me, little by little, then I won’t have to burn down the whole prairie, just a single tree.

If we don’t burn ourselves, if we don’t take on the task of becoming better people voluntarily, then the world will do it for us, viciously and more cruel than we would ever do it ourselves. If we allow our dead wood to accumulate, then, like the forests of California, we will burn so hot and so intense that it will wreak havoc on the whole foundation of our life. Like a phoenix, or the prairies of Iowa, we must be willing to burn off and be reborn, in order to survive, and flourish. Because, again, as with everything, what is the alternative? To ignore this truth? To suffer blindly in ignorance? To allow the world to burn us to the point where nothing can grow back? This seems, as with the dragons, a choice that really isn’t a choice. Either we voluntarily conquer chaos, burn off our dead wood, and defeat the tiny dragons, or we suffer endlessly, in a completely unrequired way.

This isn’t dark and depressing, or masochistic, but instead it is a call for responsibility, a call for myself. We need to be willing to go through all of this, to enter the darkest part of the forest, to fight the dragon, to burn off the parts of ourselves that need to burn. Because, “If you’re not all that you can be, you will suffer, more than you have to, and so will the people around you.” (Dr. Jordan B. Peterson)