Level Letters: Fire

The smoke is heavy. It’s come late to us this year in Washington, and it’s bad. The past several years, smoke from wildfires has fallen heavy over the area for months—earlier than September to be sure. This Summer, I’ve felt lucky that fires and smoke have steered away from Washington for the most part, allowing us to hike freely and spend ample time outside in clear air.

I’ve seen the fires in Colorado, California, and elsewhere, and each time felt like we were narrowly dodging the inevitable.

Until now. Now, our windows are closed and the air is thick.

“It’s so sad,” I’ve heard a lot. It is. Bigger fires are burning in the Pacific Northwest than ever before and there’s some very worthy conversations taking place because of them.

There’s some irony in that I spent this week (preceding the smoke we’re now blanketed with) reading about wildfires after returning home from our Labor Day adventure to the Timberline Trail in Oregon last weekend. It’s a forty-some mile trail circling Mount Hood, traversing rivers, valleys, canyons, forests, and dry expanses. It ventures through wildly diverse ecosystems and landscapes. A good section of the trail travels through a burnt zone.

The zone is not barren; there are towering, grey-white tree trunks surrounded by wildflowers and views of the summit above, and peaks in the distance. As we approached, my first thought was of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King. Tree skeletons. Bones. The trunks still stand because the cores didn’t burn. From what I’ve learned since, in 2011 lightning struck and the Dollar Lake Fire burned over 7,000 acres of the Mount Hood Wilderness. Before this wildfire, most of the burn zone we hiked through had been completely covered in greenery. As hikers made their way along the trail, their sight only extended through the tunnel of trees, ending just feet ahead. Now, great distances are visible and views of the angular, striking summit of Mount Hood are revealed. This is a unique time in the ecosystem’s regrowth to witness; the land doesn’t look like we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t look like pure forest, or pure meadow, but it is beautiful.

Maybe in the context of this moment it sounds like I’m romanticizing wildfire; I’m not. Fire is required for renewal. When we avoid it, ignore it, or fail to assign resources to discerning when the power of fire is necessary, we end up in a cloud of smoke we weren’t prepared for.

The loss is sad, but fire is not inherently bad.

Of course fire destroys, but that is not all fire does.

Fire purifies.

Fire renews.

Fire refines.

Something can be necessary—overdue even—and worth grieving.

Pre-pandemic, our collective vision had grown very short. We were, in large part, focused on that which was directly before us, which often meant the urgent took precedence over the important. We saw the trail directly ahead (work, day-to-day tasks, obligations), while we missed the perspective of the summit in the distance (purpose, service, seeking, relationships—the soul stuff). Life is not going to go “back to normal.” It’s going to look different—not exactly like the forest it was before, and also not exactly like it is right now. It’s changing still and the change will continue—renewal may be instant, but regrowth takes time.

I believe all things, even deeply sad, devastating things, can be used for good—fire included. Whether the fire is “good”—intentional, prescribed burns—or “bad”—wildfire, fire that kills, or destroys homes and lives—it will still cleanse. It will still refine. We can discuss the cost of the refining, whether the pain was worth the transformation, but the bottom line is fire happens.

It’s easy to ask why there are disasters. Why do bad things happen? Why is the air outside too ash-ridden to breathe? It’s natural to question why stunning places are overtaken by flames.

But there are other questions we could also ask, and rarely do. How are there so many enchanting places? Why does a walk through towering trees feel like balm to an aching heart or a fairytale setting to a joyful one? Why are alpine lakes the brightest blue and why do sunrises pull the air from our lungs? What about jagged rock meeting water on the horizon captivates the human soul?

How does something that seems so awful result in wildflowers, new growth, and even more beautiful views?

We can question the devastation, or the restoration.

We can question the pain, then be awed by the healing.

We can ask the natural questions, and rest in greater wonder.

– LL

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
We’re baking this weekend, folks. Here’s the recipe I’m going to try, just modifying to make gluten free because I want to eat them! If you do too, let me know how it goes!

The Home Edit on Netflix
Apparently I am motivated to organize by watching other people organize. This is a strange phenomenon – even weirder that it seems to have become a real trend – but whatever. My closets are getting cleaner and I’m here for that. (First episode features Reese Witherspoon’s film closet and the next features Rachel Zoe’s handbags and shoes. Yes.)

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