Photo credit: Jessy Ellenberger AP
Rough Beauty

Fire Season in America

“I know what the world is made of and I still love all of it”

–The Solace of Open Spaces

Sixteen years ago, my mountain cabin burned to the ground. In a matter of hours, all evidence of the life I’d lived—signed and annotated books; photos of me at five, eight, fifteen; a broadside gifted to me by the poet and writer Kate Braverman with a spontaneous poem she’d written on it—was reduced to two feet of ash. Gone were my clothes, my furniture, my professional cookware, my computer and with it, almost everything I had ever written. In the aftermath, I didn’t know who I was, couldn’t recognize myself, but I knew I faced a choice:  I could give up or I could start the breath-taking work of beginning again. Propelled by a force in my body that does not brook surrender, I did what I know how to do:  I pushed and shoved my way back to life.

I’ve thought a lot about rebuilding as I’ve watched parts of California and Oregon and Washington burn this summer with fires that behaved as no fires we’ve seen before. Here in Colorado, we have had our own conflagrations–spurred by weeks of wind and unseasonably warm temperatures coupled with drought, the harbingers of climate collapse. One fire, the East Troublesome fire, jumped the Continental Divide, something I didn’t think was possible.

In the aftermath of my own fire, I eventually arrived at a place where I could see fire as a metaphor, to understand its transformative magic. This is not the magic of fairytales, but the dark alchemy of transmogrification. I had to be laid bare, to become a purer version of myself: Fire led to my unraveling and then my salvation.

It’s not just the coast or Colorado that is facing an unprecedented fire season. All of the U.S. is burning.  Democracy is burning. Spurred by the winds of inequality, political corruption, an unprecedented concentration of wealth, and a fascist administration fomenting division and hate and ignoring the rule of law, we’re on fire. This inferno is fueled by Covid, by fear of our fellow Americans, by the threat of violence and a country that seems on the verge of collapse. The flames of social and ecological injustice have led to our collective unraveling.

America no longer holds the moral higher ground in the world, and if we’re honest, we all know that higher ground was a fiction built on the bodies of indigenous peoples and the enslaved, on so much cruelty and genocide, on so much dissembling and so many lies.

And yet, as I breathe in the smoke of our undoing, I am given to hope. My body, like the earth, knows  too well that when you burn it all down, something rises from the ashes. Forests burn as part of their natural cycle and some seeds burst forth only in flame; fire keeps the ecosystem healthy.

The crises we face as a country are overwhelming, no doubt. The American ecosystem is rotting. But so many of us have wanted change for so long. Perhaps we thought it would come in gentler ways. But the truth is, birthing is a bloody process. Right now we are all called to rebuild, to form a more perfect union.  The best we can do now is resist cynicism and fear, to keep our hearts and minds open, to look for the good, to dare to hope, to fight like hell for what is right, and to help each other. It’s not in me to quit—ever. As long as there is life there is hope and I’m not giving up on making the world more beautiful and equitable and just.

I’ve never called myself a patriot, never waived a flag, but I’ve never felt more patriotic than I do in this moment, standing on this earth with my fist raised and my shoulder ready to do the hard work that lies ahead.


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4 thoughts on “Fire Season in America”

  1. What a beautiful and timely piece, Karen. Written with beauty in such a divisive time in our nation – and world.

  2. Karen, This was brilliant. With the level of anxiety that I have seen from family and friends over not only about the fire season but the election as well, it is great to have some perspective. Well done.

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