Controlled burning

Yesterday was quite a day at Earthsprings Retreat Center, which is tucked into the corner of Davy Crockett National Forest. Because of the terribly hot dry conditions we had last summer when almost all of Texas was on fire, this spring, now, preventive “control burns” are underway all over East Texas. In these carefully monitored, low-burning fires, some of the fuel, some of the underbrush, fallen debris, and standing dead trees are eliminated without damaging anything else. This helps to prevent the horrific big fires that take down everything, as happened so much last summer.

Yesterday both Earthsprings and the adjacent National Forest received a control burn. I left for the day to avoid the smoke, spending most of the day thinking about the little plants, insects, animals, birds, young trees, asking forgiveness for causing harm to some in order to save the larger whole. (That kind of judgment is always dicey and never yields a comfortable decision.)

Shortly before dark, I went back home. For three miles, as I was driving on the road through the National Forest before getting to Earthsprings, I saw that the ground on either side of the road was blackened; a good burn day, I realized. It isn’t always so; the wind has to be just right, the humidity, the temperature, the wetness of the earth, all of it. Two years ago the burn at Earthsprings was not so good. This day, though, things had no doubt been very hot out there for awhile, there low to the ground. Lots of things burned back, some destroyed, no doubt. A solemn moment for me.

But just as I came to the gate at Earthsprings, a squirrel ran across the road in front of me, making me brake the car, and making me grateful to see that some small animals, at least, know how to survive such fires. Where do they go, I wondered, the squirrels, the birds, the rabbits, etc. Do they go up in trees, underground into holes, run fast to the creek, what?

And too, when I parked the car and stepped out, I noticed immediately and gladly the sound of many birds, the familiar, ordinary sound of birds making their twilight noises, settling into the still standing towering trees everywhere. “Talking about this day, though, I’ll bet you birds are chattering about it!” I thought.

But, it was a good burn, and everywhere I looked, smoke, blackness, ash. The ground itself looked black everywhere, except for some carefully reserved areas, like the green grass in the meadow and around the buildings, and the roads and the trails that were kept clear of fire and so now made long brown slashes through the black soot. And oddly there were certain kinds of bushes still standing stubbornly, apparently immune to fire, even some I had hoped would be tempered and thinned, like the hearty switch cane and the yaupon that reproduce so much and make such thickets.

I knew the blackness was only a surface layer of burned leaves and brush. I knew what to expect, because we’ve been through control burns before, and I know that in a few weeks everything will green up again, and one then won’t even notice anything burned. In fact, some trees and plants, like the longleaf pine, only grow after a burn! But it is always an eerie shock to drive up and see the top layer of leaves on the ground all burned, so that at ground level everything, everywhere is all black. Smoky air, gray ash. Eerie indeed.

I went hurriedly for a walk, all over the property, checking things out. Here and there, in the smoky, gathering dusk, I could see various low fires burning in fallen logs or dead trees. A scrambling sound, too loud to be a squirrel, told me that some bigger animal was making its way down from a tree as I passed by. Near the creek there were beaver footprints going from the mud into the ash; those busy folks are already gathering the now handy harvest of perfect-sized and trimmed (if slightly burned) limbs for their beaver dams, I thought. “So stop chewing on the rest of the trees, darn you!” I muttered at them.

Exhausted, just before dark, I stopped finally near an unfamiliar large standing oak that, I could see, was hollow, had been hollow a long time, and the inside of this hollow tree had been burning all day and was now all red on the inside! The outside of the tree looked perfectly normal, with its gray, cool-looking bark, while the inside was red-hot and glowing brilliantly! It looked like a tree geode. It was so beautiful!

I hurried back to the car to get my camera, and then I took pictures, trying numerous settings, hoping to get a good shot, despite the gathering darkness of the evening and the sharp contrast of the inside and outside of the tree. None of the shots did it justice, but here are two:

When I got very close to the tree, about a foot from it, to try to take a close up picture, the air sizzled and was quite hot, and I backed away, as a new flame emerged on the edge of the transition space between the outer and the inner realm of the hollow tree. Of course, I was talking to the tree the whole time, admiring this amazing sight, noticing how it was still standing so tall after obviously being hollow for a long time. The tree was leaning slightly away from me, toward the west. Then, suddenly, the thought came to me, as if, I felt, from the tree itself: “This is not safe. This tree, or any of these trees, could fall. If this tree fell, it would fall away from you, but it could kick back onto you its fiery base. Get back!” So I did.

After taking one more picture, and saying a prayer , remarking the enormity of transition everywhere (in the tree, in me, wherever the outside looks so normal, but the inside is burning, all of it beautiful), I went to the house to gather some things, ready to leave again until morning.

At the doorway I paused as I heard the familiar sound of deer nearby, one of them snorting out the familiar warning sound to the other deer, a sound that says “There’s something, something, we’d better pay attention, run quickly…” and I heard the deer running away , leaving hoof prints in the ashes I would see later, I was sure. Deer are so curious; they always come to check things out after a burn, almost while the ground is still hot. Usually they don’t run from me so rapidly, they know me, and know I mean them no harm, but it must have been sort of spooky for them too. “Thank you for letting me hear from you, though; I’m glad you are alright,” I thought.

Then, a few minutes later, just as I was about to drive away, I noticed in the darkening night another low fire, not too far from the Lodge. So I stopped the car, and then walked back over there to be sure all was safe.

And suddenly I heard, somewhere about maybe 100 feet or less, safely off to the left of me, a sound like firecrackers, and, looking, I saw a huge shower of sparks going up, and then there was the slow sound of this tree falling, falling through the surrounding pines, till it broke apart just as it hit the ground. It was the hollow tree, the one I had been with a few minutes earlier.

I stood in shock and amazement for quite a few minutes, then I thanked the spirit of the tree, the Spirit of everything, the spirit of my own innate intelligence…whatever…I thanked everything that I had not been standing there so close to that hot, heavy, dangerous tree when it actually fell.

“However,” I said aloud, finally, “I’m so glad I was here to witness, and to have been able to take pictures of your last standing moments, your last living breaths, fiery as they were.”

It was completely dark then, and I went away, but the image of that hollowed tree, radiant, burning inside, stayed with me, as a symbol, somehow, of all the dramatic changes taking place, all the controlled burning, and more than that, what stayed with me was the moment of warning, the moment when I felt that somehow the tree itself told me to step back, did not take me down with it and destroy me in its final thundering crash, even though I was the one to authorize the control burn that had caused its own falling now instead of later. I’ll keep that last image of the flame in the darkness always.

This morning I came back, and sure enough, the tree, when it fell, had kicked back about six feet, and its base now completely covered the place where I had been standing last night. The tree’s interior fire was out, so I could reach out and touch the base of the tree and, once again, let my wordless emotions pour out to the forest, to the ancient energy of the living forest, with all my love, devotion, promises of future care-giving, all of it. My relationship to the earth and to the forest is one of the strongest things about me.

And lastly this. I stayed overnight at my friend Christina’s house to be out of the smoke. After dinner and after I had fallen exhausted into bed, she came into the room where I was and reminded me that last summer I had left some clothes there at her house, clothes she had back then washed and left for me to take home, and I had apparently not seen them. “What are they?” I asked, too tired to go see for myself. “Oh, I don’t know, just some work clothes,” she said. “You can get them in the morning.”

This morning I got up at daybreak, quietly making my way around her house so as not to wake her. I decided to find those work clothes and put them on for the day. When I found them, there was a pair of my work pants. And there was a stained up tee shirt, one I’ve worn for years. It had come to me as part of a fund-raising effort for Earthsprings way back when we were selling tee shirts.

This particular shirt has a design printed on it, an image of a whole variety of animals looking out at you through some trees and brush. Underneath are the words, “The Living Forest.”

Seeing that particular shirt, those particular words, waiting there all this time, all unbeknownst to me, waiting for just this particular morning for me to see these animals and read those words—it felt like a whisper of grace, a note of understanding, acceptance, promise from another dimension where our actions and feelings and intentions and compromises and worries are all woven together somehow into a larger meaning, a larger whole, an inter-active universe—of preventive fires, and falling trees, and living squirrels and deer and beaver and birds, and even of this human person doing her elderly best to serve life, even when it is not easy to choose what to do.

The living forest. The woods here at Earthsprings are indeed still living, and the wild flowers are still blooming in the meadow, and I’m wearing those words next to my heart as I make my way around today, down to the creek, up to the wet northeast end of the land where the bogs didn’t burn so well but where maybe the fire drove the dangerous wild hogs away, for awhile, anyway. I make my way here and there, looking, listening, touching, praying, interacting always

The living forest. Living, in every sense of the word. May it ever be so, especially here at Earthsprings. And may I never, ever forget that I am co-extensive with all life, in all circumstances, and that all life is love, loving, ongoing, communicating, resonating, regenerating, and, especially, sacred, always.

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