It’s dark in my cabin. I strike a match several times against its disintegrating box, lighting some old newspapers. Ads for trucks, sales on peppers, lost dogs, maniacal promises of white teeth. Slowly, they smoke and writhe, flames appearing in those weird greens and yellows that only sprout from colorful grocery flyer ink. Here and there, I throw some late-night snack crumbs into the burning fire, a remnant habit from my Jewish childhood. Bi’ur chametz, the ritual burning of the leavened bread, and with it the elements of the ego that keep us bound. Memories safe under the smear of lamb’s blood. Sometimes these little rituals hold me, but often they bind me. The challenge is finding the resonating pieces of my ancestry that don’t also isolate and disown me. For this, I'm asking for help from fire.
I've found home in the Western US, where fire is an unwavering and integral part of the landscape I’ve learned to live with. I’m from a Pacific island that does not burn, so the concept was as fresh to me as the crisp smell of white fir in the mountains. Fire sweeps through every year, charring, burning, smoldering, sometimes obliterating all in its path. When the forest experiences a raging burn leaving behind what appears to be decimation and ruin, it is in actuality the start of a new cycle. The quiet blackened forest is an emptiness full of possibilities. The same way I unload my bread crumbs, the pebbles of ego and fear and pain, into the fire, the forest restores balance by catastrophically resetting. The tower card, the death card in a tarot deck, I have much to learn from the way wildfire indiscriminately clears itself of what no longer serves.
When a forest burns, beetles can sense the fire and heat from hundreds of miles away, and they flock to the charred forest remains, laying their eggs in the dead and dying trees. Their young feed on the sapwood, and grow into juicy larva nuggets that feed the black-backed woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are excellent home builders, and excavate holes in the trees that go on to house other species of birds that lack hole-drilling skills themselves. The forest understands mutual aid, the forest models reciprocity. From the mineral rich, charred soils spring abundant wildflowers, seeds stimulated by heat and smoke, bringing pollinators which serve to both complete the floral lifecycle and feed a new array of birds. If the forest stays full of tall, elder trees, the young trees have nowhere to go. Fewer birds will find refuge in a mature, homogenous forest. These lessons can teach us to integrate our community and allies into our healing processes and form collective safety nets, as we can fill the gaps and hold each other up while others experience collapse. This work runs deep into mutualism, anti-racism, and supporting each other through processes of dismantling harmful narratives and collectively decolonizing.
An important element of cleansing and rebirth is the emphasis of cyclical healing. All stages of healing, no matter how brutal and raw, serve an incredibly potent and functional purpose. You will get back up. You will fall again. You will need to repeat the work. You will need to repeat the work again. Western forests rely on fire for rebirth, continuing this cycle for millennia. Through this model we can challenge the consumerism-based idea that you can cleanse and heal yourself all in one pass or experience the process alone. The collective trauma is deep, and your personal experiences add more layers. To unwind from these experiences, we are going to hit rough roads and will often feel like we are right back where we started. This is part of the process.
Indigenous peoples tend and have tended the land for millennia, shaping the valleys and mountains and forests with curated fires. It was colonizing violence that taught us to collectively fear fire and rebirth. Even as fire-tending practices return to the land more widely, accelerating shifts in climate regimes rip new grief into our collective experience. We’ve learned resilience, our bark thickening, but we still have many lessons to integrate from wildfire. Colonial systems of control and misguided maintenance need to be burned in order for the forests to heal. As modern-day inhabitants on Turtle Island, these systems of colonial control are also widespread and woven into many of our bodies and many of our beings, and their release is needed to enable healing and justice. A lot of us were raised in or adjacent to the murky soup of colonial-capitalism, through no fault of our own. Helping each other climb out the sludge, lifting our community, is working towards a just reciprocity and growing into a mutualistic support system. To help us embody these goals, we can take cues from forests ecosystems and fire ecology.
Deep breath. One crumb into the fire. I question why I’m even doing this. This ritual handed to me by a bloodline of family that disowned me for not being enough. I toss another crumb into the fire, exhale. I am enough, I am someone’s charred treehouse, someone’s juicy larva, someone’s wildflower seed awakened by smoke. I reclaim the fire as the bonding force that gives me friendships and conversations, a flickering light that allows me to burn off and release old thought patterns. I was taught that as you burn the inflated leavened breads, you burn with it the things that also inflate your ego, allowing you the inner space and clarity to face what’s lurking inside, to see who you are despite your backstory, your craft, your wounds, your successes. A practice that makes you small and infinite at the same time. A process that gives you strength to step up when others need you, and gifts you softness, despite the tough exterior you’ve been curating. Another breath. Another crumb. A continual cycle of burning to allow for empty spaces, the alive and critical vessels of regrowth. I pause, collecting moments that grate against me. In a quick movement I sweep up the rest of my snack crumbs into my hand, and release them into the fire.