The sky to the north glowed red last night, a pretty sunset in the wrong direction. Yes, another fire, Flagstaff’s third this season though it’s only mid-June. This one, the Pipeline fire, is roughly following the path of the Tunnel fire that swept through here in April. Many of the people forced to evacuate this time were forced to evacuate last time, and those whose properties survived are surely wondering if they’ll be that lucky again.
But here’s the catch for me, the hard-to-swallow part, after I sort through the complicating issues of climate change and the recent increase in population here that stretches our city’s resources. The catch is, the cause of this fire was a man and a match. More accurately, a man and a bic lighter. Burning his toilet paper. Ignoring every large sign that read No Campfires, No Fire, and Fire Ban.
The line between gross negligence and arson seems thin. It’s the difference between the intention to cause suffering and the rejection of the possibility that suffering may be caused. To cause suffering is an old human habit, so habitual we often aren’t aware we are doing just that. This man, if his story is believable, did not intentionally wage war against a landscape, a forest already struggling with drought. But he rejected the possibility of causing a wildfire. He took things into his own hands. He was from Louisiana and knew little of drought, little of the high winds that shake the Colorado Plateau in spring. And he knew little or nothing of the kind of connection landscape demands of its stewards. He was not a keeper of the flame. He was rootless. He was just passing through.
We’ll have to see what the wind does today. If it blows from the west the fire will run wild. If the east, the fire may hop in and out of old burn scars, including all that it incinerated yesterday, and we may see a push back toward town, or up the mountain, or into the neighborhoods so far spared. Yesterday, the wind was at 50 mph. I drove up from the south and saw what looked like an enormous thunderhead, a mushroom cloud forming to the east of Flagstaff, while the source of the smoke was clearly visible directly ahead of me, to the north. I’ve heard that fires create their own weather, but the only place I’ve ever seen that kind of cloud before is old World War II footage of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Early morning and the town is full of sirens and silent anticipation. People and their possessions are already displaced, and more will be, but the land that gives many of us our reason for living here is altered for decades. Our beloved places are gone. My yard is green enough and shaded by two old apple trees. I don’t feel invincible, I just feel lucky. I’m lucky I can sit here and write this when my neighbors beyond the far edge of town are waking up to another day of uncertainty and hope.
Report from a few hours later: From the center of the city I can see towering sheets of flame up on the mountain, over the Fremont ridge. In all my acquaintanceship with fire, including two years working as a Forest Service firefighter, I’ve never seen flame like this. Up high there, the winds are exceeding 50 mph. A second fire, the Haywire fire, has ignited east of the Pipeline fire. I believe they are now the same fire. I’ll send this out today knowing that every minute brings new news and this will be old news soon. My blog posts tend to be ruminative, and someday there will be time for rumination, but right now this moment of deep uncertainty seems worth remembering and recording and passing on to you.
It’s like a wild animal seen in its natural habitat. It feels congruous. This is right, we say. It’s a gesture designed to heal and make right.
I’m talking about ceremony. That’s how we hold the good and the terrible in one hand. Acknowledgement, anger, empathy, action. Ceremony at its best includes the things we know alongside the things we can only guess at. The profane and the sacred. The things we didn’t know last week and the things we are forced to know now. It widens the circle to include not just present grief and pain but all of history’s atrocities.
To be caught up in the business of the world is in itself healing. When that business is dark, we chant in the darkness; when light, we bathe in the light. But to know we are accompanied, that others have done this before us. This is the lesson of ceremony. The old forms, the ancient words; a habit of body and tongue. Lay a wreath. Place a flower on a grave. Kneel. Bow. Crazy dance. Sing. Make of thyself a vessel to hold the fury, the disbelief, and even the forgiveness.
In the Zen tradition, the full moon ceremony used to bring the wandering monks together to renew their vows, their intentions, and to be with one another, to share company. Telling time by the moon they came together, month after month, ceremony after ceremony. Like a train running the same track, a long line of continuity in a life of unpredictability and impermanence. The ceremony itself is hauntingly beautiful, part call and response, part solo voice chanting an eerie melody. On our knees, up off our knees, down again, up again. Kneeling in deference, in respect to the greater forces of wisdom and compassion into which we are—we hope to be—subsumed.
These words are no comfort for those who grieve. But, said the Buddha to the mother whose child had died, find me one person who has not had sorrow, and I will relieve you of yours. If I’m not grieving now, I have in the past and will again. This is the great connecting tissue, the promise, the ligament of human life. And if it can turn toward the horrific and encompass that, if we can elucidate our fury, hatred, repulsion, and share that too in the human circle, there we have ceremony. In the crucible of ceremony, our fury shows us our fear, our hatred reveals our isolation, and our frozen disbelief can move, can act, at last.
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