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The Western Wildfires: Reminders of Inescapable Impermanence

Watching part of my childhood burn reminds me to both savor and let go.

The poet David Whyte wrote in "The Journey" :

Above the mountains

the geese turn into

the light again

Painting their

black silhouettes

on an open sky.

Sometimes everything

has to be

inscribed across

the heavens

so you can find

the one line

already written

inside you.

Sometimes it takes

a great sky

to find that

first, bright

and indescribable

wedge of freedom

in your own heart.

Sometimes with

the bones of the black

sticks left when the fire

has gone out

someone has written

something new

in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.

Even as the light fades quickly now,

you are arriving.

The House of Belonging and David Whyte: Essentials © Many Rivers Press. (Reproduced with Permission)

It’s September 11 today, a day that needs no introduction. I’m reminded of that day, 19 years ago, when I stood, mouth agape, watching that horrible loop of the planes hitting the twin towers, the plumes of smoke and dust billowing down the canyons of lower Manhattan, and the look of horror on the faces of those who witnessed the events of that dreadful morning.

Among the indelible images of that bright, beautiful, terrible autumnal day, one image continues to haunt me nearly two decades later. The Falling Man, the picture was later called, captured one of the hundreds of people forced to choose between jumping to their deaths or helplessly burning and suffocating in the towers. In the image, an anonymous upended man divides the space between the two towers, arrow-straight, hurtling towards the waiting earth. His face is unrecognizable yet oddly calm. His left leg lies crossed over his right outstretched leg, invoking the gesture of the tarot card, “the hanged man” – the card that reminds us that we are being called to surrender to fate, to circumstances beyond our control. The photograph was published the next day in hundreds of newspapers around the world, but rarely seen again. Despite its anonymity (the falling man has never been definitively identified), abstraction (for those unfamiliar, the lone, inverted figure seemingly floating in the sky without context is bewildering and bizarre), and its utter lack of gore (the man is still hundreds of feet above the ground), this image of certain death and the horror of his last moments of life, is understandably too much to bear.

public domain
The hanged man, Waite-Rider Tarot
Source: public domain

It’s September 2020 and outside my window in San Francisco, the dark air of midday glows Martian-red, choked with the smoke from thousands of trees, acres of grass, and the western dreams and memories of people who have watched their homes and livelihoods burn.

One of those conflagrations, the Creek Fire, is rapaciously devouring a part of my childhood, a summer camp set on the pine-cool shores of Huntington Lake that I discovered at 10 years of age, my first experience of sleeping away from my family for two weeks at a time, a time of excitement, dusty possibilities, and freedom. I returned every summer for the next dozen years, six of those years helping to run the camp with my staff brothers.

Camp was, in retrospect, an initiatory threshold, the liminal space between childhood and the adulthood that awaited me. The ways that I would learn to take care of myself, to work with others, and to be part of something larger than myself, would be lessons that I would return to throughout my life. Even though I haven’t worked there in over 25 years, I still return to the area each summer to camp, a kind of annual pilgrimage in the cycle of the seasons. I was not alone in that those few short years of adolescence and young adulthood left an indelible mark on my soul. A few years ago, when the camp celebrated its 75th anniversary, generations of former staff members returned to reminisce under the trees; to walk through the aging dining hall still hung, as if in amber, with hand-painted totems from decades of campers; and to share the stories of how this patch of forest and granite changed us.

(c) Andrew Penn
Sometimes, we are arriving, even as we are losing all that we know.
Source: (c) Andrew Penn

I have long known that this forest, overstocked with trees and ravaged by drought, would someday burn. But when I learned of the fire at the end of last week, I read all the news I could find, I studied satellite maps of the fire, impatiently waiting to see if the flames had advanced to that familiar ground of childhood. I felt like I was sitting vigil next to a dying loved one in the hospital. Earlier this week, I awoke and checked the maps. The wind had shifted eastward overnight. The camp was in flames.

I felt like a part of me, a part I had assumed would be there forever, had been cut out from my soul. I could not reconcile the images of burned trees that I was seeing from news photos of the area with the layers of memories of that place. I still can’t, days later. No one has been able to get into the camp to survey the damage, as the fires continue to burn in the area and it’s not safe. While I wait with bated breath to see the extent of the damage, another part of me wants to look away, to protect those fragile, fixed images, like 19th-century glass negatives in my mind, from the reality of impermanence and the inevitability of breaking.

I feel like this year we’ve all been thrust across a threshold, not of our choosing. We are reminded, time and again, that we are not completely in control. The pandemic has disrupted the hundreds of tiny moments of time, that in aggregate, comprise normalcy. Most of these small moments, if isolated from the other losses, would be disappointing, but ultimately inconsequential. When they are cobbled together in a relentless stream of forfeitures, the very ground of permanence feels in question. The philosophers have always taught the inevitability of impermanence. It’s a seductive notion, even comforting, until the earth is quickly rising to meet you, or the carbon-bonds of your childhood are being broken and released into the air. Impermanence is fine until we lose something. Perhaps it is in these moments, the moments when we wish to avert our eyes, that we are called to enter even more deeply into our losses and grief. Our resistance to entering the depths of our loss only amplifies our suffering and keeps us from seeing what comes next. Perhaps, if we are to truly be able to step across the threshold into that which we are called and to embrace what awaits us, we must first have that which we know and love wrest from our grasp. Perhaps, we are emerging as we are letting go. As David Whyte wrote, “You are not leaving… you are arriving.”


Whyte, D (1997) The House of Belonging, Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press