By Jolie Elan, reprinted with permission from workthatreconnects.org
My Southern Oregon home town nestles in millions of forested acres. It is paradise, until fire season strikes. Then it feels more like, well, that other place where you always want ice water. When you live in the forest, wildfires are a natural part of the territory, but knowing this doesn’t make it easier to breathe. This summer the air quality has hung heavy in the “hazardous” range for long smoky weeks. Among my fellow townspeople there is rising collective unrest, a feeling of being smothered, cornered, ready to evacuate.
In struggling through the smoke of the literal and figurative fires raging in these burning times, I not only feel my own dread and panic, I also tap into the collective pain of our endangered world. However, in those dark smoky nights of the soul when I would give up almost any material possession for clean air and a few stars, I also glimpse the natural intelligence behind this great turning of our times. I’m certain that these fires can offer healing not only to our Earth, but to humanity, if we allow our hearts to be kindled by the flames.
Forest fires are natural and necessary in this part of the mountain West. Burning clears out dense, overgrown areas reducing competition for prized water and sunlight; it removes the dead and diseased, trees, jumpstarting life. Many plants, like the California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) actually need fire to thrive. Heat cracks open the hard seed casings enabling the seeds to sprout and bring forth future generations. And while fires incinerate most wildlife who can’t outrun flames, to the hawks feasting on the exodus, it’s a banquet by firelight.
The official policy of the U.S. Forest Service was, until recently, to suppress forest fires indiscriminately, with the noble intention of protecting forests. A century of this policy has resulted in, overstuffed forests that are starved for light, nutrients and water: too many trees expending too much life force competing for resources. These weakened woodlands are prone to diseases and insect infestations. When we throw in drought and record high temperatures driven by global warming, we have a tinderbox at the mercy of a lightning strike.
Just as our top engineers can’t stop the ocean from eroding prime beachfront real estate, it’s most often futile to try to suppress forest fires. In fact, efforts to do so often backfire. In this respect, fire mirrors our own human nature. When we suppress our righteous anger at injustice, it smolders in our psyches, and the most insignificant spark can ignite a fury that burns bridges and leaves all of us scarred. When populations of people are suppressed, it results in a demoralized society, abject poverty, violence, and overstuffed prisons ready to ignite in riots. When we dam up the inevitable rivers of grief that flow from our broken hearts as we witness the great unraveling of our times, we deaden our emotions, divorcing ourselves from our extended family circles made up of Syrian refugees and African elephants. Severing our family ties makes us unutterably lonely, and many of us race around struggling to fill ourselves up with Netflix and consumer items, which just accelerates the unravelling—creating a vicious cycle of addiction and denial, adding more fuel to the proverbial fire.
Our sacred Mother Earth is raising a fever to burn out dis-ease, overgrowth, competition, and the deadly belief that humanity exists outside the natural world, that we are separate.
To respond to these burning times by burying my head further in the sand as the sea levels rise, while perfectly understandable, is unproductive. Although I want to binge-watch Drop Dead Diva with a jumbo bag of potato chips, sometimes I have to hit the off button and sit with my fear, grief, and powerlessness, which can feel unbearable. And yet, after storms of tears and panic move through my internal landscape, I experience moments of grace when I see global warming as our Mother Earth’s natural and healthy response to humanity’s forgetfulness of our place in the family of life. Our sacred Mother Earth is raising a fever to burn out dis-ease, overgrowth, competition, and the deadly belief that humanity exists outside the natural world, that we are separate.
This shift requires humanity to pick up the ancient and evolving understanding that we are just one tiny, but important, part of a sentient, sacred, loving, interconnected living planet.
Isn’t global warming the supreme teacher of our era? It’s obvious that we need technological and legislative fixes, however, it’s nothing short of a true revolution of the heart and spirit that will lead us through the dark bottleneck of the Anthropocene. This shift requires humanity to pick up the ancient and evolving understanding that we are just one tiny, but important, part of a sentient, sacred, loving, interconnected living planet. It’s from this vantage point that real solutions will become evident and within reach.
How do we heal our relationships with the extended family of life? How do we shift from separation to belonging? To bond deeply with nature, I find it’s best to show up with a soft heart and a beginner’s mind open to the ancient wisdom that animals and plants have their own intelligence, are really good at their jobs, and are capable of love.
A gentle first step is to go on a leisurely walk, spending some quality with your nature. Out on the trail, we can more easily allow ourselves, like children, to be joyfully drawn into the dance of life; maybe it’s in a timeless moment when the smoke lifts at last and you breathe in a perfect blue sky; perhaps you find yourself intimate with a fuzzy bee brushed in golden pollen as she spirals around a sunflower sipping sweet nectar. Whatever, or whoever, calls to you, offer your rapt attention, your beautiful beating heart. If you feel blocked, great, you’ve noticed it. Feel into it. Sit with it. Recognize it, welcome it, accept it, investigate it, don’t get hung up about it, be gentle with yourself. Be interested in what walls you off from the world around you.
It’s impossible to be conscious in an endangered and suffering world without feeling pain.
Or, on the contrary, you might find yourself in the flow of a raging river of emotions, which is also natural. Sometimes, when I feel most joyful, and at one with the more-than-human world, the dams of suppressed emotions bust open and I feel my intense pain for the world. I am overcome with compassion, “suffering with” the orphans and octopuses. It’s impossible to be conscious in an endangered and suffering world without feeling pain. Pain is a necessary part of our collective healing. As in all organisms, pain serves the purpose of alerting the need for curative action. If you tap into the pain for the world, keep breathing, and know this is exactly what it takes to weave our hearts back into the fabric of the universe for the benefit of all life.
If, and when, you land in one of those eternal moments where manmade boundaries dissolve and you know in your rocky bones that you are but one golden thread in a mind-blowing, sentient, sacred tapestry woven with manatees and mollusks, take a deep breath from within your larger body of life and source your own natural intelligence. That natural intelligence is how the Earth will heal herself. What is your nature calling you to do in these unprecedented times? For better or worse, it’s a new era and old rules do not apply. There is no normal; there are no maps, and our wild hearts must lead the way.
As for smoke, the fires will eventually cease. The autumn rains arrive, Spirit willing. Sadly, there will be lost lives, hives, nests, homes, and a long string of ruined summer vacations, but such losses often force us to reexamine our priorities – like what to take with us in case of evacuation. Fires force change in landscapes. Millions of those hard, fire-adapted seeds, dormant for decades, will crack open, put down roots and riotously blossom in the charred earth, heralding in a whole new reign of life in the forest. The big question now is: How will we relate to that new life, and will our hearts crack open to welcome it?
How will we relate to that new life, and will our hearts crack open to welcome it?
Jolie Elan, M.S. is the Founding Director of Go Wild Institute. She is a deep ecologist, ethnobotanist and educator. She has inspired thousands of people to deepen their relationship with nature. Jolie has worked with ethnobotanical projects on four continents including restoring sacred forest groves in India and developing the herbal medicine sector in war torn Kosovo. Jolie is also a seasoned environmental advocate with twenty years of experience building diverse networks, especially with Indigenous groups focused on protecting sacred sites. Combining her love for the earth and spirit, Jolie completed her training as a Spiritual Director and acts as a spiritual companion for those who wish to increase their intimacy with the divine, especially through the natural world. Jolie was enrolled in the WTR Facilitator Development Program this year and incorporates the work into her teachings and workshops especially her Wild Woman program, a five month course for women to connect to the Earth, build a wild sisterhood, and (re)source from the Earth. Jolie is adjunct faculty at College of Marin and regularly teaches at Point Reyes Field Institute, the San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus, as well as large variety of herbal medicine schools, and environmental and spiritual organizations throughout the west. Jolie received her B.A. from the Evergreen State College in Environmental Studies, her Master’s degree in Natural Resources from Humboldt State University, and her certification in Spiritual Direction from the Chaplaincy Institute.