In the grand American tradition, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer. With sunny days and warmer weather, this weekend is also the official beginning of camping season. Long hikes, pitching tents and sleeping on uneven ground, cooking over tiny gas stoves or carefully constructed fire pits.
As a kid, for me the summers meant mountains. I spent my adolescence trekking trails of the northern and central Cascade range. This was an opportunity to chase mountain goats along a snow covered ridge, feed marmots in the shadow of Mt Baker, wade through ponds and streams formed from glacial melt, and stand upon the summit of rugged peaks. My mountaineering days taught me lessons of perseverance, respect for nature, and the joy of accomplishment. It also placed in perspective the scope of my insignificance in comparison to the vast landscapes and magnitude of our bigger world.
One summer, along the Devil's Gulch trail south of Cashmere, we saw a pillar of smoke rising across the valley. At the time, I didn't think much of it. We finished our hike and headed home, unaware what we saw was a precursor to something with which many residents of western states have become familiar. The day after we returned home, the news was reporting of a wildfire in the area we observed; it spread and within days much of the forest we visited had burned.
Forest fires are powerful forces. They create massive swaths of destruction, sometimes causing evacuations and costly property damage. At a minimum, they transform gorgeous scenery into cinders - blackened hillsides of smoldering ruin.
For the casual observer, these disasters appear to be chaotic. Roaring flames that multiply with staggering speed. Acres of land burning in unison. A fire so large that the possibility of controlling it is daunting - if not impossible.
Visually, chaos is the best descriptor. But there is an order to it - a science that explains what is happening and predicts what will happen. Contours of the landscape, wind speeds, weather forecasts, the variety of trees and shrubbery that serve as a fire's fuel. Firefighters use this knowledge to combat natural forces that make men like me cower.
Within the chaos, there is order. It is even beautiful. Have you ever stared into a fire, mesmerized by the the way the flames seem to dance a waltz set to the music of crackling embers or followed the wisps of smoke traipsing skyward?
The power to ruin with the beauty to enrapture.
Despite the manpower needed to battle wildfires, the financial costs to rebuild, the burden of insurance settlements - we actually need wildfires. The health of a forest is improved by fire. Pine needles, fallen leaves, and weeds build up, destroying habitats for various wildlife which throws the ecosystem off-kilter. Fire will burn away dead vegetation and thin overgrowth. It removes non-native plant species and kills diseased trees. Ashes add nutrients to the soil. Fires return sunlight to the forest floor, serves as natural insect and pest control, revives animal habitation, and spurs new plant growth.
Fire can destroy a forest, but a lack of fire is even more destructive.
The same is true in the human soul. Sometimes, we are consumed by fiery emotional chaos; our lives in turmoil. I say this with confidence because it has been apparent in my own world. We are busy, burdened, stressed, mired in conflict. At times, this fire rages out of control and the possibility of overcoming our trials is daunting - if not impossible.
However, what is true in the natural world is also true in the spiritual realm. Within the chaos, there is order and even beauty. The bible frequently uses fire as a metaphor of how our lives are tested and improved through a refining process as if we were made of gold or silver. That which tests us makes us better. It transforms shame into worth and gives purpose to our struggle. Trials can destroy a life, but a life without trials is even more destructive.
There is an end to this fire. What comes out of the smoldering ruin is better, stronger, healthier. Embrace it. There is beauty inside the chaos.