Listen to the author reading this article (8:32)
Well, the smoke here is not as bad as in the interior of the province but I still can’t help but feel on the edge of some sort of inferno. I went for a walk this afternoon, high into the second growth that has been honeycombed with mountain bike trails above our village in the valley. As usual, I sensed your presence on the trail before me. I’ve been wondering about your thoughts on fire.
When things get weird and the world reveals its wildness and the approach of chaos, to whom better to turn than to the poets. So unsurprisingly, here you are, as you have been for this past half century. Looking back through your work (beautifully and comprehensively encompassed by the Library of America Collected Poems), the presence of fire is ubiquitous, smoldering here and there beneath the duff and elsewhere blazing forth.
Of course, there are also your essays in Back on the Fire, explicitly about the fire ecology of the Sierras, prescient reflections on the controlled burns practiced by indigenous folk throughout Turtle Island, and your own preparations and encounters. Standing behind, or within it all, are your formative seasons as a fire lookout in the Cascades. In “Poets on the Peaks”, John Suiter reminds us that, “late in June 1952, (you) had arrived at the District headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service at Marble mount, Washington, the last town on the Skagit before the big country upriver.” Seventy-one years ago! Back on the fire, indeed! (I note your recent ambivalence with your work back then: “the jokes on me fifty years later as I learn how much the fire suppression ideology was wrong-headed and how it has contributed to our current problems.”)
But the poems! Right off, first poem in your first published book, Riprap, “down valley a smoke haze” seen from Sourdough Mountain lookout. You remind us that these fires and their smoke have been with us always! Of course, they are nothing like today, supercharged by climate change! You show us fire in many guises, that we may come into right relationship with it. “Fire can be a tool and a friend.”
I hope that the readers of the GTEC Reader will wander in the wilds of your work to seek not only the fire there, but also the flaming clarity of precise language that brings to life our entanglement with all. “GREAT BRILLIANT KING! Unshakable! –halo of flame” I am thinking I might highlight a few moments along the path: “let me unflinching burn / Such dross within / With joy / I pray.” What follows are thoughts on a few poems that reach for my attention. As fellow Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “the most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention”. (And might it be that the very loss of our attention to friend Fire has contributed to the crises in which we find ourselves think “fossil fuels”, taken for granted!)
First, thanks for the perspective you bring – Deep Time, Endless Space! “Our portion of fire / at this end of the milky way / “the Tun-hunag fragments say, Eternal light) / Two million years from M31 / the galaxy in Andromeda- / My eyes sting with these relics. / Fingers mark time. / semen is everywhere / two millions seeds in a spurt.”
You trace how Fire is with us, precedes, follows, and embraces us through space and time. Here, and again in Burning the Small Dead: “a hundred summers / snowmelt rock and air / hiss in a twisted bough. / sierra granite; / mt. Ritter- / black rock twice as old. / Deneb, Altair / windy fire” (Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus, is the 19th brightest and Altair, in the constellation Aquila is the 12th brightest star in the night sky.) With these references, you place the beginnings and endings of things in proximity – fire present at both the birth and the death, the beginning and end of things.
The presence of fire at the end is nowhere as apparent in your powerful and unusually “personal” poem written in wake of your wife Carol’s death and cremation.
box in the furnace, locked down the door
like loading a torpedo
we burned incense and chanted the
texts for impermanence and all beings who have lived
or whoever will yet; things writ only in magic
and just for the dead – not for you dear reader –
watching the temperature gauge on the furnace,
firing with propane, go steadily up.
Maybe I know where she’s gone.
The fires that we are currently experiencing (too widespread to enumerate) are the source of so much suffering and to reach for the contexts that poetry provides seems like some sort of bypassing. The intimacy of personal loss (“Still in love, being there,/ seeing and smelling and feeling it, / thinking farewell, // worth even the smell.”) brings it home.
How can we hold our attention steady in the face of the catastrophic loss of what we love? Can we even begin a dialog with Fire in the midst of the fear, anxiety, dread, and anger enflamed by metaphors of fighting, warfare, and monsters (“the Beast”.)
I turn finally to Wildfire News, published in the same volume as the preceding. It begins, “For millions, / for hundreds of millions of years / there were fires. Fire after fire.” And continues: “Huge sequoia two foot thick fireproof bark / fire pines, their cones love the heat, / how long to say, / that’s how they covered the continents / ten lakhs of millennia or more. // I have to slow down my mind. / slow down my mind / Rome was built in a day.” Yes, there is a koan for us all!
Our old teacher Sakyamuni famously reminded us in the Ādittapariyāya Sutra that “everything is burning.” In that teaching, he points directly to the grasping mind that has become solidified within the world of Modernity. I do not think it naïve to imagine that these fires might awaken us to the necessity of different ways of perceiving, being and acting. Let us take this to heart as we gaze into these smoky skies. Once again, nine bows, old friend, thirteen thank yous!
For the Wild,
Scott Lawrance, Ed.D., R.C.C.
A retired member of the B.C. Teacher’s Federation, Scott has taught at all levels of public education from grade two to post-Secondary. His current professional interests include Buddhist approaches to eco-therapy. Scott and his Salish Sea Eco-retreats partner, Tara Souch offer annual eco-retreats for wilderness guides and interested professionals. He is the author of four books of poetry and has, in the past, edited two poetry magazines, “Raven” and “Circular Causation”.