There Is Smoke in Brooklyn
Shannon Huffman Polson
Reading Time: 24 minutes
This essay originally appeared in Issue 24 of Tahoma Literary Review. Polson deftly weaves a connection between her family's experience with devastating Pacific Northwest wildfire, global climate change, and humans' tenuous interface with nature and wilderness. Read it here and in our most current print issue, #TLR24. Or listen to Schummer read it: bit.ly/SmokeSHP24
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A week before the fires, our youngest sits outside watching birds. He has oriented himself toward the mountains, the way the wind came, the way the water came, the way the fire would come. When he stands to come inside, he notices the trap—one more chipmunk, the jaws of the device around its neck. It has now been reduced to skeleton. I sit with him, working to notice every piece. The wasps have taken the flesh, the sinew, fur and organs. All that remains are minute wings of scapula and a fine white chain of spine and tail. What is unseen holds us together.
Early July. It is hot and dry. A lightning strike ignites the forest near Cedar Creek, ten miles down the ridgeline from our home. For fourteen days, the fire devours the heavy fuels in both directions, jumping containment lines and burning fast up rocky heights and through dense timber. Fire camps sprawl in open fields like military encampments, thousands of workers and acres of equipment in the valley below us. Fluorescent pink yield-shaped signs appear along roadways with alerts of fire activity. Fire information boards go up at major intersections and the grocery store. The aviation starts: helicopters, scooper planes, a constant overflight of water carriers working to slow down the flames, the sounds of a war zone. If it’s not too smoky, they’re flying all the fire lines. The sound of rotor blades becomes a constant.
I know the sounds of war, serving ten years in uniform, in Bosnia, Korea and places in between, and I know that extra attention that comes when what is around you wants to kill you. In uniform it was only me, a volunteer for the risks faced. Now we are four, my husband and two boys and me, unless you count the dog, the cat and two hives of bees (the kids would be appalled to leave them out). I’ve craved this haven all along, a safe place for a family, a place that extra attention can be turned to love and not to fear.
In the afternoon, two days after that examining the skeleton, a large white pickup truck drives up our road. We’re two miles off the valley floor. Before the climb begins, a sign marks the road as “primitive.” You have to want to come here, which is to say, no one just “stops by.” It’s the fire team division chief in charge of all fire operations. His name is Tom. Tom is nearly seventy, and wears a baseball cap, the dirty yellow canvas jacket of fire crew, and an enormous white mustache. He climbs out of the truck, I say hello, and my youngest and I walk with him outside. Peter joins us, and Jude climbs on his shoulders to look down at the map.
He spreads his map across the hood of his truck. He’d been fighting fires for fifty years and had been assigned to the fire from Oregon. For a moment, I didn’t realize the reason he had come. The division chief doesn’t just make social calls, not in the middle of a fire and not this far off the main road. The fire is burning our direction. We are directly in the path.
We walk Tom all around the house and I point out the work we’d done, preparing the land these past years—limbing and thinning the trees, burning all through one drizzly spring night. We’d pulled the bitterbrush. Thirty feet around the house we’d hardscaped with gravel and isolated low plantings, nothing that could catch and spread a flame. Peter’s cut the grass back even further. I want the fire chief to see our family, to see we’d done our work, to see the thing I know he is assessing: this is a house he can, and will, defend.
I walk him up the hill to the well and cistern, assure him that we have water as he assures me they shouldn’t need it. Our son Jude, eight years old, follows close behind, his skinny legs in canvas shorts hurrying to keep up. Tom stops to pick up a pinecone, his eyes crinkling as he smiles.
“This will open up and let out the seeds when fire comes,” he says. “Do you know what that’s called?”
Jude shakes his head.
“Serotinous,” Tom says. “Can you remember that?”
“Serotinous,” Jude repeats with a shy smile, looking up at the man who understood what was becoming scarier each day. Serotinous: when the heat opens the way to new life. Serotinous: another term for resurrection. Serotinous: a term that first implies destruction.
There is something comforting in knowing that trees here have figured out the way to survive fire. The ponderosa grow thick bark, and their seeds do best in ash and mineral soil. Douglas fir seeds like the mineral soil, too. Ponderosa is a masting species; they drop their lower branches, reducing probability of crown fires. But this applies only in the natural fire regime. The severity of fires threatens even these resilient species.
In my mind the Cedar Creek burn is still far away, something to watch up valley. We offer refuge to friends who live in the vicinity of Mazama and are closer to the flames. Smoke is everywhere, choking the valley in yellow brown. It’s smoke you can smell and taste and feel, the sting of it in your eyes and mucous membranes. Peter and I walk the dog before bed, the smoke so thick we cannot see the stars.
Friday, I jump on Zoom to work on our new community library. When our call ends, I rush to pick up our eldest son Sam from river camp.
At the parking lot, my friend Suzanne walks over with urgency in her step.
“The kids are okay,” she begins, though her words have to push through fear. “They may need to take a detour. But they’re safe. The fire’s not too close yet.”
I’m confused. The fire is miles away.
“Another fire started off the Chewuch,” she said. “It’s running up Cub Creek.”
Cub Creek is the area of the campsite where the kids have been for the past five days. My chest suddenly constricts.
At eleven, Sam had been asking for more time away, more independence, beginning that long work of turning toward the world that feels to a parent like a slow amputation for all that it is the natural way of things. We signed him up for a weeklong camp away at the river. The night before, my husband and I visited the camp for a parent evening. Our son sat in the circle confident and happy, his legs crossed just like his dad’s, leaning into the conversation with bright eyes and a smile. The campers and camp leaders talked about the list they kept of all the flora and fauna they had seen, impossibly long—so much life!—how each camper had chosen a being to inhabit considering the effects of a changing world. There had been a lamprey eel, a frog, even a mosquito, and our son had chosen to be a beaver. His lean little boy’s body was blissfully covered in dirt, washed off several times a day by swimming in the river and re-coated the moment he emerged.
For a moment I consider waiting for the bus in the parking lot. But what if the information is old? What if they are caught by the fire? What if they can't get out? I tell our friend I’ll drive toward camp and ask her to text me if she sees them. She knows me well enough to only nod.
On the country road, I pray Dear God Dear God let him be safe and floor the gas pedal as the pyrocumulus comes into sight. The cloud burgeons toward the sky, a menacing mass only hinting at the conflagration beneath. I have no coherent thoughts. I’ve watched fire like this, I’ve watched it run and I’ve seen what was left behind, and what is left behind is sometimes nothing.
The cloud of smoke moves like a thing alive. Its form subsumes the landscape, becomes the landscape. It changes and grows with horrifying speed, claiming land and air, its size and momentum auguring the heat and flames, devouring anything in the path.
Cars have pulled over and people are standing on the sides of the road with cameras in a kind of horrified awe. They do not have a child at camp on the other side of that plume. I am not stopping for anything.
Suzanne’s text comes just before I reach the road junction where the sheriff would have blocked the way. The kids are in the parking lot. She will let Sam know I’d been there and that I’d gone looking for him. I hope he will understand that I left to find him because I would give my life for his. Driving back toward this little boy, I am anxious to put my arms around his body, whole and breathing, and just eleven years old.
We’ve made our home in the ecotone, on the border of dry forest and meadow on the side of a deep green ponderosa-studded hillside near the sage steppe and above a salmon creek.
As the snow fades, our neighbors return: the Say’s phoebe and the white-headed woodpecker, the mountain bluebirds and the pine siskin, the evening grosbeak and the sparrows and swallows. All of us building homes to raise our young, creating a safe place where they will learn to fledge.
Now all our homes are in danger.
We had planned to leave for two weeks that Sunday to visit my mother-in-law, recently widowed, and send the kids to camps nearby. Get out on the coast and spend some time on the lake. This scheduled travel is now our escape.
The new fire, named Cub Creek for where it ignited, is burning north into wilderness, but the wind is pushing the Cedar Creek fire near Mazama through the dry forest and directly toward our home. Saturday, my husband and a friend don long pants and long sleeves in the heat to limb up trees around the house even higher than before. I take a trailer full of the highly flammable bitterbrush we’ve pulled from around our home to the dump. The fire division manager comes back for the second time in three days. The pyrocumulus billows across the valley, and one of my favorite bloggers reports that there is smoke as far east as Brooklyn. We are connected now, not only to every other living thing trying to breathe in the smoke, but to each other, across a continent.
We talk of fire as a hunger, a nearly sentient impulse consuming everything in its path. Seven years ago we moved our family out of the city, taking a risk for an adventure in the mountains. Only days after we first settled into our home on the side of the hill, we watched the lightning strike and trees torch across the valley. Small fires, we thought, watching with excitement and awe. They’ll put them out. Isn’t it amazing what lightning can do?
But then those fires galloped down the valley, tearing through grasslands, incinerating trees, uncontainable destruction. We watched then from the safety of our land, standing on a rickety porch, witnessing the ridgelines lit up for miles through the night, flares of flame as trees exploded, beautiful and terrible in equal measure. What would become the Carlton Complex was the largest in Washington state history. Until two years later, when the Okanagan Complex burned bigger. And five years later Cold Springs Canyon even bigger. Now it’s our turn. Climate change and forest mismanagement is no longer an abstraction. The fire is here. It knocks at our front door. It may not spare our home. And from this fire, across the continent—there is smoke in Brooklyn.
Because of all of this, we built our home for fire. The siding on the house is cement made to look like wood. We chose a metal roof and tempered windows. Still, there are no guarantees. This ecotone, the place between habitats, is also another kind of border, the human and wildland interface. Our home sits on land surrounded on three sides by public lands, Forest Service and Washington State Department of Natural Resources. This interface carries with it a different kind of understanding. We do not want our home to burn, and we do not want to lose this land.
Washington state, fire evacuation levels:
Level 1: get ready
Level 2: get set, and
Level 3: go.
All of us have “go bags” to grab as we run out the door, filled with what matters most for immediate survival. Evacuation levels can and do change on a dime, sometimes in the middle of the night. We drive away from our home perched on the hill above a gentle curve of valley just ahead of receiving notice of Level 3. I do not permit myself a glance back.
We are in Seattle at my husband’s childhood home. West of the mountains, the skies are clear, while the newspaper from our hometown (and The Washington Post) report the worst air quality in the country. On the east side of the mountains, the same northwesterly winds directing the fire push the smoke into the Midwest and all the way to New York. Near to my mother-in-law’s home, the lake is calm and smooth, the vastness of the water under blue sky a salve. To the northeast, we watch the pyrocumulous tower above the high mountains of the North Cascades, 30,000 feet and climbing. We check satellite images each hour, though they’re only updated twice a day. Our home webcam shows the fire crews’ activity. The National Guard has been called in to enforce safety. Friends text. Acquaintances text. Neighbors text. It is impossible to concentrate. I reschedule calls until the following week.
Tom, the fire division chief texts one night near midnight, addressing each of the four of us by name. I’m startled by his kindness in the midst of all that he must do. He gives a report of his crew’s activities. They have nicknamed our house “The Fort,” and are pleased with the precautions we’ve taken. They’ve laid hose and put in several dozer lines, heavy equipment cutting rough roads, scraping away any organic material down to the mineral soil, a line they can work to defend. They’ve installed 450-gallon water blivits outside the houses and set up sprinklers—what he calls a “water curtain.” We fall asleep satisfied that we have done our work and the fire teams are very much on top of what else can and must be done.
The next day texts continue; my phone vibrates constantly. Gathered around my mother-in-law’s table in the kitchen nook for pancakes, I sip my coffee compulsively. I sneak a look at the camera feed on my phone, holding it underneath the table while the boys argue over the last piece of bacon. Firefighters are now in full gear. One has an axe over his shoulder, and a backpack. They still move without urgency, but things have changed. A new truck is in the driveway. This one has deployed the hoses. It is hard to stay off a constant refresh of the fire map and the security camera, checking for new texts or emails.
But it is Sunday, and we are with the boys, and somehow I must keep that urgency away from them, protect them from my fear. Sam goes off to pick blackberries. Jude wants me to jump off the dock with him again and again: “Mama, want to hop in?” Boats crisscross the lake. Paddleboarders maneuver with leisurely strokes matching the languor of a summer weekend, hot sun, cool water. A few swimmers brave the chop, their orange buoys trailing behind them. The air is calm. The skies are clear.
At dinner, the volume of texts increases, closely trailing the increased intensity of the fire. It’s flared again, the winds have changed. A friend sends photos. Another sends a video showing our ridgeline, panning all the way up the valley, furious with fire. Phones are not allowed at the table. My son who picked blackberries earlier in the day looks over and says with a look he learned from me: “Mom, can’t whatever that is wait?”
I don’t want to tell him why I’m breaking the rules. People are checking in, I say, and this is true.
The dusk at home is hastened by the smoke, and the angry yellow orange of fire blazes on the ridgeline where we’ve built our home, an unholy fury. Friends report trucks streaming off the ridge—the winds are tricky. The firefighters have been called off. Our camera goes down—they’ve cut the power. We were powerless before, and now we’re blind. The longing for information is immense, and there is nothing to be had.
The boys must go to bed. They brush their teeth, and Peter reads to them. They say their prayers. We pray for the firefighters. I check emails and find pictures from another friend who lives across the valley showing greedy lines of fire ravaging the ridge for miles. I kiss them good night, and smile in the dark, hoping it will cover the fear in my voice.
“Sweet dreams,” I whisper. And the one who wanted me to “just hop in” says, “Mama, did you get my reindeer harness?”
The other precious thing. I’d asked Suzanne to pick up the photograph he prized along with some art and pottery with the boys’ handprints, but the harness Santa had left last Christmas, the one that was Dasher’s training harness—how had I forgotten that?
“I’m sorry, sweetie, I forgot to ask,” I say, “but it’s going to be okay. The house is going to be okay and it will be there.”
I kiss my boy who picked the blackberries and in the dark my silent tears fall on his blankets as I pray my words are true. And in the dark he does not notice, or does not say he does.
We saw for ourselves the ongoing change made manifest when we moved into the wilderness of the West. Fire, once regular and cleansing for the forest, is now intense and all consuming. The combination of over-management of forest—policies known as fire exclusion pursued for decades and meant to minimize fire—and rapid climate change creates the perfect storm. The West is drying out, too. The drought map of Okanagan County stripes from moderate to extreme. That’s nothing special for the West. Ninety percent of western states are under drought conditions, with severe or exceptional drought near fifty percent. Fires are burning in Oregon, in California, in British Columbia. It’s hard to tell where smoke comes from. Each year we wait. Will fire come our way, or end up somewhere else? The only thing we know for sure is it will come.
The Methow people used fire for forest health when they lived on this land, before they were forced onto a reservation in 1883, their land appropriated. Fire, all Indigenous people knew, controlled the fuel, what we now call all that’s growing in the paths of fires—the trees, the branches, thickets, pine needles, and any other natural material that burns. White people put the fires out.
Too late we realized how critical the fire is to forest health. Fire not only controls the fuel, cleans up the forest floor, but releases the nutrients from the organic matter—nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and carbon. Most of the nitrogen is burned away in the fire, but these other ingredients enrich the soil. Too hot a fire depletes the land: where the fire burns hottest, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria can perish, further depleting the soil of nitrogen. Other organisms—endo- and ectomycorrhizae organisms which help to form relationships with and feed plant roots—can also be destroyed, taking decades to regenerate.
Now the government scrambles to burn and manage forests, make up for decades of lost time. They thin the forest where they can, logging efforts that may mitigate the fire. Washington State thinned on our ridge, but they’ve left the slash piles, bigger than houses. We’d hoped they would have done controlled burns years ago, but there is so much to do, so much land to cover, it hasn’t happened. So much left undone.
To live in the wild place means submission to wildness itself, a willingness to live on its terms. Thinking we can fight the walls of fire is a kind of madness, worse still the lack of thought that leads to a belief in immunity from the hard necessity of what it takes to live—the brutal, clean requirements of cold and heat and fire. There are many people like this, believing that they subdue the earth by shooting anything they see or coming to the valley just to take, and to receive.
In truth, we were the latter once. It is the mindset of the conqueror, the peak bagger, the recreationalist. It is the mindset, perhaps, more of the young. I wonder if a different understanding has come not only with time living on this land, but also with middle-age, a shift of sensibilities as my youthful energy flags. The excitement I felt over a heli-yurt trip fifteen years ago is tempered now, blended with knowledge of danger and of risk, with a need for stillness equaling the need for action, with a fierce love for this family of ours and of this wild place where we have made our home. To fully live in wildness means to listen, watch, and learn. Sitting not to receive, but to know. To know and then to truly love and learn to give, to offer every day the prayer of full attention. Here is another kind of ecotone: that of safety and letting go. That of knowing and not knowing. That of praise and lament.
I think back to that drizzly spring evening two years ago, and on a school night too—we’d stayed up all night and done our own burns, lighting twenty-one small fires to burn the clearing we’d done the weeks before. Our home wasn't yet complete; we slept in sleeping bags on plywood floors amid the sawdust. The small fires were big enough to drive adrenaline as sparks danced upward into branches. We watched and calculated what was stronger—sparks or rain drops? Even a small brush pile throws off surprising heat, reminding you how quickly it could get away.
Life on these terms offers a particular intimacy, a deeper understanding of our connection to this created world, to the forest, the hills, the sage steppe in a way we feel in our flesh and to our bones. From the house, black bear and coyote run a corridor atop an underground stream. In ways we never considered in the city, we watch the grasses change color subtly over changing months and seasons, from green to pink to shimmering gold. We make friends with hummingbirds. Our eight-year-old spots the goshawk in residence atop the snag, has learned to hear and see the red-tailed hawks and osprey, knows the wren’s tilt of the tail and the flocking cedar waxwings. One morning, sitting outside with Jude, I saw a flash of yellow in the serviceberry.
“It’s not a meadowlark,” I said, perplexed, and he said, skipping inside, “Mama, it’s a goldfinch.” I doubted him and pulled out my Sibley’s; he was right.
Any relationship involves compromise, and it is no different with the land. As the fires began their rampage down the ridge, one friend texted: “Hopefully J’s hummingbirds scrammed!” And a local elderly man he befriended wrote: “Let’s hope our big birds made it out.” Another friend messaged: “It’s not fair. You did all this work for your home, and it’s not fair.” Fair, I thought, doesn’t factor into this at all. Fires burn where and when they will.
And submission—I suppose true submission, true release, would not allow for fear, but I am afraid. At night after tucking the boys into bed, the dark pressing against the windows, I pray for safety. I pray for our home, for this refuge. I pray for our trees. When once I thought the scale of what is wild dwarfed my concerns, I now understand they are not separate. The wild and we are of a piece.
We didn’t hear what the fire had wrought until Monday afternoon. The day transpired without incident, a whole day without information except the phone videos of friends: ravenous walls of flame ravaging the dark, roaring in the wind over contours where our home should be; a photo of the red taillights of the convoy of fire vehicles called to safety and off the fire. A friend across the valley said he had to shut the blinds; they could not bear to watch the conflagration.
A text from Tom, the division chief, comes to my phone, addressing each of us by name. The fire burned through, but our home is safe, he tells us. I nearly weep at the kindness of his update—in all that he had to do, he sent us an update on our home.
The fire jumped the dozer lines, many times. It burned up to the sprinkler line. He attaches photos, a monotone yellow gray, taken from above the house. Everything is gray or black. Trees are gone or blackened. But our home—even the garden—still stands, unhurt.
Still, I can barely breathe.
My husband goes back with his camera for just a day to walk the burning land, to talk to firefighters and document the burn. The ground still smolders. Little spots of fire push through the ash after burning along roots below the ground. Firefighters walk around with shovels to put them out—mop up, it’s called. The yellow jackets are furious at what’s transpired. Everyone is getting stung.
The work limbing up trees paid off; many of the large ponderosa around the house look healthy, their thick bark evolved for fires and the lack of ladder fuels allowing the fire to burn through without harm. The meadow where light had played across the nuanced shifts of color now lies scorched and blackened; below the aspens, where thickets had held bird nests and the homes of other creatures, burned to white-gray ash. Impossibly, chipmunks still scurry across the burn.
“I’m so relieved,” one friend writes, seeing the photograph of our home. “And next spring the lupine will be amazing in the ash they love so much.”
There were still losses. The hundred-years old settlers’ cabin in the aspen grove, the one I’d used as a writing cabin, burned. The new metal roof we’d added a few years ago is all that remains, twisted like rumpled fabric above the ash. Inside the cabin, I had set the rocking chair from my childhood bedroom. A beautiful old wood burning cook stove I used as a bookshelf. Now they’re gone, this cherished marriage of past and future. At the end of the meadow, the old grandfather Douglas fir is gone, too. We loved it for the long low branches defining a secret place, tall enough for our whole family to stand inside, to look up into the ladder of branches reaching to the heavens. Because we loved those limbs, we did not trim them, and because we did not limb the tree, the fire claimed it, too.
Two more months of burning lie ahead. New Level 3 evacuations came last night. There is no room for relief that our house still stands; our hearts are heavy with the fear and uncertainty of our friends and other community members. The fire is burning toward the community of Pine Forest, where we know the trees grow dense. The fire season is scheduled to continue for many weeks. When others’ homes are threatened, it is too soon for joy.
An email pops into my inbox from a local environmental group urging us to reconsider the damage of fire, consider it a natural cycle. I hit delete. It’s far too soon.
We return home four weeks after the fire, under an impossibly blue sky. Small spots of twisting smoke still appear across the landscape, trees still burning here and there. Each step outside of the thin envelope of our home compresses blackened soil and ash. With each footstep, a fine gray cloud of ash erupts. The crunch beneath our shoes is unfamiliar—the earth beneath has been reconstructed. The gentle slope of the hillside, once covered with sage and bitterbrush, is black. The curve of the meadow, charred black. Among the trees that stand, both dead and living, a young black bear cub wanders languidly and alone. We watch through binoculars. He paws at the black forest floor, moves on, and tries again.
Outside of a dozen or so trees near our house, the area we had thinned, limbed, and cleared, most of the ponderosa are gone—but standing still, trunks burned black and needles the color of weak tea. Below the aspens, the thicket of underbrush beloved by birds is gone, the land scorched white. Along the road, the place each morning and each night we walk the dog, the trees are gone—the trees that held the wrens and lazuli buntings in the spring. The serviceberry where the goldfinch hid is burned black.
It is not that the scene is an absence of life—it is that the life lost is overwhelming. It is as though the land has been bled. It is as though nothing can be safe. It looks like fear and I feel it like a fist inside my chest.
Our youngest son, the birdwatcher and chipmunk catcher, wants to walk through the burned areas. A few logs we had not yet bucked up lie charred, thick black marks on the blackened ground.
“Let’s not cut down all these trees,” he says of the pale ponderosas with the ink black trunks. “They tell a story.”
But even for him, it is too soon to try to find the best in this. He worries about being stung and soon wants to head home, up one of the several dozer lines and not on the charred earth, as though death might be catching.
Beneath our feet, the ground crunches like leaves, like Styrofoam, like coins, and then suddenly, the soft pliancy of ash, an alarming lack of structure. Although the smoke has cleared, the air is pungent with the charred remains.
Where the bitterbrush grew thickest, the fire burned hot. Only the black twisted skeletons of these oily bushes remain, the standing dead, the charnel ground of land we love. Signs of life emerge from unlikely places: a tiny grouping of green leaves in the midst of the black, a flush of young grasses. If you don’t look closely, you’d likely miss them.
Looking out across the char, the scars on the land still hold the terror of that night they pulled the firefighters off the hill. They hold the fear that no matter how we try to build the firm foundation of a life, that work can fail, too. They hold the fear of failing in this most important task, building a home and a family. They hold the fear and knowledge of erasure.
I stop and watch my son push ahead of me, up the dozer line. He walks slowly, thoughtfully, taking in so much for his eight years. At our feet, a few young green leaves push through the ash. Across the valley, clouds drape shadows over blue hills and a smear of gray-blue presages rain. Fire scars from years before cannot be seen from this far away. From a distance, it is beautiful.
The middle ground is hardest to see. The middle ground shows the devastation, the twisted metal, the sepia trees. In the gully below our home is the salmon creek. As a riparian area, it was protected from any kind of fire mitigation, and that protection means that fire climbing up the slopes feasted on uncut fuels, leaving whole stands of trees burned black. There are no needles left to soften the upright marks of the trunks. These patches of burn will not regenerate for more years, perhaps, than we have left. The definition of serotinous, after all, is seed dissemination delayed or released gradually, and gradual in the earth’s time is long. There will be no quick extenuation. Our neighbor calls it a mosaic landscape, but this kind of mosaic will take me a long time to appreciate.
To move to these mountains with my family means to invest myself and ourselves into the life of this place on the earth, to the earth itself. But in the earth’s time, we are not even a fleeting shadow, not even a whisper, not even a breath. And still I believe—perhaps outside of time—we are a vital part of this world around us, that all of us created things are bound together in body and spirit in some way I do not and perhaps can never fully understand. Whatever strength or competence I’ve claimed is undone in this connection, the humility required of my place in the wild spot of ground. And for all that earthly time may disregard our passing through, for whatever mote of time I play, I want that time to give more than it takes and offer all my love.
And so it is more difficult to take in, in looking at those patches of black and sepia which weeks before were layered greens: the understanding of our sins, our own and those who came before; the way we’ve used our world for our pleasure without the deep respect that comes from love; the care that comes from that respect. The way we’ve closed the blinds and looked away. We’ll have to tell our children the part that we have played. These failings are the reason for the marks we bear, our forest bears, our planet bears, the scars that will remind us every day.
We decide what scars will represent, what stories those downed trees will tell. That is the work, to see these forest scars as markers of resilience, a compass pointing the way ahead. For now, they still stand for fear. That part of grief must run its course. And then—the earth begins to heal and it will be time to make a choice in how we move ahead. Then those scars can take on new meaning and direction.
These little boys of ours will learn how desolation must be borne, and bearing it can bring that amazement that comes from loss and resignation leading to wonderment of life anew. And in that understanding, I can only hope they will forgive us, we who tread so carelessly on their inheritance. After all this fear, and what has been so changed, what will settle into the hearts of our blackberry-picker and our lake-jumper-bird-watcher boys?
The forest burned. The land is cleared. The chaff has burned away and we decide now how to hold the heat of what is lost in balance with learning new and deeper ways to love it. To love is to face loss in all its terrifying depths and keep on loving anyway, the land, each other. We are not safe. We cannot make our home invincible. I cannot spare my children pain.
One night, we sit outside and look across the meadow, a pattern of waves showing where the fire moved. The rain begins in tiny drops. The rain and the ground together smell of charcoal. I put my arms around my boys, their little growing bodies, and Peter puts his arms around me, and all of us are silent for a moment, holding all the shock and fear and pain together. I squeeze their shoulders and bend my head to rest against theirs, but they will not be still for long.
I smile and laugh and look at them and say, “Let’s go inside.”
Polson had this to say about her piece:
“There Is Smoke in Brooklyn” responds to the author and her family’s direct experience of wildfire in North Central Washington, while compelled equally by their connection to global climate change and the complicated interface of humans and the wild.
Shannon Huffman Polson is a writer of nonfiction and poetry focusing on the natural world, faith, women and war; her books include North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey and The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male Dominated Organization in the World.
Website: shannonpolson.com, Twitter: @aborderlife, Instagram: @aborderlife, @shannonhpolson