Dreaming of fire season
The feeling finds me in late February: a haunting for a place that is entirely unlike any other place in the world. I try to shake off the feeling. It’s irritable, and irrational, really, to long for a geography that’s tied to a season that isn’t yet in season. Also, I’m not ready, on a practical level, for what the season requires of me, or rather, strips from me: mostly, the loveliness of being with other people, of watching a friend laugh, of doing something as mundane as passing the milk to someone I’m sharing coffee with, or as sacred as holding my lover’s hand. I’m not yet ready to leave that behind. But even so, the desire for this place, this season, is unshakeable, as though I don’t have a choice in the matter, and so here I go, doing as Annie Dillard says, to “write about winter in the summer”, except I’m writing about wildfire from what feels like the wettest place in Canada.
This desire for the fire tower, it’s akin to longing for the colour blue that appears on the distant horizon, the most beautiful blue you’ve ever laid eyes on. Rebecca Solnit writes about the “blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky…the blue of distance,” in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The faraway blue isn’t a place, but light that’s gotten lost in the atmosphere. It’s “the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go,” she says.
But she’s wrong. I have been beyond the blue. I have slipped into the lost light of the faraway, traveling to a place that doesn’t exist to most people on the planet: a small clearing, somewhere in the immensity of the northern boreal muskeg, surrounded by black spruce and – come July – a tangled growth of fireweed and raspberries, complete with a little yellow cabin, a vegetable garden, and a one-hundred-foot fire tower that I share with cream-coloured crab spiders and the occasional American kestrel.
It’s this place I came to, perhaps accidentally, to religiously examine the external and internal nature of things. I watch for lightning, I pray for a tendril of blue smoke. Witnessing a wildfire, even from fifty kilometers away, stokes a bizarre, but deeply felt kind of satisfaction. When nothing burns, I sink into solitude (on good days) and isolation (on bad days). Memories of my life (the choices that led me here), past hurts and joys and wounds, fester, smolder, and – when undetected – occasionally flare up, if the conditions are right. The tower is both a sanctuary and a prison, offering glimpses of ultimate freedom and intense suffering. Here, there is no escaping nature, or yourself.
This is the world that exists beyond the blue of distance. It is a world both real and imagined, depending on the day, depending on the weather. And depending on the season.
Last year, I wintered in a world not so far from the fire tower. The landscape looked somewhat the same, but with more deciduous trees, more hills, more highways, and exponentially more peopled features. Oh, and more people, of course. Even so, by January, I was hungry for the fire tower, for smoke and solitude, for sunsets and northern lights, for wildflowers and wild visitors and even wilder emotions, for space to look out, look in, to unpack, and unpeople myself.
Today, the fever for fire arrives in an unsuspecting location. On a northern island, I see only green (the kind of green that’s so vivid you could wring water out of) and the steely grey blue of the ocean. I swear I can hear water, all day, all night: rain pattering (or pounding) on the camper’s canvas roof. Even when it’s not raining, the wind is shaking dew from the trees above. The trees are dripping with moss. Moisture clings to the moss in tiny silver beads. The sound of the ocean, even from afar, drowns out every other audible noise.
It’s as though I go about my days with a moon-snail shell cupped at my ear. The sound of the swell, of the heavy, crashing salt water, is always there. I bob along the ocean’s surface on a surf board. The waves coat me in a film of salt and sand. The sand tracks back to my camper, on my dog’s paws, on my own feet, and winds up in my bed. At night, I dream of surfing, seals, and tsunamis. These days, my world is made up of water, not fire.
And yet, by early February, the (now familiar) stir occurs. My body is suddenly starved for heat, for that dry boreal heat, and for the never-ending-ness of the northern summer light that, during the longest days, stretches from 5 am to midnight.
I yearn to clamber up the steel bones of the tower, knocking my knees against the ladder till the point they are permanently bruised, to hear my lungs heaving from the exertion of “making another climb”, to feel the leathery callous build up on my hands as they curl around the rungs, to feel as though every muscle in my body was designed to do nothing else but climb. In April, it will take me several minutes, if not more, to reach the cupola, but by mid-season, I’ll be climbing in just under 90 seconds. Sixty seconds if a neighbour calls in a smoke, and for whatever reason, I’m on the ground.
I text a fellow lookout about my pre-season longing (albeit, in a much less eloquent way):
Fuck. Is it fire season yet?
I know, right? I’m climbing the fucking walls here.
I miss the cabin, the solitude…the simplicity…
I miss not having to drive to work.
I miss the sun.
I miss Greg*.
I miss John Moss.**
It’s funny how by the end of the season we’re excited to get out, but by February, we want to go back.
I know. It will be hard to give up tower life.
*name of any black bear that wanders into his yard
**name of my eccentric tower neighbour who I talk to on a daily basis (not his real name)
I want to witness the forest in slow motion, to take note of every flower opened, of each stand of aspen fully green again, the pine needles flushed and phallic, sap flowing. I long to feel the weather in my bones, to witness it gathering energy, dissipating, building again, and (finally) exploding. In the wildest storms, I blast music and dance in circles around my cupola, to stay warm, to keep from going crazy with fear. When the lightning stabs the earth, I’ll feel the most alive I’ve ever felt in my life. My eyes will stalk where the bolt of light struck, searching for smoke. And then – oh, there it is. A puff, a strand, a hazy bruise of bluish-white-sometimes-black smoke on the horizon, and (if you’re lucky) you’re the first to witness. I long to watch the forest do as it’s done for millennia: ignite, smolder, catch, burn in a mosaic patchwork, and be born anew.
“The arrival of fire in the boreal forest is as certain as the arrival of rain in the Amazon tropical rainforest,” writes Cordy Tymstra in The Chinchaga Firestorm. “[The boreal] is designed by nature to burn. It’s a pyrogenic forest, where fire, as a persistent evolutionary pressure, favours plants and animals with specific survival traits.”
One of the fire-evolved species that Tymstra describes is Melanophila acuminata, a beetle that is biologically drawn to fire (or the aftermath of a wildfire) to mate and reproduce. Melanophila is Latin for “lover of blackness,” as the female beetles lay their eggs in the black charred bark of the fire-ravaged trees. The bellies of the beetles are equipped with over seventy infrared sensors called ‘sensilla’, which can trace the infrared radiation released by wildfires.
Miraculously, this tiny, centimeter-long creature can sense a wildfire from up to eighty kilometers away, and silently, go scuttling across continents of muskeg to draw closer to fire, smoke, and blackened bark.
Am I so different than this heroic beetle, a lover of blackness? These days, I’m drawn to the fire tower in a way I’m struggling to name, or explain, or even justify. Here I am, 1500 kilometers away, in a starkly different climate, culture, and context, yet my body senses that it’s time to beetle my way back to that strange place (a place I’ve learned to call H-O-M-E) in the black spruce, to climb the tower, to push myself to new physical, pyschological, and emotional limits, to contemplate my own nature, and attempt (with, or without success) to become the hero in my own story, once again.
Ralph, a veteran lookout who spotted smokes for over thirty years, used to say to me: “We’re just like the tree swallows,” he said, referring to the aerodynamic blue birds that flit and dart around the fire towers in May and June. “Come the fall, we fly away to different places. But come fire season, we all fly back to our perches in the forest.”
Beetle, bird, lookout. We all take our cues from nature.
The fire season smolders at the edge of my mind. It’s soon time to migrate back to what Solnit called the “colour of solitude and of desire”, beyond the blue of distance, to the fire tower.