Where the Fire Restores Us

“All Consuming Fire / You’re our hearts’ desire/ Living Flame of Love, come baptize us. Come baptize us.” —Jesus Culture

DSC_1200In Kavanagh’s Origin of Language and Myths, he explains that “baptism by fire” is a very ancient practice, dating back to the pagan Etruscans. It spread to the Romans and early Christians from the ancients. In those times, the priest would first douse the worshipper in water flung from laurel branches. Then the prophet would leap three times through the flames of a sacred fire. They did this to prove whether his claim was true. If he lived, his word and life were blessed by the gods. It was a test for everyone involved; his survival, the community’s confirmation.

There’s a story about Alexander the Great and his army fighting the Persians. His men were afraid of being outnumbered and some of the generals threatened to mutiny. He knew the only way back to Greece was victory. For the good of his men and his mission he gave a famous order:

“Burn the ships. If we go home, we take Persian ones.”

It’­­s said that later, Cortes issued the same order for his men facing the Aztecs in the New World.


The California Forest Foundation recently published a 12-page plan for restoring the redwood forests in Northern California. It’s a little counter-intuitive.

The key to their plan is setting them on fire.

According to the foundation, the ideal fire would burn for 18 hours with a flame height of four feet.

This doesn’t sound like restoration to me; this sounds like calamity.

DSC_1202Yet, they insist fires are necessary to the long-term survival of the forest.

This isn’t just long term. Compared to human life span, it’s time eternal.  Trees around the corner pre-date some of the Egyptian pyramids; up the road a little bit, Stonehenge. Examing the core of one of these fallen trees reveals that one of them may have faced more than 50 fires in its lifetime, once or twice every hundred years. For trees this old, that grow as they do, scientists have found it more effective to determine a tree’s age not by counting rings, but by counting fire scars.

Counter-intuitive is also having wood that is merely scarred when met by fire instead of charred and destroyed. We have monuments where we should have ashes.

Redwood trees are well-known for being inflammable. Redwood bark beats out asbestos where flames are concerned. If a fire should make it past this bark, it’s still very little threat. Their timber is the most expensive timber in this hemisphere for that reason. Redwood heartwood has such a tremendous thermal capacity that it doesn’t ignite even after prolonged contact with flame. It’s said that a tree struck by lightning in March once smoldered inside until November. Winter rains finally put it out, and the steaming tree was a sight to behold.

But it happens. Lightening hits a weak or decaying part of the tree and the thing might smolder all summer. Over time, the damage works its way to the surface and deteriorates, creating a basal cavity.

A stroll through the forest is a walk among the fire-wounded. Charred crevices are curious hideouts, habitats—memorials of the places where Lightening struck and it cost something. You see them everywhere. You also see that the tree is still thriving.

In fact, the tree’s fire-wounds become life-giving for other creatures.

Around here, locals call the fire marks “goospens”. For the pioneers who settled here, they were literally that. Cavities so large, they held livestock. There was a man once in Humboldt County who is said to have lived in one of these for 30 years. He put a stove inside, installed furniture and dwelt happily. He used another cavity to house his livestock, and a third for his lumberjack workshop. While he did his business on the ground, the still-living redwoods did theirs, head an arms meeting the sky, a mile out of his reach.

There are two things that make this possible. First, the real growth and nutrient processing happens in the canopy. Way, way up there, redwoods link arms and share sunshine and transform the mere soil and water to living material. Life from dust and water transformed: like that with the Bread and Wine, it’s a miracle. For most trees, that transformation starts much lower: if it burns, it blows away like chaff.

The second is that a redwood tree is one of the only species that can heal itself. There is a special enzyme in the layer under its bark that goes to work on the wound. Slowly, over time, the wood re-grows where the damage occurred. As the new wooden tissue meets the wounded place, it restores life giving capacity to the inner damage. In a way, these trees fake it till they make it.

DSC_1189They heal from the outside in.

This only works when the heartwood is intact. If it isn’t, the tree will close the wound faster than the tissues can meet and a fungus develops, eating away at the inside of tree. One lightening strike or fire will ignite the diseased and decaying wood, charring away a cavity.

So why does forest restoration call for fire?

Because the redwood forest is a fire-dependent community.

The dense undergrowth prevents nutrients from reaching the redwoods. The redwoods trip over the toothpick Douglas Firs, which also grow so quick and dense that they choke out any other flora and fauna. They are the things that hinder and so easily entangle and must be thrown off by flames.

A fire every now and then is a good thing. It’s part of a natural pattern to ensure the long-term growth, health, and safety for the whole forest.

A fire, every now and then, frees you

when you can’t see the forest for the trees.

These restoration fires ensure that the flammable undergrowth and disease-prone plants are eliminated, keeping the canopy safe. It carves out the weaker parts of the tree, making room for new life to dwell.

It’s the canopy fires that kill the trees— those fires where illusions, fears, and resentments take hold of t the head and make their way to the heartwood and wreak havoc on mind, body, and spirit. When the overgrown undergrowth meets the careless match of a word or circumstance, it catches all the life-giving material.

Without a holy fire, the raging one will spread to new human homes and topple the ancient obelisks.

20120908-DSC_0177We’re told that “Only We Can Prevent Forest Fires.” But that prevention, that control costs the community a lot over time. Some of the redwood forest surrounded by residential development is in serious danger. People are opposed to the Forest Service setting fire to the land touching theirs for obvious reasons. But rangers are concerned that the current unchecked growth pattern is far riskier in the long term.

The more we control, the more we are choked by our own well-meaning undergrowth. Douglas firs make great Christmas trees, but against the redwoods, they are toxic ornament. The small trees, the ornaments of personality and profession, of relationship and “calling”, the 25-year Douglas Firs of tradition that we make for ourselves sometimes must be burned away so that our eternal identity can be revealed.

For the redwood forest, the fires force it to confront the hardened, overgrown, diseased, and weak places—the places that oppose the eternal life, the thousand-years life of the tree—the places that need transformed to make visible the unseen. For what is seen is only temporary, but the unseen is eternal.

In the fire, the forest is refined.

And the redwoods—those that have inflammable heartwood, those that heal, those that hold their vulnerability aloft, those that wave their spirits in the wind and feast from the high places, those that stand outside human time—are free to live.


1 Peter 1:7

These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold–though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.


Add yours →

  1. This was terrific. I really enjoyed reading the perspective you presented.

  2. I enjoyed learning more about my amazing neighbors, the Redwoods and trying to figure out where each of the pictures came from in our neighborhood. I am honored to be in same community growing and enduring the fire God, the Holy Spirit, ignites in us and our circumstances. “Every blade of grass has it’s angel that whispers, ‘Grow.’ ” -Talmud

  3. Hey Jess, another great piece. Many great parallels to human life in those trees. I deeply enjoyed the piece.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: