Questing for a spark of inspiration, I pore over some of my old tomes on art photography. A favorite among these is the landscape work by David Muench, who in particular deals with the fiery colors of first and last light as they are cast across the American West. I thumb past pages of long-exposure tidal flows, past mossy Sempervirens, turning to the Eastern Sierra, a dry land at altitude – land of ancient sentinels.
Young Gods and Old Gods
Muench calls these guardians by mythological names: Methuselah, Prometheus. "Methuselah" is a Hebrew name from the Old Testament, the name of the longest-lived character in the bible. It can be translated roughly as "when he dies, it is sent." I wonder and imagine what is being sent. And Prometheus, bringing fire to the Earth in an act of self-sacrifice. Like these younger gods, the shapes of the trees somehow echo human form – or perhaps we are an echo of them. Whatever may be the case, I am interested in learning something about these shapes. Their origin is far older than either of these names.
I was approached with the task of creating a painting featuring that longest-lived tree on this world, Pinus longaeva – the bristlecone pine. The piece was to be a gift for a professor-turned-fire-ecologist. Although I have never been to the land of the rainshadow to see the blue bristled cones and incurving cambia with my own eyes, I accepted the opportunity to attempt a work with both ecological depth and personal meaning.
Fire is a Healer
In California the entire landscape is locked in a dance with fire. Each part of the land's tapestry has a different step in the dance, a different ecological role to play, but all must dance with fire sooner or later as it passes across the lush earth from season to season, century to century. The land we call California could not exist without the loving embrace of fire.
Our Western-American-European settler society has long perceived fire as a ravaging monster, to be controlled and kept out. This is a perspective born of wrong relationship, born of a lack of intimacy and communication with the land. It is a perspective arising from a stance of defensiveness, of fear. We have tried to import a way of living which does not fit well with the landscape here; a worldview which uses the word "nature" to indicate an outside, an other, a non-self. We have insisted that the land hold still, hold its breath, and accommodate our neo-megalithic structures, our tilled fields, our altered waterways, our Euclidean concrete surfaces, our relentless consumption. In a sense we have barged into the dance and rudely interrupted with our own ideas of how the event should be orchestrated. Fire is a reminder that we are not in charge here, nor will we ever be; we are asked to lower our ego a bit, relax our fear, and follow the steps of the dance which has been ongoing for thousands upon thousands of years.
Contained in the fire are spirits: memories, sparks which recall threads of storytelling going back aeons. Fire recalls the health of Western Sierran conifer forests and the promise of new food each year. Fire recalls the renewal of wildflowers in the grasslands and all of those brightly-garbed singers they attract. Fire is our ancestor, alive with us, tending to our well-being next season, looking ahead for us. It is to our detriment that we forget all this.
Pinus longaeva is not a tree that wants to step forward very often in the dance with fire. The bristlecones stand apart from one another, not quite a forest on their high homes of thin and bitter broken sea floors. They endure in places where others could not; they stand where fire rarely goes. Thus, while they endure ages upon ages of time, they are fragile and can be lost in the flames.
If we wish to be respectful guests upon this land, calling California our home, it is our responsibility to learn the ways in which the land moves and breathes and cares for itself. The spirit of fire is in the heart of this land, and like everything else here, we must enter into right relationship with the burning earth.
First salutations to the stars.
Thanks to all relatives and ancestors.
May all beings be happy and free.