Monday, April 29, 2013

Fire Ecology

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Ponderosa Pine Trees seem to scrape the skies, standing tall and singing like instruments in a giant wind garden.  Scraped to ooze their yellow sap by passing buffalo and strongly planted with impressive root systems, the trees reach skyward in determined growing attempts.  These trees, part of a delicate ecological balance, partner in a process with forest fires.  We don’t see many forest fires in Iowa, at least not anything like what I might see on television while sitting in a recently flooded Iowa river town.  Watching the news about forest fires, the television crews tend to focus rightly on the families and businesses impacted.  But, it is easy to miss another story that is commencing with the fire sweeping through, initiating a new process of growth.  The germination of this particular tree, the Ponderosa pine, requires the natural fire process to germinate new trees.   The seeds require the high heats of a sweeping fire to awaken, as it were, and begin their own sky sweeping growth and development process.  Nitrogen is put back into the soil, dead undergrowth is burned off, and the forest floor is opened up to new life.  It is a destructive process of renewal. 

In passing through the Black Hills a few years ago, I remember seeing the destruction of the fire across the hills.  Charred bark, blackened ground, and dead undergrowth scarred the once green landscape.  It was sad to see the things that were vibrant and lush only shortly before, now charred and sooty as remnants of the damage left by the fire.  Time has passed and now when I look on those same steep slopes, they are carpeted with new pine trees, several feet high and thick in the trunks.  A fresh green is the overwhelming color on the hills, and I can see where new flowers and plants are starting to form again.  The dead lifeless look of the fire area has been turned into a nursery augmenting the current mature forest population.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to the cycles of fire ecology, the processes can teach us about other things as well.  Perched on the high plains, just inside the borders of South Dakota, there is a tiny town named Ardmore.  Admore - a ghost town. 
Driving through this place was outlandishly strange; it was as if everyone had just walked away one day and left vehicles, campers, homes, furniture, etc… behind.  The buildings are in the decaying process, neglected yards are covered in saplings and tall prairie grasses, a sense of emptiness has settled over the space.  What once was a small community is now abandoned to the prairie; burned if you will by the fires of economics.  There was no good source of income, no long-term way this town worked, and a proverbial forest fire of economics has ended its life.  The death of a town is something that I can’t help but look at with a sort of morbid fascination. But, my real interest, are the people and what became of them.  Is the loss still mourned?  Have they found that after the initial char and soot that the burns have healed and they are stronger and ready for new growth? 

We all experience fires in our life, some of them may even be forest fires outside our door.  They sweep through with intensity, and seem to completely devastate the landscape.  What once at least appeared to the casual outside viewer like it was fairly in order and okay has turned to nothing but ash and bareness.  But, we who are Christ followers can trust in the growth that comes from the fires’ destruction.  Regardless if it is moving from a town because of economic fires or the ruin of forest fires, or if it is looking around your life and feeling that it is littered with charred remains, we can look with hope at the devastation.  We have a different kind of fire ecology, the kind where hope remains and good new growth can come from the perceived ruin.