A fire crew has been burning down the forest at Ontario’s Pukaskwa National Park. Not all of it, of course. But last May, a fire was lit near the Pukaskwa visitor centre off the shore of Hattie Cove, Ont., so visitors could learn about the importance of fire to the forest. Like acolytes in flame-retardant
vestments, firefighters pour fire from drip torches or launch fiery ping-pong balls from helicopters. It’s called a prescribed burn.
A few days after the fire, we were at the visitor centre to hear some local musicians. Wisps of lingering smoke drifted over the blackened landscape. Ash a foot deep covered the still-hot earth. A few charred and limbless stumps testified to the devastation. Animals, birds and insects had either fled or perished. The desolation left no cause for them to return. Save for the sound of our own breathing, our own hearts beating, the silence was complete.
The audience also saw a video about the fire being set. Flaming pillars scorched the sky, billowing clouds of smoky incense. Whole trees torched like matchsticks. The forest howled. Branches snapped and popped like a valley of a thousand bones breaking. Yet this tiny demonstration fire was birthday-cake candle compared to the ravenous wildfires that devour the landscape, jump over roads and rivers and suck up all the air.
Late last August, my daughter Naomi and I set out to hike to the nearby White River suspension bridge. The rugged, day-long journey starts at Hattie Cove and heads south, passing first through the burn. Before the scents of soil, brook, moss and autumn mushrooms would fill our noses, we anticipated the acrid smell of wet campfire.
We were surprised instead by the scent of wildflowers and tender shrubs and saplings — the preferred food of moose and hare. A chipmunk chattered territorially from atop a skeletal log in which she had made a home. Blackflies and dragonflies coasted on the morning air. Bees hummed among the tiny succulent flowers. A chickadee skittered about, gorging on an entomological feast. A heron stalked the shallow waters of the cove.
Naomi noticed a motion detector set back from the trail to monitor the return of wildlife. I did a little dance there in the resurrecting forest so that our return would also be recorded.
Forests need fire. Soil is regenerated by the release of carbon. After a burn, ground cover previously choked off by windfalls and debris thrives. Some plants and trees, like Jack pines, only release their seeds from the cone in intense heat. When fire opens up the high canopy, sunlight streams in and plant and animal diversity proliferates. Bears sniff out the fattest sun-ripened blueberries. Birds, moose and hares come to the feast. People around here will drive for miles with their empty ice-cream pails to pick and eat the berries made better by fire.
When asked what he would take with him if his house were on fire, the French writer Jean Cocteau replied, “J’emporterais le feu” (“I would take the fire”). Hiking through that greening burn, I recalled the fires of the spirit that have burned down my certainty, my accomplishments and my towering convictions. Amid the debris, new life opened up; light penetrated a dark place where I thought all was lost.
I have feasted, at times, on fruit that can only be had after fire. Perhaps you have too.
Keep it free!
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