Beauty for Ashes
Dry lightning cracks the brooding sky, pointing sharp fingers at parched earth. A tiny spark, skipping to a clump of scrubby, desiccated vegetation, ignites the tip of a woody stem - transforming drab, grayish brown to deep, glowing orange. The pungent odor hanging in the air is sweet, with a tang of metallic sharpness.
“It’s so peaceful up here,” Bonnie sighed. “Aren’t you glad we came?” She set two plain stoneware mugs carefully on the railing and moved in close to her husband, taking in the panoramic view. “And the fresh air smells wonderful!”
“Mm.” Dean nodded, picked up a mug, and slurped the steaming coffee.
“Heat lightning over there a moment ago.” He gestured with his free hand.
“See? Where the sky is darker?”
Dean was a recently retired firefighter, forced to give up his career due to injury. Now that he had recovered enough to become a little restless, Bonnie had arranged this getaway at a unique, rustic accommodation - a recently decommissioned fire watchtower overlooking the alpine forest.
He would enjoy it, she thought, when she had reserved the week; trout fishing in a nearby stream, nature photography - or just standing on the narrow balcony, scanning the surrounding area with his prized vintage military binoculars.
She would go along on the fishing expeditions and nature hikes - nothing too strenuous, because he was not fully recovered. She would finish the baby sweater she was knitting for their first grandchild, yet unborn. She would, perhaps, chronicle their stay on a series of postcards to their grown children.
A distant rumble brought her back to the moment.
“Do you think there will be a storm?” she asked, a bit nervously.
“It doesn’t look like rain,” he replied, “but there may be a few more -”
Before he had finished speaking,
“CRACK!… … … BOOM!”
a flash of blue-tinged lightning interrupted, illuminating the sky. Soon it was followed by a loud drum roll of thunder that shook the small elevated cabin.
“Get inside!” he commanded, grabbing her upper arm and pulling her with him to the door.
The smoldering spur burns, unremarked, down to the main stalk. What little moisture the plant contains is lapped up, emitting small hisses and squeals as it is swallowed. The fire, ever hungry, consumes an entire cluster of lilac-blossomed ceanothus - and is not satiated.
“Oh, the coffee!” Bonnie realized. “It’s still out there.”
“Can’t go outside right now. Too risky. Are there more mugs?”
“Just two more.”
She busied herself pouring the remainder of the coffee. Everything in the watchtower was utilitarian. The tiny kitchenette, equipped with the smallest of sinks, housed a propane camp stove and a refrigerator the size of a large cooler. A wooden fruit crate, whose vintage label advertised California peaches, served as a cupboard. That was it.
Dean stood before one of the large windows, training the binoculars in the direction of the flash.
“Less than a mile away!” he noted. Bonnie could hear excitement in his voice as, for the second time, she carried two mugs across the room.
“Here’s your coffee.”
“Set it on the windowsill. Thank you.”
He stood intent, elbows tucked tightly to his sides and binoculars pressed to his face, watching.
Her skin prickled - whether at his abrupt interjection or from the electrically charged air, she didn’t know.
Scrub jays, issuing staccato screeches, tell of danger as they take wing. Flickers and tanagers follow, rising in bright bursts of color. Other creatures heed the warnings, fleeing as heat rises and flames lick arctostaphylos, the manzanita. Chattering squirrels bound away, lithe bodies rippling as they retreat, while scaly lizards scurry erratically across sunbaked earth.
Bonnie’s hand went to her throat, feeling her wildly hammering pulse.
“Oh - What are we going to do? What if we’re trapped here? We shouldn’t have come!”
Dean, already halfway across the tiny room, gave her a reassuring smile as he grabbed the emergency radio.
“We’ll be fine. Remember, this tower was made for spotting fires! I’ll call in - the fire crew will come monitor the situation.”
Shimmering waves of refracted light dance in the heat from lively flames. Moving through the glossy mahogany-red branches of fire resistant manzanita, the flames devour a grouping of mixed conifers. All that remains are charred columns encircled by fringes of outstretched, blackened limbs.
It is not enough. The fire seeks more… more.
Giant sequoias, elegantly named Sequoiadendron giganteum, receive - one by one - a smothering embrace from the capricious blaze before it hurries on. The flames do not reach as high as the boughs, only scorching the outer layers of the incredibly thick bark of the massive trunks. Its purpose has been accomplished.
Blankets of embers woven from fallen needles retain warmth at the feet of the majestic sentinels. A deep, resinous aroma hovers above the ground and beneath the acrid pall.
The fire crew had arrived and rapidly assessed the blaze, holding it back where necessary. Observing from the tower, Dean reminded Bonnie that some fires, as this one seemed to be, are part of a natural, vital process. Kept under control, it would ultimately be beneficial to the forest.
“Next year, there will be new wildflowers,” he assured her. “Fire poppies, lupines… Some varieties haven’t grown here for several years. Their seeds lie dormant until they’re activated by the right conditions: heat, smoke, ash residue, all those things and probably more.”
“But the trees - ” She pointed to a stand of blackened pines. “They must be dead! And the sequoias are scarred - surely that’s permanent damage!”
“Those trees,” he agreed, nodding in the direction she had pointed, “will never be green again. But - there may be life in them, beneath the surface. If we come back next year, we’ll see sprouts coming up from the roots. And the sequoias? They need fires to reproduce. Those tiny cones are all sealed up with resin, and most of them only open by exposure to intense heat. The trees will hold onto them for twenty years if they need to, waiting for the right conditions!”
They begin to release their diminutive cones, serotinous capsules concealing absurdly tiny seeds. Plop…plop…plop-plop-plop…plop.
A shower of woody, ovate bracts distributes the next generation of giant sequoias on the forest floor.
In the residue of the ephemeral phenomenon, the trees sow seeds for the future.
~To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified (Isaiah 61:3 KJV)~