Wildfire reminds me to accept. I can never decide if it should be celebrated or mourned. Whichever I choose, the fires will burn.
The spark had been kindled in us long before we even knew,
And we each held it burning in our chests, in our bellies, in our bowels
until we gathered.
Like a gathering storm we come together,
Twelve questing people
Four of us guiding
Eight of us seeking
All of us setting off together
for 9 days in the wilderness valley
of our souls.
Each with our own story,
questions, wounds, and fears.
Lost, angry, grieving
ourselves and the earth;
Feeling the intensity of this moment in time;
Looking for healing, answers, solitude, community;
Looking for each other
Looking for ourselves
Looking to ignite our visions
and dance in the flames.
The first day all together, preparing to depart for the valley, we exchange beads with each other, weaving our lives and stories together. We string our beads around our necks, and the little stones start to knock against each other and spark; reminders of the little fires we are trying to keep alive within ourselves.
That night, we circle around a fire pit stacked high with wood. As per tradition, myself, the youngest, and Deanna, the eldest, each take our sparks in our hands and cast them onto the pile. We—the bookends, representing the range of adulthood and all the experience between—ignite the flame of our collective quest.
And the fires start.
The fires start that night as we sit in our sweat lodge. We sweat and spark the grandfather stones back to life and call in the elements and the directions. In the pitch darkness we call in eagle and he flies us over to the valley where the heart of our quest will take place. Our flight creates static with the air and lightning strikes the ground like a match; we drop sparks of prayer as we fly past. We return and circle around, and dive—spiraling down into the womb of the earth. We sink into hypnosis as we stare deep into the fire burning within our ancestors—the rocks burning hot to alchemize our pain and longing, our stirring souls, into something new.
The fire burns.
The stars above me streak across the sky, and somewhere in a valley far away lightning strikes 1000 times.
The morning crackles with anticipation as we pack our gear and drive out over the mountains. Upon our arrival to the river valley, we learn of lightning the night before and a wildfire that it had kindled in an adjacent valley.
The forest burns. We cross the river.
We have one full day at base camp before our solos. We spend our time circling around the altar—spiraling closer to our intentions. We each find our solo sites, where we will go for three days to fast, reflect, and quest alone. The night before our departure to our sites we are called to the altar for the death lodge. A voice tells us “you have to die to be reborn.”
We resist, or accept. Either way, Death takes us one by one, and we read our goodbyes out loud and burn them.
We each blow out our own candle, extinguishing everything we know.
The fire dies.
The silence returns.
Cold sets in.
For three long days we sit at our separate sites in a circle of our prayers, in the ashes of ourselves, and we fast. We mourn, cry, celebrate, sleep, circle, learn, listen, witness, carve, kill, create, write, paint, build, break, shiver, shake, throw, scream, dance, chant, pray, and sing; we rediscover, re-imagine, and re-envision ourselves; and finally, we reignite our souls.
On the fourth morning, as the sun emerges to rekindle the day with its light, we each emerge like the phoenix, and we return.
That day is a warm day, a campfire day, with hot soup, hot showers, warm potatoes, and the warm company of each other. It is a slow day of crafting and absorbing, expressing and releasing. We take our blank masks and enliven them with the color of our new truth.
As we continue circling—spiraling now in our new directions—smoke begins filling the valley. We share our stories.
The fire is spreading.
On the last night we release our prayers onto the wind in a purple bonfire at the riverside. They drift up to mingle with the smoke from the wildfire. (Three days later, driving down I-90 in Seattle, my companion notes the smoky air and says that the wind has carried the smoke all the way out here from Wenatchee. “And the prayers,” I add.)
The fires blaze wild in the night.
In the morning, the valley’s all a haze and there is new urgency hanging in the air. As we prepare to close the space, uniformed men come and tell us we have to evacuate by evening. The fire, started the night before we came, has finally reached us, the day we plan to leave.
Holding our own stories and each others, we say goodbye to this place, especially the trees who have been our guardians during those days. We leave them behind with a blessing, and new questions flicker to life in our minds: What will become of this place? What does the forest think of wildfire? Is it a feared enemy? A necessary evil? A welcome friend? Or simply a sign of change? Do trees mourn their own deaths? Do they resist it?
Before crossing the river, I stand facing a tree, my arm extended so my palm caresses the bark. I feel the tree’s energy flowing through me. I sense a hint of fear but mostly knowing, mostly understanding: the fire comes not to destroy, but to renew. “You have to die to be reborn.”
We cross the river.
On the other side, winding up the dirt road, we see the leaves have newly turned, burned with the cold. They are bursting flames of red, standing out suddenly against the evergreen—initiated into their new stage. The new season begins. The fire blazes around us. Our hearts burn with new commitments to ourselves, to our people, and to our Earth. The fire blazes within us.
As we drive out of the valley, the sun is hazed over in a thick smoke, but our vision is clear.
Written by Alex Eisenberg, October 2012