by Becca Deysach, Nymph and Woodsman
About a month ago I noticed billows of smoke coming from the field on the other side of our cottage. Residual trauma from last year’s fire season gripped my body with fear until I was able to take a breath and note how wet the ground is, how full the creeks. This was no wildfire or burn pile out of control; Seth was intentionally setting fire to the grassy hillside that becomes acres of dry kindling come late summer. I wanted to get close to it, to see what fire looked like when it was being used to care for the land.
It looked beautiful. Red and orange and blue against dusky skies, smoke dancing, dry grass transforming into ash. The moist earth tamed the fire and a McLeod tool kept the boundaries of the fire in line.
A couple weeks later we gathered with friends and community members and set out to an oak grove for another burn session. This site was more intimidating than the first, for it was within the forest and had many levels of vegetation. We carried backpack sprayers, McLeods, shovels, and had a 50-gallon tank of water nearby. Before bringing fire into that grove, we circled up for a briefing. “This is an opportunity for us to come into right relationship with fire,” one of our leaders said.
Right relationship with fire.
Humans have been working with fire to maintain ecosystem health for most of their existence on this continent. But as white folks took over, destroyed indigenous lives and knowledge, and conceived of forests as resources that could be turned into dollar bills, full-on fire suppression became the norm.
We all know what happened next—years and years of fire suppression led to a great accumulation of kindling on the forest floor. That abundance of fuel now turns what once would have been fast, low, healthy fires into full-on nightmares every summer out West.
It turns out that being in right relationship with fire does not mean eradicating it. It means letting it burn while the fuel load is still low so when fire does sweep through, it clears the ground without destroying the canopy. It means that fire is beautiful and natural and healing when it’s allowed to do its thing without impediment. And it means that, after years of fire suppression, the forests needs some help from us to grow and thrive.
Like forests, our relationships need help from fire to grow and thrive.
During these weeks of prescribing burns for the land, Seth and I have been coming into right relationship with fire in our own relationship. For most of my life I have suppressed relational fires by avoiding conflict and staying quiet about my wants and needs. It’s made for externally harmonious relationships, but I have paid the price internally by disregarding my own self and missing out on the depths of intimacy I so crave.
By the time I met Seth four years after my last relationship ended, I knew I wanted something different. So we made a commitment to each other early on in our relationship. We committed to a life of love and beauty. We committed to honesty and integrity and supporting each other to become our highest selves. And we committed to navigating conflict with all the skills we could muster. I was ready!
But it turns out that 40 years of conflict avoidance is hard to overturn with the simple decision do so. Four years into our relationship, I still have a hard time finding my voice when I suspect it will cause friction. But as we have been burning the land with conscious flames over the past couple months, I’ve been seeing that intentional fires are our protection from much bigger fires. I’ve been watching the earth glow orange and red for a hot many moments, feeling the discomfort and awe it inspires, and then basking in the clear calm.
It’s given me the courage to introduce prescribed flames into our relationship, speaking up when I normally would have kept quiet, stating a need or want even when it may rub Seth the wrong way. It scares me to my edgiest edge, but each time I do, a layer of detritus is cleared from the space between us and we are able to see each other more clearly. Each time I do, I stand more firmly in my commitment to my own self. And each time I do, we dive more deeply into the intimacy I crave and become protected from the more destructive fires that come when the small ones are not allowed to burn.
Fire has another lesson for us.
We prescribe fire as medicine for the land only when the ground is full of moisture. Setting fire under any other conditions is a sure recipe for destruction. Likewise, fire is healing for Seth and me only when our relationship is consistently watered with appreciation, affection, laughter, connection, and respect. In other words, love. And so this, this is the work we do every day. This is the work that allows us both to stand in our power, ask for what we want, and work with the sparks that fly without fear of burning the whole thing down.
In love and fire,