My world has burned to the ground around me a couple of times in my life—the kind of burning that leaves you on your knees, unsure what day it is, or if it’s day or night. A gut-wrenching, life-altering kind of downward spiral that at first makes you feel physically sick, then numb, then devastated, and ultimately after you ache and cry yourself into oblivion… you feel empty, fragmented, and spent. I bet you’ve had a moment or two like this as well. If not, you will. It’s part of living life. We lose people we love. People betray us and hurt us. We experience a tragedy or devastating event. We mess up big and must live with the consequences. We see horrible things we can never unsee. These moments forever change and shape us.
As many of you will remember, last year our summer cabin at Echo Lake was threatened within about 20 yards by the huge and devastating Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe. Much of the forest behind us was burned beyond recognition and 40 cabins were lost completely just in our tract alone. Today, I took a hike I’ve taken over a hundred times in the last 12 years up to Becker Peak. I know the trail by heart and because not many people know about it, I’m generally alone with my thoughts, music, and meditations. But it was different today because the fire had burned through much of my beloved hike.
In a way, I was dreading it. I knew I would experience a sense of sadness, loss, and potentially bitterness. I was prepared to feel all the emotions that presented themselves so I reminded myself, as I was heading out, to feel them fully and let them pass through. What I wasn’t prepared for was the simultaneous sense of renewal, encouragement, and even, dare I say, delight.
Oh, I shed some tears for that which was lost forever, for sure. But as I stood in the utter devastation of some parts of the forest, I could look just beyond and see parts nearby that were left totally unscathed. Even in the ashes and amongthe scorched trees, new growth was sprouting everywhere, forcing its way upward to reclaim the forest again with its life-giving oxygen and beauty. Wildflowers were more brilliant than I remembered, set against the grey ash and blackened trees. Birds reclaimed their places in the treetops and butterflies fluttered all around me. Bees hummed, chipmunks chirped, and wild grasses swayed in the cool breeze. I saw bear tracks from the black bears that have come back to the mountains along with some signs of coyotes and other small animals who have also returned.
The forest knows naturally what we often forget: It is only devastation that can produce a total rebirth. It’s when a fire burns everything to the ground that the new growth can occur in such a profound and accelerated way.
The path that I had always walked was still there in the areas that had not burned, but where the hot fire had swept through, the path was either gone or had new obstacles across it like fallen trees or rockslides. I had to cut a completely new trail in many areas and find a new way through which ultimately exposed me to parts of the forest I had never seen before when I had been sticking to the old path.
When the forest burns to the ground, whether because of innocuous dry lightning or a malicious human act, it takes the time it needs to cool down, go dormant through the winter, and in the spring, it begins again with new things in new places, creating an entirely new entity. It doesn’t waste precious time or resources in bitterness, denial, or prolonged sadness. It quickly springs back into new life.
As I walked and took in all that was lost, all that remained, and all that was being reborn, I was reminded in the most visual and meaningful way that there is beauty in the meltdown and in the rebirth that follows. Where the old path in our life is destroyed, we can cut a different path exposing us to new and different ideas, people, and experiences. We can emerge changed and more interesting and more beautiful than before, even with the scars that will surely remain… healed, but now a permanent part of our story… just like the forest.
Today, as you think back to a time when your world was burning down around you, or maybe you are even experiencing that fire right now, or even as you look to the future you can never predict, I hope you will carry in your heart the promise of rebirth and renewal that nature knows with great confidence. My forest and my hike to Becker Peak stands as a testament to certainty of that beauty which is there after the ashes cool, the dust settles, the scars have healed, the lessons have been learned, and the world has been forever rearranged. Keep looking. Keep walking. Keep being open to the rebirth of the glory that is you.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
~ Joseph Campbell