By Deborah Salomon
On Monday, October 9, 2017, in the hours before dawn, my hometown of Santa Rosa, CA changed from a peaceful suburb to an apocalyptic war zone, as wildfires leveled entire residential neighborhoods in a matter of hours. I was very lucky—my home was spared—yet still, I’m sitting here in a post-traumatic stupor.
Climate change has changed all the rules. Wildfires are supposed to burn in heavily wooded terrain, not rage through city streets. Yet the conditions were ripe for this disaster: years of drought set the stage. A very wet winter, in which new growth reached up toward power lines, provided the fuel. And 50 mph winds that knocked down those power lines finished the job.
A few months before the fires, I discovered Mary Thompson Reynolds’ book, Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness. Thompson explains that we can learn about ourselves, our connection with the natural world, and the qualities of life that we have disowned, through five archetypal landscapes: Deserts teach us about simplicity, silence, transformation, and inner strength. Forests show us how to embrace mystery and explore the creativity that lies within us. Rivers and oceans ask us to find our depths and to learn about the power of flow. Mountains teach us to rise to challenges. And grasslands help us to settle down, build communities, and understand the relationship between giving and receiving.
We consciously turn to nature to restore ourselves to wholeness, to ground ourselves in embodied awareness, to reclaim our sense of Being. In the presence of nature’s beauty, we find our inner stillness and passion. We find our sense of awe and wonder. We revel in the magic of creation.
But does the natural world mirror only our disowned strengths, or our negative shadow qualities as well? Are class 5 hurricanes and explosive wildfires merely an impartial demonstration of nature’s cycles, sorely exacerbated by global warming, or is the earth expressing its fury over our disrespect and disregard? Or, more poignantly, is nature providing a mirror, placing our own destructive relationship with the earth squarely in front of our eyes?
What lessons can natural calamities teach us? When torrential floods fill our streets and break through our dams, the flow of water teaches a far stronger lesson than flexibility. We learn about impermanence, surrender, and our utter powerlessness—qualities that we much prefer to deny. Earthquakes mirror our hearts breaking open. Symbolically they shatter our rigidity, exposing our places of weakness. And fires raise the question of what is essential, bringing us back to the bare bones of our existence.
Every natural disaster reminds us that it is foolish to think that money or privilege can spare us hardship. Nature doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, heterosexual and queer, or members of any race. We fall equally. Perhaps nature is calling upon us to awaken from our slumber, to assimilate and neutralize our greed, to acknowledge our connection with all of creation.
But must these lessons be so painful? Couldn’t we learn them without being brought to our knees? Couldn’t our relationship with nature be solely restorative; must it tear us down as well?
I’m reminded of the saying, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” I was raised Jewish, yet have struggled immensely with the Biblical God. The idea of a God who capriciously rewards and punishes humans makes no sense at all to me. I much prefer philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s idea that God is found in nature—which I interpret as meaning that God is found in the beauty and glory of all of creation. But now I’m wondering how different these two philosophies are. The natural world—like the Old Testament God—is both protective and destructive. We cannot disown the shadow element and be whole.
“Give them no more suffering than is necessary,” I once heard a rabbi say, as he blessed the young children in his congregation. The obvious implication is that a certain amount of suffering is necessary for growth. That without it, critical character traits would not develop. Perhaps it is impossible to learn compassion without suffering. Perhaps only hardship can teach us gratitude.
In the aftermath of this fire’s destruction, there is great kindness emerging from the ashes. I am sitting in a cottage in Morro Bay that a stranger gifted to my husband and me for the week, simply because we are evacuees and because he wanted to help. And, ironically, I am being restored by nature. Quiet walks in the nearby park and views of the ocean are helping me to land, once again, in my body, to find the strength to go back to my devastated community and help it to rebuild.
In her poem, “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye expresses so poignantly the inter-relationship between suffering and compassion:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you can see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Perhaps kindness will be the phoenix arising from the ashes of all this destruction. Our world could certainly use it.
Author Deborah Salomon is a Contributing Editor for Immanence: the Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.