Case Notes: Forest Fires / by padhia hutton

Anger is not something ugly, shameful, or frightening. The ability to feel anger is actually a gift. It is the feeling that you deserve more. It is you having a truth, and a voice to stand up for that truth. It is a call to know yourself better, to understand what hurts you and why. It is a call to action. That is part of why our first impulse is to stuff it down instead of acknowledging it- because then we actually have to DO something. We have to set boundaries. We have to let people see more than just our surface. It makes you visible and therefore vulnerable. It is the beginning of healthy rebellion- going against things that have oppressed you. It burns off things that no longer serve you so that new experiences and growth occur can occur. Therefore your life becomes about renewal instead of stagnation or decay. It is a cleansing emotion- it separates you from what happened. Ultimately, it is powerful fuel to take action to live different.

I suppose I should clarify here, that I am not talking about road rage or people who use anger as a weapon or anger as a state of living. I am talking about the natural response of feeling anger when you realize you have been injured. I often wonder what would happen if, at the age that we are teaching kids to “say no to drugs”, if we taught them to honor their feelings and how to allow them to flow out into their lives in constructive ways. Instead kids are shamed for anger and pain, yet it still exists within them in ways they never develop language for, and so they reach for ways to numb themselves.

I like to think of anger as fire. In my own journey, awakening the ability to feel anger again was what burned off the thick layer of depression that paralyzed me for most of my life. Within the forest, one of the most important parts of it sustaining itself is fire. For many years, humans have fought to suppress these fires because we did not realize this. We ended up doing way more damage to forests by suppressing the fires than if we had just let nature run its course. In reading about forest fires, I find that every single aspect of this natural process is a metaphor for the process of allowing anger to rise up, using it as a catalyst to take action, and the growth that happens as a result.

“The forest floor accumulates dead branches and rotting organic material. Many tree species have seedlings which require higher levels of light. Tree seedlings can’t grow on the forest floor unless this ground cover is removed. Forests are ecosystems adapted to periodic ground fires.

Some seedlings need lots of bright light to grow well, and many species have adaptations which take advantage of ground fires. Some seeds don’t open unless heated by a fire. Pine seedlings also survive fires by producing a dense, open whorl of needles surrounding a tightly packed cluster of new growth. A fire will quickly burn off the outer needles and then run out of fuel and die before it can damage the growing tip.

Fire also releases minerals trapped in debris back into the forest soil. Due to the increase in sunlight and minerals, there is often a great amount of understory growth just after a fire. Understory in forestry refers to plant life growing beneath the forest canopy without penetrating it to any extent. Plants in the understory comprise an assortment of seedlings and saplings of canopy trees together with specialist understory shrubs and herbs. Young canopy trees often persist in the understory for decades as suppressed juveniles until an opening in the forest overstory permits their growth into the canopy.

For decades the American forest service considered all forest fires harmful and waged a vigorous publicity campaign aimed at preventing forest fires of any kind. The western pine forests then accumulated massive amounts of debris due to the suppression of natural fires. Especially hot and dry conditions towards the last quarter of the 20th century then resulted in some of the largest fires of all times in North America. Instead of just burning on the ground, the added fuel allowed the flames to reach up into the canopy of the forest. It then created crown fires which totally destroyed entire forests.”