Fire blazes out before him, flaming high up the craggy mountains. His lightnings light up the world. Earth, wide-eyed, trembles in fear. – Psalm 97:3-5 (MSG)
One of the many wonderful things about living in Northern California is that it is guaranteed not to rain on you if you go camping in the summer. So imagine my surprise when lightning woke me from a sound sleep in my tent at 4am last month.
At first, my New England-born heart was deeply gratified. It is not summer without a thunderstorm. Then, my California-living lizard brain thumped awake. Lightning without rain = potential wildfire of apocalyptic proportions.
And so it was. People fled with sleepy toddlers and half-packed coolers in the dark. The fires sparked that night didn’t truly get going for a few more days, but a month later, they still burn, 3.3 million acres and counting. Even normally sanguine West Coasters tremble at the scope, the scale, the unbreathable skies orange with smoke.
A hundred years ago and more, indigenous communities here offered to teach the interlopers how to manage wildfire. They set intentional burns to draw down the fuel supply, renew the land, and befriend fire as a ritual practice. But white settlers, hardening their hold on the land and bending it to their own purposes, banned the indigenous practices. Now, these lands have become a powder keg.
Today partnerships are (ahem) rekindling between indigenous leaders and state officials, with experiments in planned burns. “Planned burns,” not controlled burns, because a controlled burn is one more attempt for humans to exert their grip over the rest of nature. Control over nature puts humans at the center, to protect our lives and property alone, failing to recognize the worthy “thou” in a sempervirens redwood grove, catalyzed to grow more of itself after a fire, or a bay laurel forest rioting with new shoots a year after it burns.
I grieve the loss of life, lament the essential workers inhaling foul air, and bunker indoors from smoke. And yet my heart still thrills at the lightning, and wonders: what are you trying to awaken in us with this show of force, Lord?
God, set fire to our hearts instead of the world: that we can learn to live with and not against the Earth, and the people who know Her best. Amen.
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of First Congregational Church UCC in Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church, Standing Naked Before God, and her newest baby, Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.