In the fall of 2016 fires erupted across the Southeast, scorching well-known cities, such as Gatlinburg, TN and Hendersonville, NC. The old spirits of the Appalachian Mountains were enraged, sparring off in their ageless and epic battle with man. Although safe in the confines of my North Carolina Piedmont, the neighbor mountain fires quickly evolved into something more, a personal metaphor for death and life - young and old. A dear friend passed away that winter and an uncontrollable fire of despair and sadness overcame my community. I entered 2017 with a heavy heart, haunted by ghosts of a future that would never be and worried by life’s great Fire that could consume us all.
As an ecologist in training, I have learned a great deal about fire systems in the forests of the Southeast. Most notable of these systems is the longleaf pine forest, an ecosystem entirely dependent on frequent fires. Longleaf pine seeds take root when small frequent brush fires clear the ground of debris and other competing tree species that may otherwise deter their successful establishment. Once a longleaf pine is established, it forms as a small pom-pom on the ground. In this state, a dense packing of pine needles around the sensitive terminal bud protects the young longleaf pine from extreme temperatures, fire, and heat. When ready, a process that can take a number of years once the small pom-pom has grown a deep taproot, the pine will experience a growth spurt not too unlike a human teenager. Within a few seasons the longleaf pom-pom will quickly grow from its “grass” state to 8 feet, a height tall enough to allow the terminal bud of the tree to escape the frequent brush fires that occur in the forest. From there the tree will continue to grow its way up toward the light of the canopy, all the while being supported by its deep tap root that it took such care to develop in its earliest years.
The frequent small brush fires of the longleaf pine forests are not just beneficial for the longleaf pine trees, however. They also support a wide variety of other flora and fauna. Wildflowers depend on the frequent brush fires to reproduce. Wiregrass, a hearty unassuming grass that otherwise might not be given much thought, is also largely abundant in longleaf pine forests and is integral in keeping fires contained and less intense. Wiregrass populates the longleaf pine forests, like crabgrass in the annoyed gardener’s flowerbed. This humble species of vegetation keeps fire from charring the soil and provides for a quick burn that can be more painlessly extinguished by the rains of heaven. Although a longleaf forest floor can look depressing soon after a burn, given a little time, the forest will repopulate with more wildflowers and colors than it ever had before. A longleaf pine meadow a few seasons removed from the last fire is a rare sight to behold, and undeniably a natural wonder of the South. However, as with most ecological tales, there is a caveat, a conflict created by none other than the species of Shakespeare.
Humans have severely altered the frequent fire regimes of the longleaf pine forests. For generations in the South we have suppressed fires to both the detriment of our forests and the identity of ourselves as a Southern people. As a result of fire suppression, longleaf pine forests have transitioned into dense mixed pine-hardwood forests. Without fire, longleaf pine seeds cannot establish in the forest soil or outcompete the faster growing loblolly pines, sweetgum, and red maples.
|Courtesy of Joseph Jones Ecological Research Station|
Fire will come into our lives whether we approve of its presence or not, whether we anticipate it or not. And so it goes with the forests that were historically longleaf pine. Fire will happen. And now that the forests have lived years without fire, they have developed ladder fuels that feed fire from soil to canopy. In the absence of frequent fire, forests now burn with the intensity of the 100-year fire that can threaten the livelihood of all forest life. Whereas before the longleaf pine forests had brush fires that never reached the tree canopy, now forests have fire fuel distributed throughout all layers of the forest. Forest fires as intense as the ones that happened in the Appalachian Mountains last fall, as well as those common in transitioned longleaf pine forests, can scorch the very ground on which our beloved wildflowers grow. They can alter the future of a forest forever, rob it of its life routine, change its identity, and transform its very function in the world.
Although longleaf pine forests are restricted to the coastal plains of the Southeast, their story is shared with forests everywhere. Many forests in the U.S. are acclimated to some level of forest fire frequency, and without frequent fire they risk having their identities entirely altered by one really hot, really intense burn. Unfortunately, the forest fires of the Appalachian Mountains this past fall were of the really hot and really intense variety. It is unclear what these forest will become in the future or how we will define the constitution of their new being.
My friend who passed this winter was the husband of my best friend. He was beautiful and kind. I knew him to be everything I hoped to be as a partner, a friend, and an actor in this life. I am devastated by his loss. However the reality that haunts me more than his loss in my life, is his loss in my friend’s life. I have been hard pressed to find two more compatible souls. Losing him was like losing a part of my friend. I watch now as my friend tries to continue life without her chosen partner of this existence. My heart breaks for her everyday. She is searching for new meaning and new identity. She is a forest that has been scorched to its earth.
We all experience life’s forest fires. Sometimes the fires help us grow more brilliantly than ever before. Sometimes the fires fill our meadows with meadow beauty and butterfly pea. But sometimes the fires are all too harsh. Sometimes they are so intense they make us into something new, something unknown, something entirely different than what we ever used to know. I do not know what this fire means for my dear friend. I know she hurts, and I know the healing will take the rest of this lifetime. But I have hope that she will be okay. That she will be made into something different but beautiful, that her taproot has made her strong and that she will be made stronger in the enduring.
To those who have lost, may you be in this new place and this new existence, and may you live – reaching forever toward the light in the canopy, the better version of yourself. May your scorched earth be the rebirth of something beautiful and something new. May you always honor Fire’s shadows, beware of the tragedy she can bring, and rejoice in the moments of her absence. May you always be motivated by those souls that make you feel like your most authentic and alive self. To you my friend, endless light and love. May the fires spare you this day and may your healing be the most spectacular and colorful natural wonder the world has ever seen.