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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Wowk


Torched. A piece to fan the flames.

Let your mind wander. Let curiosity settle in. That's when the ideas will come.

My recent wanderings took me to West Coast, USA. My first stop: California. My first thought: it’s dry. Undeniably, worryingly, almost alarmingly so. During my first week in San Francisco, I headed out for a run along a reservoir; or at least along where I was told to expect one. As I plodded along my route, I found myself in the midst of tall, parched, swaying grasses lining a dry basin that was covered in a film of white. Everything about this unnerved me, and my throat instantly contracted with thirst.

Looking around at the salt-lined, cracking ground, I didn’t want to perceive this sight as a premonition, but I couldn’t help myself. I was only two miles in to a ten mile run, what else did my mind have to do but wander…

I thought of my trip to Carmel, just the day prior, where an hour’s drive south of SF revealed rolling hills of yellow, dying plant life. It was now possible to imagine how just one spark could ignite it all. As we drove closer to our destination, I saw countless signs along the roadside with “Thank You Firefighters” painted in hand-written letters. In this part of the country, where wildfires can burn thousands of acres and for months on end, firefighters are the heralded heroes battling the known enemy — humans. Humans with cruel intentions, like arsonists who light fires out of the desire to destroy, or worse — those who exercise blissful carelessness, like flicking a cigarette to the ground. Both foes are predictable and fires, preventable.

But then there’s the fire-starter we can’t predict: nature.

After 13 days in the Golden State, I took an hour plane ride north to the crunchy and cool city of Portland, Oregon. A request to go hiking, and a subsequent car jaunt northwest took me to Vista Ridge Trail. I had expected to navigate hills of evergreen and catch a glimpse of the glacier-capped peak of Mount Hood.

What I didn't expect was to pick my way through 6,300 acres of torched forest. Five years prior, the area was struck by lightning, igniting what’s now known as the Dollar Lake fire. As we made our way through this graveyard of trees, I was overrun with emotions: sadness, humility, appreciation, wonder. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was in awe of nature’s ability to destroy, yes — but also its power to rebuild. Hundreds of thousands of burnt black and dying white trees towered above us, while many more laid in shreds at our feet. Atmospheric fog rolled through, and the forest would have been completely void of color if it hadn’t been for the purple phlox-like flowers blanketing the ground. Black, white, purple, green — and once the fog lifted — blue, for as far as my eyes could see.

I later learned that these flowers started blooming again in the spring following the fire. In fact, if the trees above them hadn’t burned, losing their limbs and leaves, and ceasing to block the sunlight, these flowers wouldn’t thrive at the ground-level like they do now. Fires like this, as destructive and dangerous as they are, also demonstrate natural selection. From death comes life; and the cycle spins on.

How was the fire extinguished, you ask? Rain fall. After nature set the fire and burned 6,300 acres, it put the fire out, too.

Did this news ease my mind? Maybe a bit. It did curtail my alarm for California’s drought — I reasoned that if nature is wishing it, it must also be planning a rebirth on its own time. And seeing the premonition of a fire-torched earth in California so soon come to fruition in Oregon eased my fears too... But what the sight didn’t quench was my awe or wonder. As I boarded the plane back to New York, back to my own resurrecting jungle, I marveled at my thirst to tell this story: nature's mystery will always be greater than any fiction I can conjure.

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