Deb Sofield

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Burned

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The text read, “Embers jumping over fire breaks–the mountain is on fire.”

I live in the Carolinas, and the water for my community and many surrounding areas relies on a natural water source that springs from deep inside the mountains into a private, monitored reservoir within our secured watershed, and then the water is released to the plant where it is cleaned and piped to the community as safe, fresh, clean drinking water.

So when the text on my phone read, “Embers jumping over fire breaks–the mountain is on fire,” that was not the news I was expecting from the area that is our source of water. For more than a few months, it had been an unseasonably dry season here. You would think it would not be wise to build a campfire, but then again, as you well know, no one seems to think these days. The campfire got out of hand, the firemen were called, it was late in the day, and by the next morning, we had a forest fire on the perimeter of our watershed coming dangerously close to our land. The angry rage and scope of the fire were unlike anything we have ever seen.

I am an elected commissioner of Public Works, i.e. the water system, in my town. I love this job and have ever since I served as the mayor’s appointee from my years on City Council. Once I retired from City Council, I ran for and won a seat on the Water Commission (the first and only woman in 120 years). I know the mountains, I know the water; I did not know the fire that had come over onto our watershed property.

I didn’t want to write about the fire. I really didn’t think it would be appropriate, and frankly, I wanted to write about something happy like joy for the holidays and Happy New Year, but my mind kept going to the idea of fire and how, within minutes, it changes everything. So, putting aside my happy thoughts for the holidays, I want to tell you what I learned by walking through the fire-ravaged woods.

I find the words associated with fire are so much a part of our psyche when we think of things that are bad in life and love. However, if you step back and view the idea of fire from another place, you come to understand that in the forest, a fire is a chance for renewal, and I am thinking that in life it just might be what is needed to begin again. Stay with me.

Fire is a funny thing. If you’re like me, you love a crackling fire in the fireplace on a cold winter’s evening, or you grew up with a bonfire with your church group roasting marshmallows and making gooey s’mores with graham crackers and Hersey chocolate bars. Maybe you remember a beach fire that is lit to push back against the salty breeze of the cold evening air. And who of us didn’t think it was cool to have candles on their birthday cake or to reflect on a lighted candle for a soldier, a sinner or a saint or to honor an eternal flame in remembrance of others.

Fire–we all have a connection with the flame in once sense or another.

I put together some phrases that we usually associate with fire. In a relationship that has gone bad, we’ve been burned. Or we meet someone, and we have a spark that may become a flame. If we continue to pine away for an old flame, we carry a torch, or if we go through hard times, it’s a baptism by fire, or trial by fire, or we’ve come under fire or some kind soul has pulled our bacon out of the fire. We encourage our supporters to get fired up and set the world on fire but not have too many irons in the fire. We hold people’s feet to the fire but don’t play with fire, but do keep the home fires burning, just don’t drink from a fire hose but be ready to fire back before you come under fire. It’s ok to fight fire with fire, just don’t stand in the line of fire or you’ll catch fire because you know, where there’s smoke there’s fire. And even if you have money to burn, don’t burn your bridges, and if you jump from the frying pan into the fire you’re going to add fuel to the fire, so before I light a fire under you, you might want to stop, drop and roll. (Sorry I got lit!)

This week a couple of my fellow commissioners, staff and I took a tour of the mountains to see the fire damage. It was an interesting sight because the way the fire ran up and down and around the mountain, it created a mosaic of burned, charred, trees and trunks and bushes, and it burned up decades of old leaves and duff that had collected on the forest floor. It was an unusual sight to see a blackened, charred tree on the ground and a healthy tree, not licked one bit by the flame, right next to it, and patches of scorched earth next to healthy and live ground scrub.

We’ll wait until spring to see what will happen, but what we know is that the years of dead matter has been burned up and is no longer weighing heavy on the forest floor, so now there is opportunity for amazing new life to spring forth and bloom in the newly created space.

New life from burned death is hard to imagine standing in the midst of acres of charred forest, but then you notice that sunlight is now falling on the blackened ground since the tree canopy is no longer shielding the land. Now it’s open to the light of the sun and the cold rain that was falling gently on the ground around us.

It is not hard for me to make the leap from loss to life. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. Broken hearts that are completely scorched and seem to be dead, desolate and deserted. Then, after a time, an unexpected little flicker of light finds a space to shine upon the brokenness and begins to warm the soul, which in turn allows a bit of new growth to stretch for the sky and a new chance for life or, dare I say, love, to begin again.

History and nature are on our side with the promise of new life, and with that as my theme, let me share with you a few observations from my time in the mountains in the cold, wet, rainy, freezing, windy afternoon with my fellow commissioners and staff. Trust me on this; sometimes you have to clean out the undergrowth that is holding you back from being who you are meant to be–a painful process, but so desperately needed to create the space for a new opportunity.

One thing I was concerned about from the fire was the loss of mountain laurel, only to find out that it is healthy to have it thinned out or it will completely overgrow and crowd out other plant life. To see the leaves of this familiar mountain bush burned brown and shriveled up and to see its roots burned to ash was surprising, but within days, the space that was left by its absence was open and light. This spring it will be exciting to see what the ground will bring forth now that it can breathe and see the light and accept the rain.

The second thought that I had from fire was this. You have to have enough faith to believe that, once all is lost, (by human standards) nature steps in to regenerate. Life will take root and blossom again, and we understand that by scorching the undergrowth, the newly uninhabited land provides a new place for the birds and other insects and animals to make their nests, forage for their food or camouflage themselves for protection from other predators that call the mountain home.

And finally, I learned not to be saddened by the charred trees and leaves because that is what is needed to provide the nutrients for new life to begin. I am attaching to this issue a few articles that explain the amazing value of the breakdown of the forest for food and nutrients and, in a sense, energy for the land to heal and thrive. The natural cycle of nature takes a very long time to break down, but with a fire it is almost instantaneous for the nutritional benefits to leech into the earth to provide sustenance for the land and animals, completing a perfect cycle from loss to life.

As I mull over the idea of destruction to design, I am in awe of the wonders of the world and how perfectly it was made and how it follows a natural pattern of seasons to protect itself and provide for others.

So while the fire was a disruption and certainly gave us a scare, we are also grateful that in the Upstate of South Carolina no life was lost due to the fire and neighbors met neighbors and casual friends became closer by relying on each other for food, faith and fellowship. It ended as well as it could, and maybe better than expected because one thing we learned is that rivalry and relations that could not be built by the light of day were ultimately forged by the flame of the fire.

The spring will be the telling sign of the future of our watershed and mountain land, with the new space for plant growth, animal habitat and nutritional benefits for the land, and it is all because we lost. We lost acres of land burned up by the fire, but we believe in the end, that the land will produce an opportunity for everything to begin again renewed.

Friend, if you feel like you have been burned and your life is a charred path of scorched earth with little to nothing left, please don’t despair. Look to nature and see the perfect plan that has been in place for generations. And as hard as it is to understand, sometimes things have to die completely to live more fully. I know this doesn’t make sense while you’re going through the fire, but you have to trust that in the end it will be alright, and if it’s not…well, then you’re not at the end, so hang on, spring and summer are coming.

Deb Sofield

Deb Sofield is a Keynote Speaker, Author of the book, Speak without Fear – Rock Star Presentation Skills to get People to Hear What You Say and Encouragement For Your Life ~ Tough Love Memos to Help You Fight Your Battles and Change the World, Radio Talk Show Host in the Salem Network, Podcaster and President of her own Executive Speech Coaching Co., which trains women and men for success in speaking, crisis communications, presentation skills, media and message development in the U.S. and abroad.

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