I forgot about this essay until the smoke from the fires burning around the West put me on a kind of house arrest this week. All the windows were closed, every fan was on, and I longed for the fresh Montana air that I so love. It reminded me of a perilous fire season in the early 2000′s and I searched through my files until I found this essay. The baby in it is now a senior in high school, the five year old, a senior in college. It was in the early days of my motherhood and I felt raw and scared and protective. There were forest fires raging close to our beloved Montana home, and I was beside myself with the feeling of helplessness. I was still mostly a city transplant. I wasn’t completely resigned to what I now accept as the natural order of things in the wilderness. Thankfully, the man-made structures in our valley escaped destruction that summer. And thankfully, back here in 2017, the smoke cleared out with last night’s cool winds, the windows are open, and the air is fresh. We can all breathe deeply again. Reading this essay brings me back to a time when anything was possible, good or bad, and I was new in the field of surrender. Seventeen years later, I am glad I know that to be in the “flow” is simply to know that there is a “flow” in the first place. Enjoy!
Particulate Matter by Laura Munson This essay is dedicated to anyone who has lost their home or business to forest fire this summer. Or whose property is still in peril. It was originally published in the Mars Hill Review.
Montana is burning, again. Outside is a slur of orange and floating ash that looks like we are living on the set of a Sci-fi B-movie from the Sixties. The green grocer says it looks like a Jehovah’s Witness church marquee come true: the world is ending. The world is ending and all the Hippies are walking around wearing gas masks as if they will be the chosen race. The farmers are harvesting their alfalfa crops, lungs and all. I guess they figure they will meet their maker first. To me it looks like life inside an old sepia-toned photograph with no one smiling except the baby.
My baby doesn’t know not to smile either. He is ten weeks old—as old as the fires that burn in Lolo, Werner Peak, Moose Mountain, Big Creek near Glacier National Park and on and on. One fire burns one thousand acres and counting, just eleven miles away from our house. Another burns 14,166 acres, northwest of a town called Wisdom. I close the newspaper and hold my baby tight. Please God, don’t let our valley burn.
AM radio has political pundits spouting off against environmentalists—mad that forests have not been thinned in the name of owls and small rodents, their threatened extinction a small price to have paid in exchange for the dozens of houses that burned in last summer’s fires, and the 900 houses state-wide that wait, evacuated, their denizens on cots in high school gymnasiums. Others think it’s Conspiracy Theory—that the feds are not fighting the fire with the man-power they could in the interest of turning a profit on salvage logging in land otherwise protected as endangered habitat. Some say the firefighters are heroes. Some say they are “money-grubbing opportunists” in an impossible war. Some say that they should let the fires burn—that the only thing that will stop blazes of this magnitude is snow or days and days of heavy rain, and that the millions of dollars being spent on fire lines and air attack is not only a waste of money, but a serious threat to watersheds, and renders the forest less resilient to fire in the end. Old timers I know who have seen fires rip through this valley before just lift their eyes unto the hills and nod the way you might if Ghandi was your commencement speaker—Ghandi, the same man who said, “Suffering is the badge of the human race.” My baby sucks and rests and searches for his thumb and actually says “Goo.”
I find myself walking around the kitchen with a fly swatter, taking care of tiny black fates– things I can control. And I find refuge there. I can’t see the flames, but I see on the news that in one day the local fire– the Moose fire– has expanded from 4,700 acres to 14,000 acres, with one flame front running four miles in four hours, another cruising three-quarters of a mile in less than twelve minutes. Even if I could see the flames, my garden hose is short. I go out to my smoky garden and spend an hour watering a thirty-foot long by six-foot wide perennial bed, and two pots of tomatoes. I put my faith in my still-green tomatoes. I have to. I cannot afford to sap my faith in tomatoes with my fear of fire. They say they could rage until the October cool-down and it is only August. They say that fires this big have minds of their own.
There is skittish solace in the mundane things that need to happen whether our twenty acres of Big Sky are consumed in flames or not. The baby needs to be fed. The toilet paper roll replaced. The dishes washed. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich assembled for the five year old who will play hopscotch at summer camp today, unimpressed with the ratio of particulate matter to breathable air. I try to ignore the hot wind that bends the cat tails in the marsh behind our house that in two months has gone from canoe-able pond with mating frogs and foraging Sandhill cranes and resting loons, to a dry, cracked vestige of grasshoppers and confused snails. I try to ignore the fire bombers that drone overhead back and forth all day, driven by what I must deem as “heroes” in a war that we can only imagine.
I hold my baby and smell his head and think of all of us, living in the mundane despite the magnitude of mortality and belief and fear and faith. I think of the tiny things that weave us together that we don’t think to talk about, but that engage the moral majority of our minutes here on earth. Buttons, cups of coffee, socks and shoes. And I want to cling to these things. I want to dwell in the community of controllable things. And instead of feeling their burden, I want to find the blessing there. Not just because I am scared of fire. Not just because I look into my baby’s eyes and wonder if our future will be long together, come fire or disease or what may. But because the flames I cannot see remind me to love what I can love. Or at the very least, to take the funnel clouds they leave in their skyward wake—sometimes climbing 40,000 feet– as part of the mystery that implores me to be content with my little place on earth. My humanity. My chores. My grocery list. But the smoke…the unseen flames…must I love them too? Jim Harrison writes in his Cabin Poem: I’ve decided to make up my mind/ about nothing, to assume the water mask,/ to finish my life disguised as a creek,/ an eddy, joining at night the full,/ sweet flow, to absorb the sky,/ to swallow the heat and cold, the moon/ and the stars, to swallow myself/ in ceaseless flow.
I struggle with this flow. I struggle with my community of seens and unseens.
Outside the wind picks up; it feels gratuitous. Sinister. I drop my garden hose, short as it is, and return to the cool, stale-aired house, windows shut tight for weeks now. I pace like a caged cat, peering out the windows at the pitching and heaving lodge pole pines. Lodge poles need the high heat of forest fire in order for their cones to drop their seeds. If the lodge poles could pray, they would be praying for this exact wind. Am I to accept our destruction for the sake of lodge poles? Am I any kind of environmentalist—any kind of faithful servant of the Creator, or steward of Creation, if this is my prayer: Please God, make the wind stop? Am I to be bound only to the mundane by my faith? And accept the rest as Higher Order? The Natural Order of Things? My own fate therein? I am a twentieth century woman: isn’t there something They can do about this? Some button to push…some button to un-push?
You see, somewhere in this “flow,” I am a mother; it is my instinct to protect. I know that for me to attempt to fight the fire is fruitless. What is my fight, then? My meditation? My prayer? Can I be like Arjuna the warrior and fight, as the Hindu God Vishnu instructs, without thoughts of “fruits,” “with spirit unattached?” Can I find Vishnu’s “meditation centered inwardly and seeking no profit…fight?” Is my fight to be simply in the preservation of the tiny things that have been proven win-able in the ten digits of my human hands? Sure Job had to give it all up, but must we all? Must we at least be willing? I scrub, I brush, I boil and bake—little strokes of faith—little battles won. But I am not serene. I am not surrendered.
I struggle with surrender.
The writer Annie Dillard in her Teaching a Stone to Talk finds God in a rock. Is my Creator one who puts a rock, a lodge pole, before me? Before my children? Before this bounteous 20 acres of Montana in which we play and work and garden and grieve and pray and find home? What kind of dirty trick is this that we are to love our place on earth—nurture it with all our might, but be willing to give it all up at the same time? Wendell Berry in his Mad Farmer’s Manifesto says, “take all that you have and be poor.” I don’t want to be poor spiritually or otherwise, if it means my land—the place where my children fly kites and catch frogs, where my husband and I have conceived our children, seen our first Northern Lights, built a Mountain Bluebird nesting house that the same bluebird returns to every year and whom my daughter has named, Hello Friend—if all this is to be reduced to char.
The apostle Paul says, “…we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” I am groaning. But I have words. I want rain. I want windlessness. I want. I want. I want. Perhaps it is this wanting that the Spirit translates to the Divine. The Buddhist tradition says that we will not experience release from our suffering as long as we have desires. So am I a complete spiritual flunky if I admit that I feel deep desire to preserve my place here on earth– that I feel an entitlement to my place? Just how much should we grin and bear? Or groan and bear? What can we pray for and remain faithful?
I realize that there are no finite answers to these questions. But it helps to know that I am not alone in them. Tell me then, Humanity, that I can pray for the wind to stop, and then after that…in my utter befuddlement, pray to the sweet and ruthless flow of Creation not only for tomatoes to grow in my pots, but for excellent tomatoes to grow in my pots! Tell me that the Creator is both Lord of wind and tiny things. And that we are not to be limited in the extent of our wants—our fears, our passion plays. Please, I beseech you, Humanity, do not tell me that I am entitled only to my sense of faith and my sense of love but not to a loved thing on earth—destined to accept the burning of my house, or say, disease in my child, as if the wind is more necessary than a child. The wind is created. The trees are created. A child is created. My house is created. Tomatoes are created. My daily schedule of car pools and play dates and meals and laundry are created. Is there a hierarchy to the importance of created things? Am I at least as dear to the Creator as a lodge pole pine? Tell me that there is a prayer for all of us. Because all of us, on some level, matter.
My five-year old daughter comes in to show me that her first tooth has come out. If I am to surrender to forest fire, tell me, oh Creator, oh Humanity, that this tooth matters. I hold the tooth in my palm and smile at her and she obliterates me with three fell swoops: “I wonder if God likes the fire. I wonder if the fire likes itself. I’m going to go outside to play now.” Maybe surrender is not a letting go, but an acceptance.
A going in, even.
Tell me then, oh time-travelers in this wondrous and heartbreaking “flow,” that not only does the mundane matter, but that it is holy. Tell me that we are in this holy pickle together—that in your ultimate helplessness on this planet, you cling to what you can help. That you too contemplate the advantages of brushing your teeth before or after coffee, almost daily. Before or after orange juice. Before or after sex. Tell me that you too keep the buttons that come in a tiny envelope, safety-pinned to your fine garments but with absolutely no intention of ever using them. Tell me that sometimes you notice that you incorporate the use of your forehead when you are folding towels. And that in that instant, you laugh out loud. Tell me that you laugh out loud. I want to know that we are both laughing. From Peoria, Illinois, to burning Montana, to Massachusetts two hundred years ago. It is the echo of that laughter which will save me at three in the morning, breast-feeding my boy, watching lighting striking, slicing through the smoky night. And prayer, I suppose. But after prayer, it is the echo of humanity, not God, I am waiting for. I want to know that I am not the only one pacing alone in my “smoky house.”
Tell me all this, and then tell me that the Creator, to whom time must certainly not be a linear stretch as it is to we mere mortal peons, must on some level restrict himself/herself/itself enough to the created hill-of-beans of my mind, and find mercy. Tell me that the execution of these tiny things are our greatest acts of faith. Because they are our fight. Our meditations. Our prayers. Prayers to the moment. Prayers to our futures. Prayers without ceasing.
Most of all, tell me that our Creator loves us for the fears we have that lead us to the clingy worship of tiny things in the first place. Tell me that you believe the Creator gives us the minutia to help us deal with the Everything Else—to find our connection to the rest of Creation. That the Creator designed us to need the community of tiny things. Tell me that the Creator invites all of it, like a parent does a child’s wants for bubble gum in one breath, and the cure for cancer in the next. And that we can both pray for the wind to stop and for the rains to come. And the fires to end. And our children’s lives to be long. And then in the next breath…the next groan…pray for plump, juicy, hose-fed, sun-kissed tomatoes every summer, smoky or not.
—2000, Laura Munson, Montana
Note: If you are travelling to Montana this summer or fall, please enjoy our beautiful wilderness which is full of smoke-free and wide open roads and trails, valleys, rivers, and lakes!
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