Every summer, en route to a canoe or camping trip, we drive through a burnt out section of forest here in Manitoba. It’s not the favourite part of the route. No one stops to picnic or snap photos here. It feels long, boring and ugly. In the middle of the Canadian shield, there’s no mountains or oceans to distract from the never ending landscape of tree skeletons. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about being in a place that seems void of life.
As a kid, my dad worked for the forestry department of BC. A major part of his work involved managing forest fires throughout the summer season. Managing fires, not eliminating them, because wildfires matter to the health of forests!
Over the past century, there was a huge drive to protect forests from fires. This makes sense. Please do not go starting forest fires! However, studies continue to show the importance of fires in the ecosystem of forests. A fire turns nutrients into ashes, easily absorbed into the soil, making fertile ground for new growth. In fact, one controlled forest was not allowed to burn, and within forty years, biodiversity had been reduced by 90%! So while fire fighters do their best to keep fires from spreading out of control, or allowing the burns to come too close to civilization, there is no longer a drive to stomp out a fire before it even starts. There is value in the fire.
It feels surreal, to believe the death that came through and wiped out this region’s forest will actually benefit the land in the long run. Right now, all I see is barrenness and death. I see the damage. I see the eyesore. I eagerly await the moment we pass through the empty landscape and return to the beautiful forests usually lining the highway.
This week, though it is the middle of winter and I haven’t driven that stretch of highway for some time, I’ve been considering the landscape.
I have a burnt-out section in my soul. Maybe you have one, too? I don’t know what set the fire, why it burnt so hot, or how many days, months or decades the damage happened in your life. But I do know what it’s like to look at a barren landscape in the soul and want to push past it. I know what it’s like to want to avoid the ugly, and move on to where there is beauty or growth. I know what it’s like to be ashamed of skeleton trees and to despise those places in our soul.
What if those ugly, empty landscapes are where faith matters most? When I recognized that wildfires can benefit a region, I began to look differently at the landscape. I began to watch for signs of life. I began to look closer. When I stopped trying to rush through that region, I saw it.
I saw the eagle building a nest in a tree’s skeleton, proud and territorial. I saw movement along the soil: mice scurrying, moles digging burrows, and above them, birds flitting here and there. And bugs. Of course mosquitoes in abundance! With spring comes fireweed, a beautiful wild flower, and soon behind it grasslands and more wildflowers I can not identify. The trees are small and scrawny, and the landscape is still flat, but I can no longer call it barren. I can no longer call it dead.
Can you see it?
Stop for a moment. Close your eyes. Imagine what this area will look like in a decade. Can you smell it? The rich scent of pine? Can you hear it? The stream’s peaceful current? Can you feel it? The brush of wind across your face, scattering seed across the land? Can you taste it? The rich soil scenting the air? Do you see it?
This is the invisible, powerful work of God. The work we cannot replicate, no matter how many trees we plant or soil we repair. Rain watering the earth, wind blowing seeds into burrows, ashes fertilizing the soil and sunlight coaxing new growth.
The invisible work of God
Friends, God is doing that work in our souls as well.
I can focus on the burnt skeletons of trees, or I can notice the life that is already reclaiming the land.
I can scoff at the smallness of it all – a wildflower, a mouse – or I can marvel that this area will have 90% more biodiversity as a result of that wildfire.
I can dismiss the region and push on to appreciate the mighty waterfalls and towering oaks I know are just down the road, or I can be in awe that this fire made it possible for many of those plants to germinate in the first place!
Faith allows me to look at that place and believe God is creating something new. Faith allows me to zoom in, no longer dismayed by the burnt out skeletons of trees but paying attention to the new growth. Faith gives me hope for a future. Faith believes that fire will birth new life, life that was impossible without the heat. Faith trusts that one day, that barren landscape will bear fruit.