Sunset struck smoke rising on the horizon. At 5:30, I drove home to the north, weaving through the highway under the golden sky. Traffic slowed. About a mile away, on my left, was a pillar of black smoke, billowing out of a small, dark vehicle. It was enmeshed in a frozen grid of cars. I drove near, and saw an ambulance and fire truck, blaring their horns and flashing their lights fruitlessly, trapped in place, far off from the immolation. Only those confined to their cars watched, slowly inching forward. It was all helpless. I sped up and split off to the west, heading home.
The day smolders at dusk. I pulled up to my home—a skeletal home—and entered through the single front door. Rot and decay struck my senses. How long had I been gone? The beams were breaking, the paint was peeling, and hungry animals had turned my home into a festering nest. I walked to the center of the home—the heart of the house—through a dangerous maze of hallways. The walls folded in, the ceiling sagged, and nails stuck out from the ground. Someone had boarded the windows, so that little light, filtered through a thick haze of dust, reached the interior. And so I stood in the middle of my own dark home, infested with predators and prey.
A darkening smoke settled in the heart of my home. Suddenly, the smoke illuminated and revealed itself as flame, growing bright and expansive. It spread to the animals, sweeping across each hallway, rising to the ceiling. Panicked, I ran, sprinting across the hallway. My shoes tore, my arms scraped, my eyes clouded, my lungs choked as I tore my way back through the maze. I beat at the falling ceiling, trampled over beams, and broke out the door and watched everything inside fight for its life. Embers spread contagiously, igniting light upon light; flame consumed flame, as the house sparked and snapped and extinguished.
The Buddha, in his Lotus Sutra, suggested that we should try to escape this dangerous burning house, which is the world. Francis of Assisi, burning, intimately hugged his follower, experiencing the most intense love of his life. The religious revivals that “burned over” New York molded Joseph Smith into a foundational prophet. And, some monks, in protest, light themselves on fire to set the terms for their own martyrdom. God supposedly deals in meanings, in the capacity for symbols to signify. Flames speak.
In August and September last year, record-setting wildfires spread across California, obscuring the sun and polluting the skies. Some were caused by arson. Most, they say, began naturally. Thirty one people died and ten thousand structures burned. It’s easy to pinpoint a cause: fuel accumulated through excessive wildfire suppression. We had neglected controlled burns. The climate became hotter and dryer.
And so, of course, thirty-one people had to die and ten thousand structures burnt up like an offering. Did the landscape light up like a monk, choosing its own martyrdom? Did the forests become the ground for a successful prophetic movement? Were the flames expressions of Franciscan love? Or, tell me, should we just escape this dangerous and burning world? No—none of these. The landscape, like the car, burned in apathetic silence, only offering of itself on an altar of our own structures. The landscape burned only to smoke as an incense only for the expectant.