Brigitte Lewis



Two years after a forest fire > scorched bark is peeling away from the trees and falling to the ground, like a scab shedding off a wound. Gravity compels. Steam rises out of the twin pipes of the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm and falls back toward the upper deck, toward the 2,519 passengers pitching against one another as something—kin to gravity, perhaps—compels them forward toward new life. Martin Steenblock boarded the ocean liner in Bremen, Germany under, I imagine, winter skies thick with dark. In the great heaving belly of the ship—bloated hopeful regretting everything—the moon-pull pressed Martin onward, the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm blundered by the stars toward new. On March 23, 1909, he passed through Ellis Island. Seventy years and nineteen days later I was born.

Five years after a forest fire > epilobium angustifolium (fireweed) is a pioneer species, pink and persistent, creeping rhizome and confident along the forest floor, leaves spirally arranged and pinnate veined, strong with all the sun, all the water. Like the westward, ho! optimism of destiny—betting on luck and divinity and a desire to live—driven forward into the prairie, vast and silent like the steppes had been. The people known as the Germans from Russia felt at home there, the grass wind and tickled, the soothing austerity of waking up each day to work.

Six years after a forest fire > the grasses grow in clumps—as is the way of wild grass—and send tiny tendrils of root in every direction, slight, but with a power to keep the ground steady. Homesteaders built lives out of the available materials. People like Martin saw to the soil.

Sixteen years after a forest fire > seeds freed by smoke and heat sprung from the acid duff fill out noble and silver, needles ripe like fat babies that arrive year after year. Born with hoes in hand to till and till, to tend the fields that surround their home that surround the towns with names like Ashley and Faith. The children have names like: Gottfried and Matildhe, Johann and Lydia, Rueben and Irene, Harry and Bernice, Freidr and Anna.

Twenty-three years after a forest fire > the understory has begun to stabilize and memory of the fire is no longer cognitive in all the green green that crowds for jostle and life, like these families—my family—who scuffed even further west, to the continental edge, transplants or something like them, looking to thrive in the calm of wide streets with a laundry line out back, a fence out front, and happy—their own wide-eyed children growing up wont to want. Contentment can be a thing raisined and sucrose. Martin distilled his family into something sunny and new.

Forty years after a forest fire > the ground has begun to cool. I don't yet exist. Still, the parts of me that do exist (with names like grandfather, grandmother, and so on) have histories (their own, Martin's, Gustav's, Christina's) that they aren't sure how to talk about. Everyone speaks English now. Still, the parts of me that did exist then, have this to say to me now: heat will linger when you are born from it; death is a re-imagination of birth; a name carries a particular fate.

Fifty-six years after a forest fire > some, not all, of the charred spines have been gnawed nimble and felled by the mouths fury of insect banter, and the forest is defined by slash, but also by the puzzle piece bark that, when loosened and sniffed, tugs olfactory vanilla and sweet, like organ music and biscuits Dorothea Steenblock makes for Sunday dinner around the maple table, where folly and plumb lucky big-smile children sit with their parents and their grandparents and the song home rushes from a red crystal decanter.

Eighty-two years after a forest fire > heartwood tender rings slowly, like drum (deep) thump accruing boom-like and expansive, the wail of an unruly loud-cry child is born of the big-smile children, and sound equates to birth, a low moan over water rumbles thunder and true. I am born. I am born into so much. I am born feeling the moon-pull of ocean passages.

Ninety years after a forest fire > I am looking for my people… Martin is dead. Most of his children are dead. His grandchildren have forgotten what they knew of the trip on the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm just as Martin had forgotten about the journeys of his own great-greats. Still, I think this has something to do with the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm being renamed four times. Or that, by now, its seaworthy days have ended – scrapped in Italy under an alias.

Ninety-nine years after a forest fire > the trees are growing, grown, and once again, speaking underground their subterranean language of fungi and love and fear, musky parables of how to live after a burn. With the light filtering through the canopy, I can see a scar on my forearm I didn't know I had. I move my arm back and forth and the scar—pale and burnished—glitters as it catches the light.

One hundred and nineteen years after a forest fire > I walk through a charred forest collecting charcoal rubbings from tree trunks. I study them later at home, knowing they are x-rays of what happened there. What happened to me.

One hundred and twenty years after a forest fire > I wake with the sunrise. I am diurnal and somewhat flammable—formed by hope, prairie, desperation, divinity, steppes, ocean, moon-pull, heaving, the scar, leaving, and leaving—a prophyte practicing rising from the ashes daily. Everywhere I go my feet are covered in soot.





When you grow up in the West, you grow up alongside fire. You walk roads in the middle of nowhere that are actually fire breaks. You drag brush to your father's burn pile and feel the heat curl your eyebrows. You know the phone number to call to see if it's a "burn day."; You have seen the air turn orange and apocalyptic and spooling ash like a ticker tape parade. You have a picture of yourself as a baby with Smokey the Bear, who is really your uncle in costume on the 4th of July. You are the granddaughter of a forester who wrote prescriptions for controlled forest burns. >> In other words, fire is an impactful part of my consciousness. I set out to write a piece that explored how forests are shaped and regenerated after fire, and to thread this narrative with the idea of generational trauma, my family history, and an affinity for speculation.

If you want to learn more about wildfires in the West >> check out the smart writing at https://www.hcn.org/topics/wildfire.