Maya Jewell Zeller
USDA Fire Rating System, Fire Danger Level: Extreme
When I was fifteen, I lit a whole field on fire.
I took water from the river to put it out.
The truth is I wanted to burn something down. The truth is, I was down. The truth is, I was burning with hunger, I was drowning in the burn of adolescence, I was just trying to play with matches. The truth is we were poor and we were bored and that was all we had except the barn. We had a horse we had a sky we had a match. The hay was in piles moldy hot inside they hadn't been raked in days. The kind of hay that you can't eat, a horse can't eat; it's no good for hunger.
I had help in the burning. My best friend, whose horses we rode through the floods and the hills, and whose father's car we stole and hid in a ditch a mile from where we stayed the night in an attic house, blue and red lights pulsing outside like a Lite Brite, our wrists pulsing too where we had thought about slashing them. / Slash that. We were okay; we were just filled with hormones. Or maybe we were afraid of our lives and what pains they'd hold later. We were so okay we jumped in the river. We rode the horses right into the river to put out the fire we'd made in our skins.
USDA Fire Rating System, Fire Danger Level: Very High
Teens burn down _____ fields a year.
In the HOA where I live now, one of the covenants asserts that we should not dump yard waste debris in common areas, so as to reduce fire hazard, and recently, the association paid to have the Department of National Resources evaluate and subsequently clean up the common areas' forest floor, so as to reduce fire hazard.
People move here to be safe.
Nietzche says "pure vapors are the transformation of sea into fire, the impure ones the transformation of earth to water," and also that "The highest form of nature is not humanity but fire," and also that "The eternally living fire, αἰών [Aeon, boy-god of the zodiac], plays, builds, and knocks down: strife, this opposition of different characteristics, directed by justice, may be grasped only as an aesthetic phenomenon. We find here a purely aesthetic view of the world." In a purely aesthetic view of the world, fire is just a bright thing we bring out from the core of ourselves. Or: Fire brought the world into existence, transforms all.
Art equals fire equals redemption. The struggle is the fire, is the truth and the way.
I guess I have always been one to stare into the blaze.
When I am forty years old, I consider lighting my perfect life on fire. (The permanence of it scares me.) Then I change my mind. (The permanence keeps me stable.)
I understand the impulse for destruction, for ruining things so they might be remade. I understand the desire to make something burn.
Insert here a lot of metaphors involving a mythical phoenix. Insert Heraclitus, Plato, Shiva. Insert philosophy, or at least its impulse. Reason always takes everything too far from the glow.
USDA Fire Rating System, Fire Danger Level: High
In the western United States, we now have three seasons: snow/rain, spring, and fire.
Every year, the fires burn down another place I love. Two years ago, on one of my favorite trails, I sat and watched from a ridge as across the river valley helicopters dropped chemicals on a bright orange glow on one of my other favorite trails. It was all underbrush and delicate shade plants; now it's all thistle and charred trunks. I still walk it, but for a while, I had to watch out so as not to slip in the after-sludge, a thick black muck that overtook the ground, like the ash after a volcanic eruption.
As I write this, the redwoods in California have gone up in a blaze—thousands of years of pith mapping water, ringed and exquisite, gone. Homes of all those birds and insects and squirrels. Homes of humans, too. At the White House, in Washington, D.C., Melania Trump just removed Jackie Kennedy's crab apples and replaced all the color with white flowers. In my rage, I want to light her house on fire. It all reminds me of that complicated anti-colonial poem by Rick Barot, about the too-white gardens. These things are not unrelated: whitewashing, climate change, the world ending. I think: it doesn't matter who you are, the end of the world is coming for you. I think: yes, I'm lucky, but for how long? And who is suffering the stench of smoke right now, the lack of clean water? And where are we on the rating system? Can we put out the spark while it's still small?
Will there be any hope for a rebirth from the ashes? I think of foxgloves or fireweed populating a hillside where logging or wildfires razed the earth. I think of the ash fields surrounding Mount Saint Helens, or the Willapa hills, the stretches of spaces where Weyerhauser took out the hemlocks, the whole mountain stained purple with the beautiful wound. How I ate it when I was younger. How that wound sustained me.
USDA Fire Rating System, Fire Danger Level: Moderate
I learned the ways of flint and stick and coal and blue-orange glow from men with lighters and kerosene, in burn barrels and forests and wood stoves and schools. I learned something lit can spread and scorch an earth or arm or house or barn.
Ray Bradbury: "It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed."
Henry David Thoreau: "Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage."
USDA Fire Rating System, Fire Danger Level: Low
My son loves to make a small pyramid of kindling in our backyard pit, under the spruces and pines. We let him do this until the end of June, when either the county or our own common sense says it's too dry. We let him fill it with newspaper and touch the green-headed match to the edge of a picture, and we watch his eyes mirror the dance of the flame.
We live in a neighborhood north of a city, where people water their lawns to keep them lush—mine mossy and brown-green, but still a buffer to potential wildfire— and we fill the bird baths so the doe can drink and nurse her fawns. When lightning comes we watch it out the large front window, ready to call the fire department if the dry inland pines are struck and blaze. We're not likely to simmer to the ground or end in embers but we know we're fortunate. Some Augusts the air here is so full of smoke we can't go outside. Some Septembers, school is delayed because they can't ventilate enough to allow children into classrooms. Some summers the fires are so close we know we could be the next California, the next Australia. We cry for California, Australia, everywhere being destroyed by heat.
I worry when I feel the wick still flickering inside me. I worry when I flick the match against the box. I worry how complicit I am, right down to my bones. I worry about metaphor and pleasure, about driving across town. I worry the way a mom worries, or a teenager who knows she's the root of trouble, jumping from the highest rafter in the barn, landing on hay she knows she'd burn if she grew too angry. I get in my car again, dragging my fossil fuels down the road. I worry the whole freeway from here to wherever I'm going in my fossil fuel car, like lighting the field on fire, over and over again.
"Poverty Fires" is part of a triptych of three linked chapters from Maya's memoir, "Raised by Ferns." In sequence, these chapters are "Scavenger Panorama" (appearing in fall 2021 Willow Springs), which opens "I am most myself when poking a dead cow with a stick," and closes with "I thought about all the animal graves I'd dug by the barn and the things the fields might offer after the water receded. And I thought of how it would be like this for the wild ones, too — scavenging their food from the wreckage. A form of foraging, of grazing what was offered by ruin and violence, not so different from the blooming of fruit and flower." This leads into the next chapter, "Sestina for Foragers," which you can read at Guesthouse, and which closes with "I am afraid of the future. I watch it move like a cloud-shadow across the meadow of wildflowers. My heart-field thrumming with these bright beams. Fire season just beginning," leading into "Poverty Fires." Writing linked essays that also stand alone offered Maya a kind of formal play in composing her full-length manuscript, which tries to keep looping and threading back between all its chapters/essays.