Trees burn, as do young men. And therein lies the lesson

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, October 1998

The Fire Inside
Trees burn, as do young men. And therein lies the lesson
By David Guterson

All day we stood on the fire line, bored, wetting down the trees. Occasionally we wedged our nozzles under stones and let arcs of water shower the woods while we sprawled on the ground, bullshitting. I recollect clearly a laid-back brand of youthful male bravado in the face of the fire rolling steadily toward us out of central Oregon's pine hills. Our fire line, carved that morning by crawling backhoes, ran over a hogback ridge, and our view to the east, as far as we could see, was of the world going up in magnificent flames.

More blustery assertions of bravery. I made my own vapid contributions, but privately I was prone to philosophical musings, exposed as I was to my undeniable smallness confronted by all that fire. We'd been issued fire shirts and fire packs in camp, and in our boredom we tore through the packs to laugh at the bogus emergency shelters and the Korean War-vintage filter masks. By mid-afternoon we'd scarfed all our C-rations: finger sausages, pineapple juice, and sponge bread, all packed into small green cans.

At 8 p.m. a breeze came up, urging the fire our way. A pungent dryness grew in my nostrils: the descending or wafting litter-fall of fire, black motes of dust or wisps of ash. The distant forest, already obliterated, hung suspended on the breeze — the desolate, sad last detritus of combustion, what had been the trees now aimlessly floating molecules of loss and grief.

Up and down the line, illuminated by firelight, my compadres posed with their hard hats cocked and their hoses aimed at the fire. Then the smoke came gray and thick and everyone else disappeared. I dropped to my knees and, in a cleft between tree roots, clawed the soil for oxygen. I was brought low, my mouth in the dirt, blindly panicked, asphyxiated in the all-consuming inferno of the damned.

I sat up. A shuddering blast of wind carrying the remains of trees sent cinders swirling toward my skull. My eyebrows and eyelashes were burned to gray ash. A football-size ember landed in my lap, orange and fiery like a meteorite, and I leaped up to spill it off. It trailed fire.

Fire pulsed skyward in smoky billows, and the wind of fire raced behind it. Despite my intentions I was routed from my post, in desperate, humiliating flight. The fire crowned in the trees overhead, dropping lit brands of pitch all around to kindle the undergrowth. My hair on one side was singed to the scalp; black mucus frothed at my nostrils. Chased by the fire, I ran like a madman, and then splashed into a shallow creek, where I drank, doused my head, and vomited.

A revelatory moment, of sorts. I had been fighting fire all that summer, but I hadn't yet reckoned with its elemental power. Now I understood its deification — a terrible god of annihilation. "Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice," wrote Robert Frost. "From what I've tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire ..."

I'm not sure I hold with them, though. I was at that moment permanently prejudiced against incineration. I was pierced by the truth that there is nothing worse than burning. Fording the creek I ran like someone who meant it, someone whose fear was real. And something fell away from me then — some shield against the world. It was as though I had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. My corporeality was clarified. I was no different than a rump roast, a ham. I was 19, and made of tender flesh.

David Guterson is the author of Snow Falling on Cedars. His next novel, East of the Mountains, will be published next spring by Harcourt Brace.

Illustration by Hungry Dog Studio

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