I kept my eyes fixated in the rear view mirror, hoping that the sky above the foothills would be blue once I emerged from the canyon. My heart quickly sunk as I saw a huge smoke cloud rising slowly over the mountains. Despite the visual confirmation and an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, I told myself that the cloud was too far south to be of concern to us. I went about my day in denial.
At 4 o’clock that afternoon, we received a reverse 911 call. The female voice recording telling us to evacuate was like a bucket of ice water being thrown over my head. I sobered up from my intoxicating denial and began to make mental notes about my family members. My son Nico was down in town – check. My husband Lou and our dog William were still up on the mountain. I would not see the two of them until 11:00 o’clock that night. Despite the evacuation call and a visit from the sheriff, my husband refused to leave. He, along with our best friend, would spend ten hours chopping down trees at the same dizzying speed the Once-ler chopped down Truffula Trees in the Lorax. With the fire quickly approaching our property, my husband found his keys, loaded the dog and scanned the rooms trying to decide what to take. He grabbed just one thing – my wedding rings, which were also his mother’s.
The next three days were hard for our family. Staying at a friend’s house, we laid awake each night listening to the winds whip ferociously. We thought about all that could be lost and how we would rebuild our lives. No insurance, no house, no personal belongings. It was daunting to imagine a life without ANY-THING but I would be lying if I told you we didn’t think about this a lot in those 72 hours.
The stress of the uncertainty and the barrage of insensitive questions regarding our failure to get insurance or to grab our belongings could very well have turned me gray. I chose instead to remain in the eye of the storm. It calmed me to think, that regardless of the outcome, we would get through it and I remained unapologetic for the choices we had made. I also had a tremendous amount of faith in my husband and his efforts of preserve our lives.
On June 12, we found out that our house and our whole life had survived. It was three weeks before we would were allowed to return and when we did make our journey up the canyon it was met with both joy and sadness. The only way I knew how to make sense of my new surroundings was to totally immerse myself in them. Each day I would take long hikes and bring my camera. Everywhere I looked was a photo opportunity. The forest was magnificently metallic and naked. Tree trunks twisted, turned and looped around themselves. Green grass was sprouting up everywhere. Woodpeckers were busily making homes in the still standing snags. This charred forest was not dead. It was not destroyed. And it was not a disaster. This was just life. The beginning of a new cycle had begun and it was nothing to fear.
The media was abuzz, describing the fire as a gruesome battle, combat, a fight, and a natural disaster. We were victims. Governor Hickenlooper said nature is conspiring against us. I started paying special attention to the jargon being used during this time and it got me thinking about a similar topic that I talk about in my birthing class - language. We discuss the importance of words and language when considering one’s caregiver. Does your caregiver ask or tell you things. For instance: would your caregiver ask you if you wanted to try having a VBAC or would your caregiver tell you that they would let you try for a VBAC. A small difference in words but a huge difference in meaning.
Between my photographs and my attention to the language being used during this wildfire, something sparked. Wildfire is no different than natural birth. They are both thought to be destructive or painful with no real lasting benefit. They are considered an “evil” that needs to be suppressed or dulled and they are both treated with disrespect and feared by the general public.
Are wildfires really destructive and birth really painful with no real lasting benefit?
Fire is an elemental and critical force in nature and it is imperative for the forest’s renewal. Birth is a normal and natural physiological process that helps a mother discover her very deepest self, thus preparing her for the difficult job of mothering. In fire-adapted ecosystems, many species and plants have evolved ways of avoiding or surviving fires and even some still, are dependent on fire for habitat or nutrients. The pain experienced in childbirth is met with an ingenious system of endorphin levels that rise correspondingly. As a mother experiences more pain, her body creates natural opiates to help her through labor.
The lodgepole pine has what is called a serotinous cone that is filled with seeds and held together by resin. This cone can only be opened by very high temperatures, which melt the resin. These seeds are then released into the ground during a wildfire and are responsible for the start of new lodgepole pines.
Pain in labor is a special type of pain. It is one that almost always does not cause any damage to the body. After a woman has worked her way through childbirth, she learns more about her own capabilities and that of her child. This knowledge can give birth to a whole new confidence in life.
Do wildfires need to be suppressed and childbirth dulled or masked?
Quite the contrary really. We now know in fire-adapted forests, fire suppression rather than fire itself causes more disharmony and harm to that area. The ecosystem becomes stagnant and unhealthy. Fire suppression is also very costly.
When pain medication is used (which is 90% of the time), it can make labor longer, can require the need for intervention and affects bonding between mother and baby. It is also costly. Studies show that mothers who forgo pain medication have better success rates with breastfeeding and are more satisfied with their birth experience.
Why are wildfires and birth treated disrespectfully and feared by the general public?
Lack of education. Unfortunately much of the wisdom regarding basic life cycles has not been passed on. Whether it is the migration of societies into cities or the growing use of technology and medicine in childbirth, our children and young adults rarely have experiences with the natural world and its processes. In Tom Wolf’s book, In Fire’s Way, he states, “It seems that the less familiar children are with real forests, the more likely they are as adults to want the government to suppress all fires.” Change a couple of words around in that sentence and you have, “The less familiar children are with natural birth, the more likely they are as adults to want hospitals to suppress all pain.”
While we as humans often take credit for containing or suppressing a fire, it is most often a change of the elements that makes is happen. Similarly, when a woman enters the hospital during labor, often times her body will intuitively slow things up based on the new surroundings. The miraculous female system ebbs and flows with environment. No matter how much we think we know about ecosystems or the act of giving birth, there are still aspects that elude us and this gives rise to the anxiety we feel about them. Our greatest fear with both wildfires and natural birth is that in our attempt to control them as humans and with our technology, we know we cannot. To think that there is something outside of our control puts us in the hands of the universe, not in the driver’s seat.
Today it is common place to blame wildfires for their destruction of homes or to blame women for their “failure to progress” during labor. In actuality it is our inability to live with nature and our lack of faith in women and their bodies that is responsible for the destruction of our natural, ingenious and healthy life cycles.
There have been many times in the past year that I have cursed this fire for taking away all my shade trees or for the floods that have ensued, but I revisit that calmness in my heart and the wisdom of Mother Nature, knowing it will only be a short time before there are beautiful meadows and young vibrant trees gracing our lives again. In the same breath, I know it won’t be long before women will regain the knowledge and respect for their own bodies and for the natural process of birthing a child.