As destructive as it can be for the human landscape, fire serves a purpose in the natural world. Natural-born wildfire can act like a vacuum cleaner, extinguishing ground-level vegetation and clearing out certain trees to allow tender grasses a place to grow. It can wipe out infestation like chemotherapy cleaning a body of cancer, brutal and all-encompassing and cleansing. In natural environments and without human intervention, fires can act like pushing a giant reset button, resetting everything to a spare wintry landscape, teaching the value of austerity.
But fires still come with a toll, and where human life touches forest life, the cost is often dear. Even for those of us not directly affected by the fires, hundreds of miles away, we see the afterimage of this toll, paid in flakes of ash drifting quietly onto our mailboxes and sunroofs and patio furniture. The smoke gets in our eyes, our noses; it scratches at our throats and clouds our lungs. My parents like to tell me about going outside after the Mt. St. Helens eruption and collecting ash in plastic bags, writing their initials in it on the deck rails. That which burns leaves the memory of its burning before it becomes something new again. Do they still sell Mt. St. Helens jewelry at Pike Place? I remember as a child peering at display cases of the greenish glass, like something shipped direct from Oz, fitting for the Emerald City.
This year, Mariners fans have watched as fire has come for a beloved franchise icon in the form of Felix Hernandez. Félix’s decline hasn’t been a surprise to anyone who has been watching the team closely over the past two years, but moving the erstwhile King into the bullpen made something final that hadn’t been final before. At the same time, Robinson Cano watched his reputation as a “clean” player go up in smoke when he was busted for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Agreement. Félix and Robi: two icons of the sport, brought low by time, the licking tongues of flame that wait around the corner for us all.
But sometimes a fire, while destructive, doesn’t signal the end of everything. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, fire can signal a rebirth:
Fire can also be a force that propels: the fire inside, fire in one’s belly, light a fire under you. Fire can stoke a flame that’s been kept quietly for the past three months:
The Mariners, sagging over the past month and a half, have needed a spark to grow into a fire, something to electrify a club that’s sleepwalking in a pennant race while their neighbors to the south have tied keys to kites and learned to harness electricity. Of all the elements, only fire can transform. If the cost is a little smoke in my lungs, I’ll gladly pay it.