The trouble is, there really is so much power in them that they are highly dangerous. Science calls them liquid, solid, gas, plasma, and pretends we don't do elemental magic any more, but we do.
Fire. Lightning its close cousin. I write lightning, rain, and thunder most because I grew up with them and miss them, having moved to a part of the world which is nearly desert, and real desert just inland. I am also known for playing with fire -- making candles, making fires in places where it's safe to do so. My job when camping back east is to build and create the fire, because I can do it even when it's raining, if I have any dry wood at all. (Or at least some candle shavings.) The one time I've ever visited Hawaii, I spent my time with the volcano, not the beach.
So. I went into the desert on Tuesday night alone, because I have a paper on "psyche and nature" to write. I needed to find the right myth to use as a lens for describing the desert's spirit. I needed to reconnect with the wild, because I've been plugged in too much since winter. I needed to clear my head and prove to myself that I've healed completely from a nearly fatal illness that has kept me from going out and sleeping under the stars for 3 years. I didn't quite succeed with the latter -- the illness caught up with me halfway through the night, and I had to walk out at 3 AM and try to find a hotel, not easy because of evacuees. I went back out to the park the next day in 108 degree heat to prove that despite being not-quite-healthy, I can still be there, if I'm careful.
It was why I was there, yet now it seems rude to dwell on my personal experience of the desert. Wind. Coyotes. Joshua Trees. Walking for miles in the wide lonely country where the ravens and the stones speak. It was good, and I came to the place where I know every rock and juniper, far away from anyone or anything, where I could take off my shirt and sit and feel the desert breathe.
So much peace there.
And yet a very different aspect of nature was showing itself.
I saw a scorched and blackened area within the park, several hundred acres where the Joshua Trees will take a hundred years or more to grow back, if they can grow back at all. Our theft of water from the desert and air pollution have conspired to choke the park slowly, so invading grasses (dangerous, dangerous intruders; they're what's letting the fires burn so out of control as never before) will probably push out the native plants.
Most of all, I saw the wildfires. They looked like lava flows coming down the hills, but this wasn't lava, it was 15 miles of fire that I drove alongside, and I know that was only a small corner of all that was burning. The mountains were snaked and edged in fire. Canyons and hillsides were rippling beds of distant flame, twinkling like a hundred torches scattered across the rocks, or like a late-night bed of coals. There were creosote bushes exploding into fire tornadoes. The hills and canyons were so steep that the water-dropping choppers couldn't get close to some of the spots that were burning, for fear of hitting their blades on the cliffs. There's no way fire crews could be climbing into some of the places that were burning, so far from any roads -- even if they had, a fire break is little use on a vertical rock face where cinders flung ten feet sideways by the wind will drop a thousand feet down.
There's been one human fatality. A lot of animals, though people were being heroic about evacuating pets.
We have come to a time of fire, and I'm not surprised hostilities in the Middle East are heating up at the same time; the earth's spirit affects us more than we realize. A small, very small blessing from Middle East misery: as the gas prices go up, our consumption will drop back a bit and buy us time. The trouble is, war distracts us from the even bigger problem, that all our social and class and religious and ethnic conflicts are irrelevent if we push earth's biosphere too far out of whack.
I look at those fires and I feel the quiet slow shift they signify: this is it. Thoeries are becoming actual. Even politicians are finally admitting what the scientists have been saying for decades: global warming. I knew it had moved from theory to fact about 20 years ago, because my uncle worked in Antarctica for a while, and his associates couldn't camp on the Ross Ice Shelf any more because pieces the size of Rhode Island were breaking off; which hadn't happened before. They can't use sled dogs any more because they die of cancer due to the ozone hole down there. Anything left outside now bleaches bone white from the unmasked sun in a matter of days.
Scientists say nitrogen from the car exhausts of LA are fertilizing the Mojave desert just enough that invader grasses grow like crazy during the brief wet season, then dry to crackling paper. Drop a spark, and it burns like dry cotton. I first noticed the grass in 1998: where had it all come from? Apparently it's very recent, along with the disappearance of the California poppies I remember so vividly from visits in the 80s. (They're still around, just scarce.)
It's partly because we've depleted the ground aquifers of the desert (gotta have those golf courses in Palm Springs) so that the whole area is even drier than it was.
It's partly global warming in general. Raising the temperature just a degree and -- boom -- we didn't have spring this year, moved right from May Grey to summer, no cloudy June. The winter rains came late and short in April. Now that water's gone, and everything's so dry. We've been in a drought 9 years, except that 2004-2005 gave us a little extra rain, so the grasses grew like crazy... grasses that are dry tinder now.
It used to be that a lightning-sparked fire in the desert would burn 20 feet or so and die out; the plants were too far apart to catch each other.
Now, there's grass. Simple, ordinary grass. Hard to believe something so humble can tip the scales so much.
So, here we go. The fires are beautiful, gleaming coals in the night that light up the whole sky, which is eerily swathed in red clouds. The fires crown all the mountains and ridgelines with their deadly wonder. The earth is burning in silence, and it's beginning to show in messages too bright to ignore.
But humans being humans, we'll ignore it until it's far more obvious -- we need something like a Dust Bowl to catch our attention.
I'm afraid we're due for more years of fire. I find it beautiful, in an odd way, because the raw elements are beautiful in their magic. But there is no beauty in the ravaged, wounded desert. There are people mourning loved ones and homes and pets and precious places lost forever. The earth is hurting, and we are part of the earth, so we get hurt too.
I went to the desert for peace, for stories, for reconnecting with the divine. But my own experience of what it means to sleep out under the stars is so trivial compared to the massive fires... I can't wrap my head around it all.
I am grateful to my ultra-low-emission vehicle that I'm not adding to one problem, at least, though I know full well I'm not careful enough in many other ways.