In a sense, we are always just barely holding fire off by the throat. We wrestle with it. Fire’s spectral fingers scrabble with our own for the land.
So, on the Fourth of July, one summer when I am small, there are no fireworks. My parents pile us kids in the car in our pajamas anyway and take us out for ice cream. Then the storm begins.
The pine beetle has gnawed the slopes brittle and brown. The endless burrowing into pine trees kills them, tempts the fire to consume. But humans make their roads, too. And dig in hearths and homes. The verdict may come back months from now: “Human-caused.” But like most things, I think it takes an ecosystem.
The fluff of smoke settles on the mountains, like wool on the spikes of a carding brush. A storm can spin the dull haze into gossamer threads, twisting water around particulates of ash, the soul of some burnt forest to be drunk by saplings below.
Colorado is something like a desert. Rain is rare as fireworks and just as terrifyingly beautiful. And because I am in that era of childhood marked by both a fascination with “fun facts” and an awe of fireworks, I know that lightning strikes ground in Colorado half a million times a year, more than most other states. And I know that lightning kills.
Lightning flashes first. Dry halos. Pure. Neon. Phosphorescent. Each flash crowns the dusk-dark mountains in yellow-green.
A friend suggested that what we love most in nature reveals what we believe to be the primary characteristic of God. You might love the eternity of sequoias or the gentleness of the doe to her snow-freckled fawn.
I think of neon halos on the mountains. Perhaps I praise a fearful presence close and wild enough to raise the hair on my neck. Or am I fascinated with love and wrath spun together in rain made from ashy impurities?
Nature heals in beauty. Rain, like pearls, condenses around dirt, robing microscopic beggars in splendor. The bark peeled away from aspen trunks as high as a deer can reach measures long-toothed winter, like the marks a parent makes on a door frame, but gray like a snow drift’s ghost. Mushrooms ring decay like a fungal Stonehenge. Even the scar on my ankle traces my skin like a lacy birch branch. But as long as there have been humans, the property of healing, even “grace,” has been the shared characteristic of gods and gardens. Should we break (or be excused for breaking) that grace may abound? Of course not. We still have to live here, in the nest our action build.
There is a park in Colorado Springs called the Garden of the Gods. The nations who lived here before the city deemed it sacred. They shared the towering rust-red rocks and the emerald creek-nourished brush. Nearby, the land was said to belong to the Scotsman who claimed a homestead.
In my teen years, as an employee of the historic site in the shadow of the red rocks, I worked the soil around the Scotsman’s cabin. I contended with the weeds that choke the shallow irrigation ditches and waged battle with rodents to salvage a few squashes. I don’t know much about the sweat of brows and cursed toil. But the old Garden story of beauty ruined by greed and brothers slain is still going on in the Wild West.
It is oxidizing iron that makes the rocks red, reminding me of iron in blood.
There is a power to everything in the Wild West, an intensity like cloud-charge building. And I wonder why we are permitted to go on spilling blood and destroying gardens? When a forest burns, no roots remain to hold the mountains together. What keeps the mountains that we have stripped from falling in on us?
I am from the Wild West; it is a land of wrestling. Climb the rocks that trap lightning, bouncing and buzzing between boulders, like a bug in a jar. Ride the rivers as they stretch after their still, winter sleep. Look a buffalo in the eye.
I did. I looked a buffalo in the eye in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We came slow around a curve in the road in our car. A herd was crossing, unhurried. I stared through the window into inscrutable, well-dark eyes as large as my fist.
The only divinity in a buffalo is the profound realization that there exists something mighty which is neither me nor mine.
If the nature of the Wild West reveals anything about the nature of divinity, it is that, as in the Garden, there are grave consequences for conquest, but God is patient with wrestling. And like Jacob’s hip and ash-born storms, many wounds are bound with blessing. But for how long and why is mysterious.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.