I am mesmerized by what foresters call prescribed burns — as though a doctor somewhere pulled out a little white pad and scribbled on it, “Set fire to the woods.” There is something magical in how the forest floor is turned from brown to black by the orange wand of combustion, how the low-lying smoke lingers for days, how fine is the soot of the footprints I make after venturing in a few steps.
The woods along my road were burned off a few months ago. The short flames crept along the floor of the forest, rapid and silent, like a soldier crawling toward a target. They consumed the brittle pine needles from last year’s shedding and left with only singe on the vines and grass and trees that still run with sap.
The fire left tall pine trees with black aprons and turned fallen limbs into large, oddly-shaped licorice sticks. It revealed the topography of the land, like a sheared sheep is left surprisingly skinny. Without the insulation of the underbrush, the calls of the hawks, the quail, the woodpeckers echoed from one side of the road to the other and the squirrels and rabbits went from being nothing more than the rustling of dried leaves to the flashes of brown and gray fur.
And the trees. The trees looked taller and wider in the emptiness of the ground in which they were rooted. Pine trees in the coastal plain are watchmen, sentinels, sentries. They are Beefeaters in their tall hats and sharp swords, immovable and unassailable.
A few weeks after the burn, on Father’s Day, the electricity on our road went out. One of the trees, the immovable and unassailable trees, had collapsed across the road and taken out a power line. The lengths of cable fell in coils, soft circles of deadly invisibility.
The lunch I was making for Daddy and my brother went uncooked as the men in bucket trucks made their way to the fallen soldier, raising and tossing him to the side before restoring our connection to the grid, all while I wondered if the fire had killed the tree.
I went walking later that afternoon. The road was tattooed with bucket truck tire treads and the flat footprints of work boots. In the ditch lay the tree, the broken end stuck into the air, splintered like jack-o-lantern teeth, its heart splayed open for all the world to see.
I stopped for a moment to stare at the tree, its broken limbs and huge pieces of bark that had flaked off in the fall. If I had wondered whether the fire had something to do with the falling of the tree, staring into the exposed trunk answered the question. The tall, majestic watchman was dead long before it hit the power lines, weeks and probably months before it thudded to the ground. The tree had rotted from the inside out. The fire had only provided the push.
Just like so many people. Men and women who, like the tree, stand tall and proud, who proclaim with no small amount of fanfare that they are invincible. People who convince others to depend upon them, to give them control based upon what looks like strength and stability. People who, all the while, are dying on the inside, whose spirits have failed, whose hearts are decayed.
When something, like a prescribed burn, comes sweeping through their forests they will always, always, always fall.
I don’t know what destroys the inside of a tree, but I know well what eats up the heart of a man, the spirit of a woman. It is lethargy and selfishness. It is disloyalty and pride. It is believing that one cannot fall. And finding, far too late, that a prescribed burn is on its way.