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The Furrow and the Fire

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Lodgepole pine seeds require the heat of a forest fire in order to germinate. I learned that as a kid in grade school in Wyoming. Lodgepole pine is common in the state.

I thought of this recently when the Black Fire burned over 300,000 acres in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. The designated Wilderness is in the Black Range, thus the name. The eastern edge of the fire crept within thirty miles of the town where I currently live.

The Aldo Leopold Wilderness is often considered the “wildest wilderness” in New Mexico. It’s rugged and remote and because of this fire crews opted to contain fire rather than fight it directly. It would have been folly to send crews into the wilderness to face the fire head-on. Best to contain the beast and pray the summer monsoons arrived early than usual.

And so they did. The monsoons came and quelled the flames. They also caused flash flooding. Creeks overflowed with ash and mud. It’s all part of the natural cycle.

I thought about all this after praying the Rosary. I do this each morning before dawn. It’s a good way to start the day.

I had just finished meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries, beginning with the Garden of Gethsemane and ending at the Crucifixion.

When it came to the decade of contemplating Jesus carrying the Cross, I pictured a furrow scratched into the earth by the base of the cross as Jesus dragged it to Golgotha.

Furrows are most often associated with farming. Seeds are sown in furrows, covered in soil, and allowed to germinate, take root, and grow. If all goes well, a crop is harvested in the fall.

I wondered about the furrow scratched into the earth by the base of Jesus’ Cross. It was fertilized by the blood and tears of our Savior. And it was Jesus himself who planted the seed. The seed of Life. The fact that the answer was so obvious made it no less profound.

The heat of Christ’s Passion germinated the seed. Nothing less would do. Nothing more can be imagined. Christ died that we humans – doomed to die – might live. Men and women sentenced to death are allowed to harvest the crop and partake of the Bread of Life. And yet many, far too many, turn their back on the feast.

Several years ago I backpacked down Mineral Creek near the town of Glenwood, New Mexico. In 2012, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire raged through the area, so it was rough going. There was no trail left. Charred tree trunks littered the forest floor. Boulders the size of VW bugs had been carried by raging floodwaters down burn-scarred canyons and spewed into the valley below.

There were no fish in the creek. They had been choked to death on ash or boiled alive as the fire raged. I imagined the inferno burning as I walked.

It was hot. I was black with ash from crawling over and under fallen trees. My ankles hurt from picking my way across boulder fields. The creek water was clear. I spotted some insects flitting about on top of the water. New growth – flowers, grasses, and seedling pine – were popping up everywhere. Birdsong. Life was making its way back into what had been a valley of death.

As a kid, I witnessed similar things. Lodgepole pine seedlings sprouting on burn scars. The natural cycle.

St. Thomas demonstrated that God’s existence can be known through the intellect alone. Observing the natural rhythms of nature over the years has been enough for me to conclude that God must necessarily exist. For others, it’s not so easy. Yet still, it can be done.

But St. Thomas was careful not to go too far. Knowing that God must exist is worlds away from knowing God. The mystery that is God is best approached through prayer and adoration. Sometimes, God-willing, while walking through the forest, it all connects: the drama of nature and the Passion of Christ are innately related.

In other words, God is always close for those with eyes to see.

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