We’ve been smelling smoke for weeks down here in South Florida. Too long of a dry season has turned our brush to tinder, and lightning strikes, for which we are a world leader, seem to prove that Mother Nature is a pyro at heart when they don’t come along with the typical afternoon showers. Hundreds of acres have blackened, and homes have been destroyed.
We are lucky enough that we are surrounded by concrete block and carefully controlled vegetation, and we’ve never been in danger of the fires. But we are close enough that our hair smells like we’ve been b-b-q-ing when all we’ve done is walk the dog, and we remark on the cloudy day, when in fact, the sun is simply obscured by the smoke that lingers over us.
The first book signing I had for Catching Genius was at Sarasota News and Books, a great independent owned by the Foley family. It’s about an hour and a half north of us, and I, being the gal I am, left plenty of time to get there. It’s a good thing I did. The fires shut south bound Interstate 75 down, then one lane north bound, then the whole interstate entirely.
I was lucky enough to be in the last lane left open north bound, just long enough to make it all the way on the interstate, but slowed to a crawl because of the fires. I’d never been that close to a brush fire before. It came right up to the edge of the road, flames licked out across the interstate, right next to my window. Traffic wasn’t crawling just because people were rubbernecking, we were all also trying to avoid the animals.
Rabbits, snakes, frogs, rats, and mice were fleeing the fires, and the only place they had to go was across the interstate. They were all on the road at once, hopping, running, slithering right next to each other, paying no mind to their natural enemies fleeing right beside them.
I have to imagine that they looked at us as simply another, large, shiny species trying to get out of harm’s way and taking our chances just like them. I am sure I must have hit a few of the smaller ones. What else could I do but sit there and be engulfed myself?
I’ve been as fascinated with fire as any other mortal soul over the years. I’ve gazed at fireplace fires for hours, watching the flames change color and size, merge and divide, eat away at logs in great chunks or little nibbles, none of it ever predictable.
But I’ve never been enraptured by it. I’ve never lit matches, one after the other, and let them burn to my fingertips just to see a flame. I’ve never driven, or walked, or kept the TV on just to watch something burn. I’ve never set a small, controllable fire in anything but a fireplace or campground pit, just to study it. And I’ve never thought it might be fun to squirt a lot of lighter fluid on a charcoal grill to see how big a “whoof” we could manage.
Two weeks ago I once again ventured north on I-75, Florida’s main interstate and one I’ve been traveling on since I was a toddler. Those areas were char, blackened palms and live oaks, most of the scrub burned away. But, amazingly, there was already fresh new green. New palm fronds were poking out and fanning. Grass was sprouting. There were even wildflowers.
Now that, I could be enraptured by. That is the miracle, not the flame.
In Sandra Kring’s wonderful novel The Book of Bright Ideas, she writes about the red pine, whose cone won’t release its seeds until a wildfire makes it burst open. Mother Nature may well be a pyro, and she cares little for our homes and our possessions, but she is genius, and she eventually returns what she takes, and it is made all the more beautiful for its short absence.
This week she sent rain, and we no longer smell smoke when we walk the dog, and homeowners are allowed back to their property, and I imagine the animals are making the treacherous pilgrimage back across the interstate to inspect their new habitat. I hope all those who must start anew can find something beautiful from the devastation. If Mother Nature can rebuild, so can we.
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