Charlie and I traveled through Yellowstone National Park last year. It’s an amazing trip; if you’ve never been, please go. Your kids – and you – deserve to see the true grandeur of nature, and Yellowstone obliges in that respect.
We took the “Grand Loop,” stopping to explore the “Grand Canyon” of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, and (of course!) the Geyser Basin and Old Faithful. Traveling toward Mammoth, we passed by hillsides scarred by charred and blackened trees, victims of the 1988 fire that torched nearly 800,000 acres in the park. 1988! That was more than 20 years earlier, and these giant, blackened beacons still stood as testament to the destruction.
I was fascinated by the stark shapes and how they dominated the landscape. Oddly uneasy, I envisioned how the fire had ended life and left the earth barren. A terrible ending, I thought.
I was wrong, of course, for it was not so much an ending as a beginning. With a little investigation, I discovered that fire – destruction – plays an integral role in making sure life endures and is healthy. It prepares the soil and cycles nutrients, its heat allows pinecones to open and the seeds to escape, it provides conditions that favor wildlife, it diversifies age classes and vegetation, it thins out older trees before insects or disease can get a foothold, and, yes, it actually reduces fire hazards by consuming materials that might fuel yet another fire.
Sure, the fires in 1988 devoured acre upon acre of forest, but they also allowed the tightly closed pinecones to open and disperse their seeds toward the ground, where they landed on actual mineral soil (courtesy of the fire’s elimination of the forest “chaff” and brush). And, because that mineral soil had been heated, it was changed in such a way that allowed those seeds to be covered by a few millimeters of soil, which, in turn, promoted germination.
Although the 1988 fires ignited dire predictions for the future of Yellowstone and its wildlife, just the opposite occurred. More than 20 years afterward, Aspen seedlings have expanded their range into cleared acreage, and young lodgepole pines have sprouted from seeds dispersed by torched trees. As we drove closer, we saw that the barren land was not so barren after all. There was life, and plenty of it.
I think there’s a serious lesson in there. And it’s why I no longer believe in endings, only in beginnings. I think that within every ending is the seed, however small, of something new, different, and fresh. Like any seed, it needs nourishment and sunlight, a little water and reasonable temperatures. In return, that tiny nugget germinates, sprouts, and grows into something we may never have expected. Voila! A beginning, and not an ending at all.
To be sure, we are human. And as humans, we can choose to be great stewards, to offer perfect growing conditions so that seed germinates, sprouts, and grows into something we may never have expected. But we can just as easily choose to neglect it, to trample the ground, withhold life-giving water and shortchange the richness of the soil. Oh, there’s still something new, something different, but it’s not nearly so large and wonderful as what could have been.
So if you’re on the edge of something that seems to be ending, try lifting your eyes to whatever’s waiting in the wings. What looks like an ending may well be, once the fire burns down, a new beginning. Sometimes those flaming, burning crashes lead to some new purpose, some new adventure that we might never have imagined but for the moments that masquerade as an ending.
Like the mythical phoenix, there’s always something new that arises. It’s how we nurture it that makes the difference.