Sequoias and Fire

Quick Summary: What can we learn from the Sequoia’s embrace of fire?

I recently returned from spending some time amongst the giant Sequoias. I am not the first to feel that being amongst these trees— the largest and oldest trees in the world— is an almost religious experience. There is something reverent about standing next to, and touching, a living tree that is been here since before the Roman Empire.

Sequoia trees are adapted to life in an ecology that regularly burns. The bark of a Sequoia tree is both incredibly thick (up to 24 inches) and especially fire resistant. This makes the giant trees much less susceptible to injury from fire than many of the other plants that surround it.

The trees depend on fire to propagate. Upon being heated, the cones of Sequoias burst open, scattering seeds. A forest floor that has been burned has no leaf litter (which can prevent seedlings from reaching needed soil and water), and is also unusually sunny— allowing the new tree to grow with less competition. These adaptations to fire are so profound, and such a part of the Sequoia lifecycle, that in Sequoia groves where fire has been artificially suppressed by humans, there is a profound lack of young trees. The Sequoias literally need fire to survive.

The need for fire, the requirement of its destructive force in the continuation of life, has profound implications for humans as well. We instinctively shy away from metaphorical fires, from those ostensibly destructive events that leave char in their wake. But the benefits of fire for us, as for Sequoias, are impossible to escape.

Fearing fire and its destructive potential, we suppress it (both literally and metaphorically). While this may work in the short term, in the long term, the lack of fire in an ecology that relies on it leads to numerous negative effects. When it does come, it burns hotter than it should. Its absence allows an unhealthy build-up of debris on the forest floor, choking off the growth of young trees, and impairing the natural cycle of the forest.

Whether out of fear or misunderstanding, we suppress the cleansing “fires,” in our lives. While doing so might make things easier over the short term, over the long-term this allows unhealthy accumulation in our lives. The pine needs in our lives accumulate, choking out growth and setting the stage for catastrophic burns. The fire inevitably comes— this is unavoidable. But we deceive ourselves into thinking we have control. Small infrequent fires burn at a temperature that is not overwhelming, whereas too much accumulated fuel born of fire suppression leads to large, damaging fires. In fact, a huge number of Sequoia trees have died as unnaturally hot fires, born of human fire suppression, have burned artificially hot and overwhelmed the trees’ defenses.

Fire is literally what allows Sequoias to grow. For us, fire (adversity) is also a needed part of growth. And while it may not be pleasant in the moment, it passes, and leaves in its wake a space that is fertile and open— a space in which we can flourish. When we try to control the uncontrollable, to pretend that the world should be a certain way, rather than the way it is, we suffer.

Sequoias are adapted to the world as it is. We might feel that fire shouldn’t happen, or that is is not normal that it happens, or that it is strange that it happens. We might feel that periodic fires are unjust, unfair, or a flaw in the design of the world. The great Sequoia tree though sees fire for what it is— a regular part of life. And rather than fighting this, or developing a strategy that allows it to be consumed by fire, it has developed a strategy for living that takes advantage of this reality. It wraps itself in protective bark to prevent the fire from killing it, and then depends on it for propagation. It accepts the the world environment in which it lives as it is, and then thrives as a result.

How have you been suppressing fire in your life? How do you wrap yourself in thick bark so that when the fire comes, you can withstand the heat? And what open, fertile space might grow in its wake?

-Dr. Justin