When I worked for the MN Conservation Corps, my crew was trained to fight wildfires. One day in May, when we were staffing for fire in the northern MN town of Tower, were assigned to our first fire. All the training, all the waiting, and finally we were driving toward a small fire in a group of red pines near a new development. The fire was less than an acre, but we didn’t care. We were just proud to be getting some soot on our clean, rookie fireproof shirts. Our job was to head in with hoses and tools and spray out remaining flames and douse any hotspots. This is called “mop-up,” and it can be a tedious process.
I quickly learned that there is so much more to fire than open flame. Even after all visible flames were out, the fire burned deep in the roots of trees and reached hot fingers into the earth.
Our crew was being mentored by a seasoned local firefighter named Ron. After two full days mopping up the fire, he took us back to the site again. The forest floor was charred and black, torn up by our thorough work digging at stumps and roots, looking for heat. All appeared to be quiet, but Ron knew better. He told us scatter around the area and kneel down. He said to engage all our senses and just wait. We were looking for smoke: little puffers that might tell of a hidden hotspot underground or tangled in the roots of some tree.
Sitting in the still forest, trying to be fully aware and present, we fell into a meditative silence. It didn’t seem possible that after scouring the area for two days that any fire could still remain. And yet after a few minutes of quiet, I caught the scent of something besides the smell of wet ash: smoke. The different smells were barely distinguishable from each other, and if I hadn’t been focused and still, I might’ve missed it. It took me several moments of staring at the ground and sniffing around me to spot the little puff of white smoke curling up from a black stump about ten feet away.
I feel like my struggle with my autoimmune disease has begun to mirror this story. Along with the medication my doctor prescribed, I’ve been eating a strict healing diet for nine months now and used the big foundations of diet, sleep, and stress management to quash the open flames of rheumatoid arthritis. There have been some great improvements and some setbacks, the most recent being a discouraging flare up of inflammation in my joints. I feel as though I am walking through the blackened pine stand again, looking for the missing piece. It might not be an obvious flame, but instead is like a puff of smoke or a pocket of hidden heat deep in the moss. I need to get quiet, kneel down, and engage all my senses to find where and why the fire still smolders.