Fire and Ice

A hundred shades of green flushing across the trees, an errant yellow daffodil, pink and white blossoming fruits – the colors of spring are as delicate as they are welcome. Little wonder, then, that a primary celebration of spring – the Christian festival of Easter – should be a season of pastels. Easter baskets, dyed eggs, little girls’ dresses, greeting cards and candies are awash in lilac and lemon, baby-cheek pink, soft peach and plum.

Even those who don’t celebrate Easter as a religious occasion enjoy the profusion of new life it heralds, the verdant growth and wash of color after the long, monotoned winter. It’s always fun to track the seasons as they saunter about the country and Spring is especially interesting, walking hand-in-hand as she does with a companion called “seasonal jealousy” – the anguished longing of still-snowbound folk forced to watch their more-southerly friends luxuriate in the rising warmth.


But spring is more complex than luscious color and delicate growth. A time of transition, it also brings destruction, the inevitable result of implacable, colliding forces. Winter refuses to yield. Spring will not be denied. Tornados, ice jams, flooding and hail result and become the breaking news of the day.  This year, Texas added fire to the mix, a deadly consequence of the same extended drought which eliminated so many of the state’s celebrated bluebonnets.

With friends living both in Canada and across Texas’ drought-stricken plains, it’s been impossible not to think of this year’s spring as a season of fire and ice. Extraordinarily late thaws and extraordinarily early drought are a strange combination, one that evokes Robert Frost’s famous juxtaposition.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I’ve always admired Frost’s poem, its imagery and economy of expression. Still, in the context of natural disasters Frost’s particular mix of ice-and-fire feels somehow bloodless, lacking a sense of the silent, almost imperceptibly dripping icicles that foretell unleashed, creaking and groaning rivers or the cellophane-like crackling of embers taking root among the grasses, waiting to explode without warning into a maelstrom of hellish blooms.


For a different view of ice and its implications for fire, I’ve been enjoying the work of Science Essayist Meera Lee Sethi, whose poem Null and Void I noticed and then forgot, until fires began to burn across Texas.

Null and Void

It is in the nature of ice
to be always on the verge
of giving in. Steel stays steel
for thousands of degrees,
defending its solidity
against exquisite heat
—though whether this is
stalwart or just stubborn,
none can say.
But ice, like you
or I, stands a hair’s breadth
from its reverse. A trifling
bit of warmth is all it takes
to change what seemed
so hard into the paragon
of softness; what was once
resolute of shape becomes
a sycophant that yields
like butter to the management
of mere containers. Sorry
are the thoughts
that prickle ice while
it is melting: all its qualities
disbanding into what
it feared the most.
There is
not cold enough on Earth
to keep ice safe
from water.

As for ice, so for fire.  Fire, too, “stands a hair’s breadth from its reverse” just as the hardest structure, the hardiest tree stand in the face of fire only moments away from the softness of ash. Only the foolish or inexperienced fail to take note and wonder – is there water enough in the skies to save the earth from fire? In Texas just now the answer is “No”, and until rains come only the skill and determination of firefighters, the ability of communities to band together in mutual aid and a dollop of luck will provide defense.  Anyone who’s witnessed the threat understands. Nothing less will do.

Tonight, on this soft spring evening, there are places where the battle has been won, at least temporarily. In the Davis mountains of far west Texas, the fires were unearthly, both beautiful and terrifying, but the McDonald Observatory is safe. In Palo Pinto County, an entire town which undertook evacuation has survived. Writing for France24, Gary Reynolds describes the scene in Palo Pinto City:

The entire population of the town had less than two hours to evacuate after the order was given. The town’s natural gas had to be shut down immediately, so utility workers were rushing to close all of the gas points. It was incredible to see the community rally together – villagers, local volunteers, police – to help everyone get out in a safe and orderly way. People lent their vehicles and trucks to those who had none, neighbours helped each other gather their cattle and livestock, which had to be evacuated too.

The practical courage of the townspeople and the deeply touching bravery of the firefighters was joined by luck.  The winds shifted and carried the fire away.

Others were not so lucky.  Near Strawn and San Angelo, in Presido and Jeff Davis counties and in the Possum Kingdom area, much has given in to the force of the fire, leaving little more than acrid whiffs of memory and the softness of ash. In Cedar Springs, which has no springs but which did have an abundance of flammable cedar, even the tiny United Methodist Church is gone.

Erected in 1898 after years of worship in homes and brush arbors,  the congregation currently is pastored by the Rev. Jim Senkel, a fellow who gained some wildfire experience in 2005 when a similar fire consumed the building belonging to his congregation at Cross Plains United Methodist Church, not to mention 116 homes and 7,500 acres in Callahan County.

That fire was in December. On New Year’s day the congregation met for worship in the parking lot of the burned-out church. During Rev. Senkel’s sermon, one of the remaining church walls crashed to the ground, and during the closing prayer fire engines shrieked their way to yet another fire. Looking at the photos of the Cedar Springs church, it occurs to me: at least this time they’ll not have to worry about walls collapsing.  Whether they’ll have to contend with more fire engines remains to be seen.

What’s certain is that, with or without accompanying sirens, the community will continue to gather. They’ll gather in the churches, of course, but they’ll also be gathering in the feed stores and gas stations, over fences and over coffee, with old friends and with strangers who’ve become friends through necessity and circumstance.  Tearful, resigned, resolute or weary, they’ll do together what each of us often does instinctively – take a deep breath, decide what comes next and move on.

Like fire, like ice, they may feel on the verge of yielding, but it’s not in their nature to give in.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.  Some additional links of interest are included here:
Video ~ The 2005 Cross Plains Fire Aftermath
Blog ~ Sage to Meadow, Field Notes on the Possum Kingdom Wildfire Complex
Texas Forest Service ~
Wildfire Updates
Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm  Comments (36)  
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36 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Linda:

    Loved your juxtaposition of the opposites of fire and ice. We are most fortunate in Panama for not having to suffer the horrors of both weather extremes.

    My heart feels for those enduring from the excesses of the elements. My memories are still fresh regarding the destructive fires in California, Mexico, Greece and Australia.

    But as you said, you have to turn the page and move on. Resiliency is a good word to have under the pillow.

    Love your words, scenery, pictures and just about everything you do in your blog. Thank you for the joy of reading good literature.

    Best Regards,

    Omar.-

    • Omar,

      Fortunate you are – although from what I’ve seen, you’ve had more than your share of rain in the past year.

      Extremes of any sort are difficult. I must say, I’m able to deal with hurricanes relatively well at this point. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly eases the anxieties. Fire is a different critter. Each time it happens I’m overwhelmed by the courage of the firefighters, particularly in the firestorms.

      And you’re right about resiliancy – and flexibility. I once knew a fellow who said, “Anyone’s not flexible, they’re dead”. ;-)

      Thank you so much for your kind words – and Happy Easter!

      Linda

  2. Your observation about the community continuing to gather reminded me of some of the images we have been seeing from Japan. I was especially touched by a report that folks who had lost everything they owned and were consigned to a large shelter were sorting waste so that it could be recycled. Whatever had happened to them, they still wanted to make the best of their future. It’s the message, as you said, of Easter, the spring holiday in this hemisphere: life arising from death.

    • charlespaolino,

      When I was younger and viewed life rather differently, I tended to confuse “small and hidden” with “insignificant”. No more. I’ve seen too much beauty and grace in the lives of ordinary people, too much willingness to serve without recompense or recognition. Well, and not to put too fine a point on it, too much life arising from death – sometimes to the surprise of bystanders and sometimes to their chagrin.

      As to the message itself, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt us to remember a somewhat Faulkner-esque assertion from Miss Flannery O’Connor: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

      Happy Easter!

  3. Linda, what a beautifully structured (and compelling) post. I’ve always found brushfires an object of fascination—so many deadly things are beautiful.

    • Meera,

      Given what I’ve seen of your work, I’m not surprised you focused on the structure of the post, and the fact that you found it well done pleases me immensely.

      This was such an enjoyable project – thanks again for allowing use of your poem!

      Linda

      • It’s truly a pleasure to have contributed a tiny part to the whole you ended up creating, Linda. And your broad, compassionate perspective here—on science, the earth, and human lives—moved me deeply.

  4. Can you imagine being given only two hours to evacuate? The thought of it sends chills up my spine.

    I always marvel and find comfort in how people come together, and how a sense of cooperation surfaces during difficult times. We have this extraordinary ability to reach out and lift each other up at times like this.

    Spring brings hope and hope springs eternal.
    My best to you and your mother on this Easter, Linda.
    Bella

    • Bella,

      I suspect that, as conditions edge toward critical and red flag warnings begin to be issued, people facing fire respond as folks in hurricane evacuation zones do. That is, they prepare. They know where their papers are, they’ve made arrangements for animals, they know where they’re going, and so on.

      Like you, I find hope and comfort in these stories, and not a little inspiration. No one hopes for difficult circumstances, but it’s a fact that people often discover themselves far more capable and courageous than they ever imagined possible when they have to deal with the worst life has to offer.

      A happy Easter to you – I suspect you’re still resting up a bit from all that traveling!

      Linda

  5. Thankfully (though not in some cases, like MTR), it is not in our (human) nature to give in.

    And I always find it ironic when churches are burned, toppled, stripped and otherwise destroyed. Are all not aware of the sacredness of such places? Certainly not Ms Nature and the random occurence of disasters, overall. Last night, the roof of a humble, hardy little church was lifted, tossed and trashed by a tornado in St Louis. The pews, left twisted, drenched and deranged gaped through the roofless church at the churning skies. You wonder where the homeless left by the twister are to take sanctuary. Or maybe churches are torn asunder to test their everlastingness.

    We are rightfully terrified by the scourge and devastation of fires. I will pay more attention to dry Texas as we are soaked and saturated here in the Midwest. Weird how it all seems out of balance somehow, sometimes, don’t you think?

    Onward. Our spirits lift upward and onward.

    • oh,

      I’m afraid I have to admit my ignorance and ask – MTR? Usually I can figure out the acronyms of the world with the help of Google and/or the Urban Dictionary, but this one has me stumped. Since I don’t text, my acronym vocabulary’s pretty limited. LOL, of course. And, bbl, IMHO and ttl. Occasionally ROFLMAO. But MTR? I’m sure I’ll roll my eyes at the obviousness when I find out.

      When humans are involved, defacement or destruction of places of worship is one thing. It has to do with hatred, resentment and sometimes a desire to play God. But tornados? Fire? Hurricane or flood? All reminders that even the churches are established in the world, and no one gets a free pass. From time to time, it’s not even bad to contemplate a photograph like that of the Cedar Springs’ pillars among the ashes to remind us: a church is just a building, but a community’s the Church.

      I must say – now that the photos and videos of Lambert and the surrounding area are available, they’re just as compelling and just as distressing as anything from the fire zones. Picking through the rubble’s never easy, no matter the cause.

      But yes – onward. And a Happy Easter to you!

      Linda

  6. It’s certainly a troubled spring we’ve been having… natural catastrophes and man-made crisis, wars, tensions. All the more that we need the confirmation and promise of the Easter message. (BTW, Frost’s poem sounds like a prophetic voice.) One just cannot lift oneself up off the ground. We do need divine intervention.

    Thank you for thinking about me, your Canadian friend, who indeed has been going through droughts (metaphorically) and ice, literally, on top of snow storms even in April. However, we’ve got the worst behind us now and it’s glorious sunshine and double digit temp. this Easter Sunday. I always remind myself that, without the deep winter, we would not appreciate spring. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • Arti,

      I have to remind myself that you live in the celsius world and “double digit” necessarily means above freezing. I know a couple of farenheit folks who were just as thrilled to get into double digits this year, but in their case it meant something like 12F. At least today you’ll be having sunshine and real warmth – a lovely way to begin the Easter season.

      Just this weekend a friend who still is recovering from a stroke told me about her experience of trying to read a price tag on a bottom shelf in a store. She lost her balance and ended up sitting on the floor, unable to get up. Had it not been for a teenager down the aisle, she might be there still.

      She says she’s always laughed at those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials, being an independent sort and able to function without assistance. No more. She also mentioned that actually asking for help was the hardest part of the experience. Isn’t that always the case?

      And now you’ve given me something to ponder. Both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds proclaim that Jesus “rose from the dead”, with at least the implication that he did it under his own power. I seem to remember other texts being translated “was raised” – quite a different thing. I guess I’m going to have to put the issue on my to-do list!

      In any event, the Easter proclamation holds, however phrased, and spring is coming at last. Enjoy every minute of it!

      Linda

      • “APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
        Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
        Memory and desire, stirring
        Dull roots with spring rain.”

        — The Waste Land

        I’ve just finished reading the book The Archivist by Martha Cooley, based on TSE’s secret relationship with Emily Hale. Intriguing read… I’m sure you’ll be interested.

        As for the different connotation regarding “was raised” and “rose”… if we adopt the concept of the Trinity, these two notions could well be interchangeable.

        Thanks for all the thoughts.

        Arti

        • Arti,

          You’ll want to read the comments on Bellezza’s red Easter egg post. I was amazed to see someone else posting re: the “raised/rose” issue. Really, so interesting, as well as being another reminder of the limitations of language.

          Remember Wittgenstein? “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”. So true.

          Linda

        • Linda,

          Just to let you know I’ve put in my two cents regarding the “was raised/rose” discussion on Bellezza’s post. Thanks for the prompting.

          Arti

  7. What a beautiful post, Linda, and I love the comparison between fire and ice, as, indeed, both can be rather destructive.

    Our local mountains have truly had an abundance of snow this year – they say skiing through the July 4th weekend. Can you imagine? And now we have had enough rain to pull us out of our drought, and the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada range is at 200%. Amazing. Now Texas is hot and dry. We just had rain again today, but they say nice weather is in our future. We’ve had nice, then rain, then nice, then rain, like no other winter/spring I can remember.

    Once again, a beautiful read and one I can relate to with all the California fires we have experienced, yet nothing personally – thankfully!

    • Karen,

      My first truly personal connection to fire was the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991. It was ten years after I’d left Berkeley, but I still had friends in the area, and some lost their homes. Now, every time the Santa Anas start to blow I worry about you & the other SoCals.

      I was thinking about the Station Fire and Mt. Wilson when they were working to protect the McDonald Observatory. Thank goodness both were saved.

      I first read your “200%” figure as 20%. That really is astonishing. You (and the lift operators) have to be smiling pretty broadly, with the drought ended and the sun shining. Enjoy it! And thanks so much for stopping by!

      Linda

  8. The extremes of ice and fire can certainly be terrifying…

    Juliet
    Crafty Green poet

    • Juliet,

      And then there are those other extremes that don’t frighten so much as astonish. I’m thinking of my 3 a.m. mockingbird who seems to have an inexhaustible will to sing – for hours. There are times he’s still going at dawn. I think you’d like him!

      Linda

  9. Linda: Tremendous post! Just so detailed. You’ve brought up facts I did not know about the fires up here. Thank you for your comments on my blog and the links you have provided. We’ve another Extreme Fire Weather warning for Friday! Frankly, I don’t know what to expect with the rains we’ve had, but there is still dry grass about. We’ve put off any plans to go into Fort Worth to do errands.

    I’ve finally subscribed to your blog and got it on my bloglist. Pretty stressed up here from a variety of things that I intend to write about. Not the best of semesters at all.

    • Jack,

      Thank you for your kind words. One of the wonders of story-telling of any sort, particularly when the stories are told around actual events, is that there’s always another perspective, another detail. I didn’t appreciate that truth until recent years, but it certainly helps to explain those family dinners when someone would say, “Remember when…?” and then the rest of the meal would be spent contesting versions of what really happened when that ‘coon treed Uncle Jack. Or whatever.

      We’ve still had not a bit of rain, although some fell north of Houston as a result of the same system that brought you relief. Even without wildfires, there are consequences. Refineries and chemical plants in Texas City shut down recently because of power loss, and it was discovered to be collected salt on the system. Residential and business customers are experiencing the same thing, so the power companies are out washing down the lines, etc.

      I enjoy your blog tremendously. I tend to be a “let’s look for the silver lining” sort, so I can’t help noting that without the fires I probably wouldn’t have found it. Glad I did, and I’m glad to have you as a subscriber.

      Linda

  10. I read this first when I didn’t have time to reply. Reading again today, after the terrible storms in Alabama and elsewhere, there is little to say except for how deeply my heart grieves for so very many whose lives are turned upside down at the whim of something over which they have no control. These weather ills have come dangerously close to those I know (and you, too).

    Your words are, as always, expressive and offer much food for thought. Perhaps the best — your observation that they may feel like yielding, but it isn’t in their nature to give in. So true.

    • jeanie,

      Sometimes I think the horror we feel in the face of extreme weather is rooted in the lack of control you mention. Since the tornado outbreak, I’ve heard so many people ask, “Why didn’t people go to shelters?” “Why didn’t they prepare better?”

      The questions have a “blame the victim” edge to them, but I don’t think that’s the intent. I suspect people simply are trying to come to terms with the fact that sometimes we’re not in control, and the forces of the universe can be exceedingly arbitrary in their effects.

      As for yielding – I remember a tv reporter interviewing a fellow in Galveston after Ike. The reported asked, “How in the world can this be cleaned up?” The man said, “One board at a time.”

      Linda

  11. I think I have read through the story and the comments. From your header I assumed you were referring to not just Robert Frost’s poem but this also.

    • Ken,

      Actually, I’d never heard of either the book or the author until just now. I read the link – interesting thesis. I can’t speak to his portrayal of Canadian society – like most in the US, I know far too little of your country. I do think his description of the US is both wrong and right. Much has changed since 2003, of course – for good or for ill. Still, he has the broad outline right.

      I was going to add a comment about the rising tide of political correctness in both countries, but decided against it. I’m still irritated by yesterday’s news that Oxford academics say phrases like “sly as a fox” are demeaning to animals, and that “critter” should no longer be used. That sort of thing is becoming more prevalent in both our countries.

      Here I stand, I suppose. I’ll defend to the death my right to use “critter”, not to mention any of the other phrases they disapprove. The diminishment of language benefits no one.

      I wonder if the phrase “dumb as a rock” still is acceptable? ;-)

      Linda

  12. We use descriptions like: “Strong like a bull, smart like dumptruck”; “Smart as a bag of hammers” and “Couldn’t pour __ (excreted fluids) from a boot if the instructions were on the heel”. Language evolves whatever Oxford academics rule but I find many old expressions entertaining and colorful.
    (My spell check has also evolved: Watch this: Through / thru , lite / light , neighbour / neighbor ).

    We used to call the wild fires here “Forest fire”. One of these years we will get our moment in the spotlight. Seasoned Foresters say the only likely scenerio for the future of our mass of “Pine Beetle Kill” fuel is fire. Well, that or another round of glaciation.

    • Ken,

      Some areas of Texas could, indeed, have “forest fires”, but much of the state’s unforested and “wildfire” does better. Sometimes “grass fire” is more appropriate, although I grew up thinking of a grass fire as what happens in a roadside ditch, not a conflagration that consumes thousands of acres.

      I don’t use language as well as I hope to one day, but I certainly see no value in constraining people’s use of it. I’m no philosopher, either, but I love the quotation from Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”.

      Linda

  13. Where I live, tornado watches seem to be more and more like the default weather report. On two occasions, after a great night’s sleep, I’ve been told by people who stayed up all night worrying that tornadic activity passed over where I live but didn’t touch down.

    I think it’s wise to check in with media now and again during a tornado watch, but this week, when it lasted all night and into the early morning, I just figured the odds were that we’d be safe and we went to sleep.

    I think this is the best we can do:

    Do our part in taking care of the environment.

    Keep informed without staying glued to a TV all night because of a chance of a tornado touching down exactly where we live. This is much less likely than getting in an auto accident driving to work without any sleep.

    Help those who are hurting after a weather disaster hits.

    • claudia,

      There does come a point where we have to accept the limitations inherent in life. My mother, for example, lives on the third floor of her building, as do I. There is no basement, and even if there were somewhere to go, she’s so frail and so slow any tornado would be three counties over before we got down the stairs.

      As she says, “I’m 93 years old. I should worry about a tornado? If a tornado kills me I won’t have to spend months or years in a nursing home.”
      Mom’s pretty practical.

      The one investment I’m going to make is a weather radio that will wake me in the middle of the night. And if things look really bad the cat sleeps in her condo, so I don’t have to try and catch her in the middle of the night with a storm bearing down.

      Take care, keep informed, help. That’s it, in a nutshell.

      Linda

  14. This essay reminded me of another post you did (“Galveston Rising”), in which you described the community’s creative responses to Hurricane Ike. I’d never given much thought to the variety of natural calamities that find their way to Texas, but reading your blog has helped me understand how numerous — and devastating — they are.

    You’ve also reminded me that the people who endure these events always find a way to recover and rebuild. There’s a source of strength there that can never be burned up, blown away, drowned, or broken. It’s inspiring, and I know you’ll keep writing about it.

    • bronxboy,

      Can you see me grinning? At this point I’d sooner be writing about the difference between a pond and a stock tank, or those French Impressionist paintings in town or the reason God made lemon chiffon pie possible. As long as the meteorological version of the Four Horsemen keeps roaming around, I guess I’ll have to put all that off a bit.

      The fact is that disasters of any kind are compelling, and the ability of people to (in Faulkern’s words) endure and prevail in the face of them is equally compelling. In ordinary times, the cynics, the whiners and the professionally bored seem to get all the pub, but when real life knocks and says, “Here I am”, there’s nothing more inspiring than watching people who are willing to open the door and say, “Come on in. Let’s talk.”

      And by the way – all of that applies on a personal level, too. Your current post about your brother and your family’s way of coping is just as inspiring.

      Linda

  15. Lovely pictures, colours, and post!

    • Damyanti,

      Thanks so much! And how nice of you to stop by – I’ve been following along as you finished up the A-Z challenge, and know how busy you’ve been. Wonderful writing!

      Linda

  16. Just going through older posts of yours to in a catch up, Linda, and came across this one, which reminds me of the devastation of bush fires (as they’re called) back in Australia.

    • Andrew,

      For so long, Australia was little more to me than kangaroos and funny accents. One of the great benefits of blogging – and of the internet generally – is that it helps make us move from stereotypes to realities.

      All it takes now is one internet image search for “Australian bushfires”, and a person can get educated, fast.

      Linda


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