The wildfires of 2020 were hard to ignore. When the pandemic removed many of our day-to-day activities, everything about nature felt harder to ignore.
I suddenly found myself paying attention to things like the exact sunrise and sunset times, the cycles of the moon and all kinds of other things that were such an important part of our lives a few centuries ago. With limitations on most indoor activities, life would start and stop based on seasonal patterns and weather.
On top of that, 2020 turned out to be one of North America’s most active wildfire seasons and probably the most active one on record for the Western U.S.
Not only did the wildfires burn all over the West from California to Colorado, but at times, the smoke from some of the closer fires along with strong winds produced ominous clouds that occupied the horizon.
It was as if mother nature was making a statement that we were no longer to go about our lives ignoring her.
While fires were exceptionally strong last year, fires are a normal part of life in drier areas like Western North America. It is now scientifically accepted that surpassing wildfires was one of the worst environmental mistakes ever made, as it only lead to more dangerous fires later on. Places getting burned by a wildfire from time to time is just a part of life here. A section of forest burns. Then, it grows back.
One of the worst wildfires of the 2020 season occurred in Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming, in the Medicine Bow National Forest. With any catastrophic and disruptive event, we tend to pay attention to it while it is happening. Some, more aware and empathetic people may even pay attention to the aftermath for a little while. However, the news cycle will eventually focus on other things. This does not mean the impacts are done.
The wilderness, scorn from being scorched for over a month does not care that people desire to camp there 10 months later.
It makes for an interesting camping trip, one where it is almost impossible not to feel like one of those people that gawks at an accident while driving by. It certainly felt weird to set up a fire.
Seeing this section of the Medicine Bow National Forest still scorched reminded me of almost anyone who goes through something in life. It’s what happens after someone loses a loved one, gets divorced, has a major accident, loses a job or suffers some other major trauma or setback. Months, and often years later, they are not the same. Much like the Medicine Bow National Forest in July 2021, they are still dealing with the aftermath.
Seeing the forest, I can’t help but think about those I know who have been through and are going through a process like this one. One could argue that with the continuing impacts of COVID-19, we are all going through something of this nature. How everything will turn out seems to be an area of ongoing debate with major cultural significance for current and future events.
Do events like these make us stronger or weaker? Lately, it feels as if a lot of our policies are based around the idea that that which doesn’t kill us actually makes us weaker. Many of us aim to avoid all things that make us even the least bit uncomfortable. Some argue that we have even coded overprotective parenting into law. Based on the idea that words can hurt us, colleges have rescinded speaking invitations to controversial speakers and punished others for saying things that make people uncomfortable. Behind all these laws and actions is the belief that events far less catastrophic than an accident or the death of a loved one will make people weaker.
On the other side, there is still that age-old statement, “that which doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger.” In contrast to those advocating overprotective parenting and limitations on free speech are those who describe humans as “anti-fragile“. They assert that periodic exposure to distress, discomfort and setbacks causes us to develop resilience and become better prepared for future challenges. Some even worry that when we deny our children exposure to such things they become ill equipped to handle the stress of normal adult life (see The Coddling of the American Mind and iGen).
Few things are black and white. When I think of how people turn out in the long-term after painful events it varies quite a bit. Some come back stronger and better people. However, some are scarred for life and never truly recover. It reminds me of COVID or any other disease. We administer vaccines, which expose us to small doses of a disease to prepare us for the “real thing.” However, some are too fragile to get vaccines. Does that which does not kill us make us stronger or weaker? It depends on how severe the shock is and how strong the person is to begin with. To build resilience we must push ourselves on a regular basis, regularly expanding the realm of what we can tolerate.