Dead Man’s Hand

I came across a dead man’s hand. Not of the flesh and bone type, not decayed or degraded, not even one at the center of any major investigation. This was one of potentially more concern should it remain untreated or uncontrolled. This was also not just one man’s hand, but many: paws, hooves, and pads. Limbs and stalks, pedals and leaves, soil and rock. This was the remnant of heat, the scorching lick of flame that broiled the earth like an overdone steak.

The understory was ravaged, or so I thought initially. Along the eastern bank of the Hanging Rock lake, ten or more acres of new growth forest were burned. Patches of crimson brown leaves transitioned into blackened, smoldering remains. The compounded heat crept into my eyes and burned my lungs. Rhododendron leaves (Rhododendron catawbiense, L.), once green and vibrant, drooped low with amber hues. A fallen eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, L.) still clung to a bouquet of dead needles clearly licked by the passing flames. It appeared as if only the grove of white oak (Quercus alba, L.) spared the intensity of the burn. Given the survival of these new growth trees, I knew this burn was prescribed just as medicine is from the behind the counter. And yet, I could not help but feel saddened by the loss of the understory, the sickly bushes and flowers unable to reap the sunlight from a crystal-clear April sky.

A Fiery Battleground – 4/11/19

Prescribed burns are a regular occurrence at Hanging Rock State Park. Towards the end of the winter season, fire service managers typically conduct burna on about 250 acres within the Park and in the Flat Shoals Mountain area. Burns such as these manage understory growth to quell the rage of any potential wildfires. Fire has always served as a keystone process in the natural world, from providing warmth to shivering beings to triggering species succession and regrowth. As human beings have steadily changed the world into their image, fire has become distorted into a malicious beast hellbent on wreaking havoc on wood or plastic infrastructure. Through controlled burns, the Park serves to restore nutrients to the soil and discourage the growth of stress-resistant colonizing plant species. Prescribed-burn managers at Hanging Rock develop an annual plan that includes smoke-management details, fire-control measures, acceptable fuel-moisture and weather parameters, and the necessary equipment and personnel required to safely conduct the burns.

The forest will only benefit from the flame, a necessary trial by fire. What appeared dead upon first sight turned out to be brilliantly alive, anticipating the return of spring and the promise of new life. I inhale the flames once again and allow them to fill my soul in the manner in which they filled the understory. I hope that they can exhume the weeds growing inside and begin a process of healing. Nature is certainly full of her dangers, but by managing her properly, we human animals are capable of bringing out the best versions of us both.

“Though I was was worn and weary, I thought I’d bury him
and lay his soul to rest”

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