Imbolg (the ancient holiday also known as Candlemas, also celebrated here in North America as Groundhog Day) marks the lengthening days, the coming warmth and light, and the new growing season of spring.
After the historic wildfires devastated Northern California last October, Sonoma County hums with restoration activity: food donation, crisis counseling, homeless and immigrant support services, debris removal and home building, installing straw-filled wattles to prevent toxic runoff from entering streams, and seed-saving and planting. These mirror the flurry of regeneration occurring in nature.
Winter’s silence is deceptive: fruit trees and roses sleep in their dormant state, buds closed tight to protect from the cold, sap huddled low in the roots until it rises in spring. Some trees have been completely burned, others look charred on the surface while inside they’re alive and growing. Even dead trees still provide habitat for animals, fungus, and lichens; and their roots prevent erosion by retaining soil. Other plants have retreated into the earth to take in its nourishment. Bulbs are popping up everywhere; and native grasses and flowers flourish in burned landscapes – some species appear exclusively after fires; this year’s wildflower blooms are predicted to be spectacular.
The amazing resilience of birds and other fauna throughout this disaster are inspiring: birds’ ability to fly allows them to escape to safety, and locate water; and fortunately the fires occurred in autumn, not when birds nest. As spring arrives to replenish winter’s sparse food sources, birds are able to nest and find more seeds, berries, and insects. Woodpeckers, for instance, thrive after wildfires: they enter burned forests to find beetle infestations, as smoke- and heat-sensing beetles lay eggs in charred tree cavities. Feasting on these larvae, woodpeckers hollow out nesting holes that are later used by other birds like chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, wrens, and nuthatches. Spotted owls take full advantage of these burned landscapes.
In charred swaths of parks like Trione-Annadel in the Sonoma Valley, mushrooms that only grow in the aftermath of fires are helping their tree partners recover, by taking up water and nutrients in their mycelia. Mycologists are still learning about these integral relationships, which largely take place beneath the soil.
Fire ecology is still an emerging science, and with recent events, we’re scrambling to better understand it. While fire suppression was prioritized for decades – especially with human development making deeper incursions into the landscape – now scientists are beginning to see the benefit of cooler underbrush fires, and even very hot fires that burn entire trees, to maintain the overall health of forests over time. Fires have occurred naturally in the landscape for thousands of years; and plants, animals and birds have adapted to them, each in their individual ways. They are all part of nature’s recurring cycles of creation, and the destruction that makes way for rebirth and renewal. Fires are part of our ecosystem, and if anything, we’ve learned in the last year that they’ll likely grow in intensity and frequency; and as humans, we have to learn from the natural world, and adapt ourselves as well. We, too, are a remarkably resilient species!