By Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Now well into the second month of 2023, I have been thinking back on my New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps, like me, you reached back to last year’s resolutions and carried them forward with renewed motivation and attention. My examples are real and meaningful: read before going to sleep, decrease screen time, commit to more meditation and more yoga for my perpetually achy firefighter back. A month in, I can report some success and some… room for improvement.
These last few years though, something has been creeping more and more into the front of my consciousness. It sometimes reaches the very front, the place typically reserved for worries that need to be addressed immediately. That thing has been the need for hope. When I look at where we are in our wildfire crisis in the beginning of 2023, I find it easy to drift into a kind of existential dread.
The winters these days feel more like the eye of a hurricane—a calm that masks the chaos to come. If it rains a lot—great, fire season may be delayed slightly, but with abundant annual grass. And if it doesn’t rain, well, then fire season could be weeks or months early. As the Fuels Officer on my last national forest reminded us, whether the season starts in June or August, the forest has plenty of fuel regardless of how much rain or snow we received.
Unfortunately, I can’t offer an easy answer for the hope question. My nervous brain wants an answer, but I know that an easy answer will eventually fray and wear thin, and then tear apart under the load it has to bear. I have started to think of it not as a question to be answered, but a practice to cultivate, like the yoga and meditation I want to do more of. The point of meditation is not to complete a certain number of practices, but through practice to transform one’s perception of their life and reality around them. Perhaps the practice of finding hope is this way as well. Some of the problems that I worry about—like the catastrophic effects of climate change, for instance—cannot be resolved in my head with a single answer that makes me feel less dread.
Of course, I already know that climate change itself doesn’t have an easy answer. Perhaps it seems self-indulgent to desire hope in what may be a hopeless situation. I have been in a hopeless situation before, and I know that believing a situation cannot get better is not a motivator to action. It is a path towards apathy, depression, and disengagement.
One of the first things I did this new year was watch the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa (*Spoiler alerts for a 70-year-old movie*). In the film (whose title means “To Live” in Japanese), a city bureaucrat named Mr. Watanabe discovers he has inoperable, terminal stomach cancer and likely only has months to live. Watanabe decides that in the time he has left, he will make it his mission to push through the creation of a new public park that a local mothers’ group had been lobbying for, and that the city’s vast bureaucracy has made impossible. The gravely ill man drags his failing body from office to office, making a nuisance of himself to his colleagues in other departments. He stands up to gangsters who want to see the wasteland developed into bars and restaurants, not a park for kids.
Finally, Watanabe gets his park. At his wake, his coworkers imbibe prodigious quantities of sake and vow to the memory of the man that they now commit to live like he did. Earlier in the film, a stranger at a bar comes to understand Watanabe’s need for meaning: “You were a slave to your own life. Now you will become its master,” he says. What Watanabe had been a slave to was a bureaucratic inertia that made “no” the only possible answer, a situation that all his career he had enabled and literally rubber-stamped with his signature block.
I immediately recognize the bureaucratic inertia that exists in Mr. Watanabe’s Department of Public Affairs, the inertia that leads so often to a “no.” I don’t want to over-sharpen my tool here and blunt it on the first rock (or cut myself). I am not talking about the Washington Office, the Regional Office, the State Office; I am talking about myself. It won’t do to wish that someone else was like Mr. Watanabe, or that “no” wasn’t so often someone else’s logical, inevitable answer.
I already know people like Mr. Watanabe, people who have been like Mr. Watanabe for years. My hope is that I can find it in myself to be like Watanabe, and stay like that, unlike the bureaucrats in the film who lose their conviction when the rice wine is out of their systems. I truly believe the power of many Watanabe types acting together is not simply additive but exponential.
With all of that said, I don’t pretend to believe that the Sierra Nevada (my home range) will keep its forests intact just because some really dedicated people tried really hard to restore fire to an ecosystem that needs it so badly it binges on the stuff every summer. The important thing is that what I believe may or may not happen doesn’t matter. I know of no other solution on offer that can get the outcome I want. So, until the Sierra forests don’t need fire, or there aren’t any Sierra forests left, I have to develop this practice of hope.
When the Sun Rises Tomorrow . . .
Too often I find myself short-circuiting an optimistic thought with a negative (my brain says “realistic”) interruption. It is the voice that says, “that may be nice to think about, but this organization will never be able to do that.” A strain of our culture has elevated fatalism to a place next to wisdom, and made it synonymous with realism. To me, realism is understanding what needs to change and acknowledging the barriers to change. This is quite different than accepting that nothing can change, that the status quo is immutable, and that all hope is false hope. What solace will it be to know that, when what I greatly feared does come to pass, I had already given up? Will being right matter to me then?
In this practice of hoping, perhaps I will be shown to have been a fool. I don’t think being proven right by history is a laudable goal when it comes from assuming the worst outcome. In critical moments in Ikiru, Mr. Watanabe sings a Japanese love song popular in the 1910s. Kurosawa directed the actor Takashi Shimura to “sing the song as if you are a stranger in a world where nobody believes you exist.” Watanabe sings this song on his last night on earth, sitting in a swing in the park that he fought to make a reality.
The most reliable, though by no means the flashiest, hope I can find is the hope that comes from knowing that when the sun rises tomorrow it is another chance to try again. Perhaps that sunrise will be blocked by palls of smoke from uncontrollable forest fires. Still, I can drag myself out of bed and to work, even while I mourn what is being lost. I can have hope in the fact that the future is unknown and unknowable.
Whatever you have committed yourself to this year to improve yourself—or your family, or your community—I wish you luck in finding a practice of hope that helps you every day, whatever comes.