Ground Truths "The Wound is an Opening"
When I look at Enid Smith-Becker’s Witness, I initially see a scene of devastation. Columns of red interrupt an otherwise peaceful scene in the forest, burning upwards as they lay waste to the trees and understory. The stark vertical lines of flames literally chop the image up into before and after, or, rather, what once was/is and what will be. But, the longer that I look at this painting, the more diplopic, or double-sighted, it becomes. A second scene emerges, in which the columns of fire are not incinerating trees, but held within them. This interpretation foregrounds the idea of serotiny, a term associated with cone-bearing trees such as many species of pine, spruce, and sequoia that depend upon a blast of heat to trigger the release of their seeds.
The longer that I look at Witness, the more clearly that I see two fires: one angry and devastating and another the first step in regeneration. I also see two sets of trees, respectively: one in the moment of collapse and another brimming with energy, potential, and life. The double-nature of Witness brings to life for me a line in the poem that accompanies Sasha Michelle White’s The Containment: “the wound is an opening.” The wound in the poem refers to delivery mechanisms in and of the body by which we can receive treatment and begin to heal. But it also strikes me as a powerful prescription for understanding the fire-prone and -affected landscapes of the twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest, or appreciating the two sets of trees that we see in Witness. Our region is full of wounds, of ruined shells in the forest that testify to fires that are too hot and too big. But these “wounds” are also openings of various kinds. Some of these openings are literal, in that many plants in our region need fire to open up to survive and thrive. Still other openings are figurative, in that they assert alternative burning practices and fire regimes that understand and use fire as a tool of life rather than one of only violence and annihilation. (Hence, also, the refrain that runs through White’s poem: “whose lands are you on?”) Her work encourages us to think of not only the burn, but also the salve that follows.
Several contributors to Ground Truths emphasize the violence of today’s wildfires and the wounds they cause. See, for example, Justin Webb’s photographs of the aftermath of the 2015 Soda Fire. The two trees that dominate Skeletons of Soda Fire 1 and 2 remain, six years after the event, as evidence of what we have lost. As Webb writes in his contributor’s note, his photographs are inspired by the experience of “seeing a landscape that I grew up exploring stripped of its already limited plant life.” The stark black and whiteness of Webb’s arboreal photos revise Ansel Adams’ iconic images of National Parks for the Pyrocene era. Webb swaps Adams’ wild and abundant sublime for the sublime of what is now absent and the wrecks that remain. See, too, the trees that similarly haunt the backgrounds of Jean Arnold’s paintings of what is left in Malden, Washington. In September 2020, the Babb Road Fire burned 15,000 acres and over two hundred buildings–including 67 homes–in a few hours. The five paintings in Arnold’s Malden series foreground this domestic devastation, documenting the exposed interiors of shattered houses with brutal clarity. Yet is the background that haunts me most in these images. Behind each set of ruins stands a set of trees that signals just how far the loss stretches. The trees in Malden 8: Shreds and Malden 5: Phase Change, in particular, remind me that it is not only our homes that are disappearing, but the homes (and lives) of countless other species with which we share this region. The ghost of what once also lingers in Liz Toohey-Wise’s striking Billboard, which anticipated the White Rock Lake Fire in 2022. Be quick, the billboard says to us with its tongue in its cheek; see this landscape while you can, as it won’t be here long. Other contributions to Ground Truths function at a different scale of time or engage alternative cultural practices to help us see wounds as the first step in healing and, often, a necessary phase in life. This perspective is perhaps loudest in the powders, salves, and tinctures of White’s The Containment–part of her larger project FIRST-AID KIT FOR THE FIRE-PRONE. Featuring medicines and dyes she made from fire-adapted plants of the southern Willamette Valley and The Nature Conservancy’s Sycan Marsh Preserve such as arnica, snowbrush ceanothus, and St John’s wort, White’s kit draws our attention how we might use plants that thrive with the recurring disturbance of fire to treat the illnesses and injuries that fire can cause. As she explains, her kit emphasizes “fire, tending, and healing,” particularly those central to Indigenous fire regimes that are not based solely on suppression, to present us a ground truth that “promotes a pro-active, cross-cultural attending to our fire-prone landscapes.”
The work of Megan Hatch is similarly interested in healing and renewal. A queer, multidisciplinary artist from Portland, Hatch began her project in the summer of 2020 and took inspiration from the interconnections between George Floyd’s murder, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what was, at the time, Oregon’s worst-ever wildfire season. Her photographs potently insist that we grapple with what is broken and how we might mend it, and each diptych tasks us with viewing, simultaneously, images of death and images of life. A thin golden line inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, by which broken pottery is mended with gold, yokes together each pair of images. Hatch explains that kintsugi vessels “hold our hurt and our hope,” and, similarly, her images tell us that “there is healing to be found in holding multiple truths in our awareness at the same time.” I see this hurt and hope strongly almost there – losing ground, which binds together an enticing forest path with stark snags. Which came first, the photographs ask: the life or the death? Can we truly have one without the other? And what binds them together? Several years ago, when I started to study literary representations of fire, I had a conversation with a fire ecologist friend about the evolution of fire regimes in my current home state of Idaho. She told me that prior to 1900, fires annually burned at least two million acres in the state. These fires had a different texture to the big, hot fires that we see today, she explained; the historical fires burned mostly lower elevation forests and rangelands, were smaller and more numerous, and largely were ignited by lightning or indigenous fire practices. I was surprised to learn that post-Big Burn federal suppression policies have produced a fire deficit–my friend told me that we actually need more fire in our region, just fire of a different kind. She was very clear on this issue: no fire is not the answer, and we must learn to see fire not as bad but part of the land’s personality.
Laura Aloha-Young’s work and artistic process crisply captures the swirl of emotions that followed this conversation. Attempting to “provide evidence of the intricacies of regeneration, of life in the forest,” her pieces begin with photos that she takes of fire landscapes that “reveal the marks of fire itself: lichen, mycology, growth, decay.” I clearly see the tension between growth and decay in her work and the ways that it mixes media and species to grapple with the emotional complexity of fire. Much like Becker-Smith’s Witness, I initially see a scene of devastation when I look at Two Pines Down (after the fire)--the dark colors and jagged lines return me to the melancholy of Webb’s skeletons, and the hazy shapes that surround the lines heighten the ghostliness of the image. But when I look again, I see that these hazy shapes are alive. They are not ghosts of what we have lost, but fungal and vegetal assemblages in the process of emergence. The image is thus one of simultaneous wound and opening, past and future. Its depiction of post-fire blossoming–and the revelation of this meaning as late-maturing, like serotiny–reminds us that our relationship with fire must be complicated and double-sighted. It also promises that in our search of the material evidence that remains after the flames burn out, and the layers of meaning that we find there, we may access a new ground truth of acceptance, regrowth, and fortitude.