• Kate Swisher

A Phoenix Needs Time to Rise: Part One

This is a two part story that discusses how ecologically appropriate, fire-resistant growth in Oregon and California will help native pollinators and thus, ecosystems rise back after the recent, and in some places, ongoing wildfire destruction*

I found it striking and almost beautiful that the city of Phoenix, Oregon was one of the locations most damaged by last season's wildfires. Many are familiar with the Phoenix, or the bird who cyclically regenerates. This mythical creature rises from tears and ashes, thereby obtaining new life after fiery death. I'm not the first to link the ancient myth to the September wildfire. Multiple news stories associated the bird with the city to ask the rhetorical question: "Will Phoenix Rise From the Ashes?"

These journalists, with expressions of empathy and evidence of research, describe well the fire devastation in Southern Oregon and its effect on communities, though none go into detail about who the Phoenix symbolizes in this situation, or how exactly it will rise again. The LA Times did quote a local of Phoenix who said, in a moment of consolation directed to her neighbor, “Phoenix, we’ll rise from the ashes, right?'. . .We’re going to find out what community really means."' This interviewee loosely associates the Phoenix with a sense of resilience, as well as a strong community. Still, multiple questions remain, including: Who makes up that community? How, not will, the Phoenix rise? And what can people do to help it flourish once it does?

Fire damage in Phoenix, Oregon. Photo obtained from Robert Coffan

I've noticed, myself included, that non-science oriented people want to look away from the science of climate change. The hard facts are often too devastating and scary to approach. I also imagine that some people think climate change data is worthless to read as we've already destroyed too much of our ecosystems and at this point, feel there is no hopeful return to health. Others use the data to emphasize what we could have done before the destruction happened. While it is important to point out actions we could have done to prevent mistakes in the future, such as prescribing controlled burns, it is even more important to implement the knowledge gained from our mistakes and to overcome the fear of climate change research. When it comes to wildfire damage, I've happily discovered that not all of the data is as depressing as I initially thought.

I've been volunteering with the Rogue Valley Pollinator Project based in Phoenix, Oregon. Yesterday I talked with the president of the organization, Kristina. When I got on her Zoom call she looked defeated. She told me about the many displacements of community members, the lost homes, the lack of funding to rebuild, and the general feeling of dismay around the city. The current state of Phoenix, Talent, and much of Southern Oregon is dire. Kristina expressed her stress and grief, yet I still felt a positive force exuding from her. She recently posted on the Pollinator Project's Facebook page:

"We continue to be saddened and shocked at the devastation that appeared overnight in our Valley, less than 3 weeks ago. But we are also heartened and amazed at the regrowth of grasses and other foliage that are already resprouting! So even in the midst of our despair, let's take advantage of this opportunity to envision and create pollinator- and bird-friendly landscapes, full of native trees, shrubs, and other plants. And later, too, in yards and gardens when the rebuilding begins."

When I asked Kristina about the more culturally appropriate, fire-resistant regrowing process she envisioned when writing this post, one that involves spreading native seed and providing access to native plants, she said it will be an arduous and long process but one she cares about deeply. After all the native pollinators "help post-fire habitats return to functioning ecosystems.” Wildfires can actually provide more habitat for beneficial insects because pollinators enjoy open space rather than closed canopy. Still, humans must work to nurture that open space with plants appropriate to their specific environments.

Part of my volunteer work involves planning a FB Live event about Monarch butterflies and their habitats. Kristina's friend, Robert of the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates, and Kyle, a Pollinator Project board member who helps with native plant sales, will lead the discussion (SHAMELESS PLUG: Follow Rogue Valley Pollinator Project on FB to watch the event on October 25th!) The four of us met last week to go over logistics. Robert introduced himself with a Monarch puppet and Kyle introduced himself with a story. One day, Kyle's friends brought him back a bouquet of milkweed after their hike. When he saw the "gift," Kyle put his hand to his face and pointed out the Monarch eggs along the plant's stem and leaves. When they asked what the plant was, he said it was milkweed, otherwise known as a Monarch's nursery! "Don't pick it again!"he said, earnestly. Kristina, Robert, and I all laughed at the narrative. Our smiles stayed as Robert and Kyle talked through their Powerpoint slides with enthusiasm and excitement. I felt joyful. But yesterday, during our Zoom call, Kristina questioned whether or not the people want to hear about butterflies right now, and whether it would even make a difference for the butterflies themselves? Everyone seems rightfully overwhelmed given all the relocation and trauma after the fire.

Monarchs are migratory butterflies with orange and black wings. Western Monarchs migrate up and down the West, traveling North during the Spring and South during the winter. Along with bees, they pollinate our plants and build our ecosystems. I told Kristina that I think people would love to see Robert and Kyle discuss Monarchs for an hour, and about how joyful I felt after hearing their practice run. To my luck, when I looked back at our notes today, I noticed something new at the end of our shared Google Doc. Kristina had typed"Monarch = Hope."

Photo of a Western Monarch from Robert Coffan

Robert later emailed us a short prose piece with a similar sentiment about the Monarch butterfly. The piece is about catching, tagging, and releasing Monarchs with kids in the time of fire. It's about how, before the fires, the kids noticed many caterpillars, but after, everything looked like an apocalyptic wasteland, devoid of life. Two kids, however, preserved two chrysalises and later released the butterflies out into the smoke, hoping they'd find habitat and home. Robert wrote "The kiddos named them Isabella and Dusty. One is a boy and one is a girl.  Their research tag numbers are E1836 and E1837, respectively.  Please watch for them.  Please make way for them."

Photo of a Saved Charred Milkweed Pod from Robert Coffan

He continued "I let my tears run free at last and mix into the ash at my feet. Our Western Monarchs will survive. They are wild. They are resilient. And they are tougher than we think." To Robert, The Monarch is the mythic Phoenix. To me, all pollinators are the Phoenix. When we care about the health of real life Phoenixes flying back from the ashes, we start caring about a habitat adapted to place; a habitat that restores and protects community. The native phoenixes, butterflies, bees, birds, and insects, will rebuild an environment that is ecologically appropriate to Oregon, and to California too.

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) created a fire recovery guide for those communities ravished by this year's wildfires, still ongoing in Sonoma and Napa Counties. This guideline highlights a landscape that feeds pollinators and "ensures defensible space around your home." The CNPS also encourages patience. Rebirth takes time. Something I appreciated about Robert's email was that he emphasized wildness, resilience, and toughness, and not quickness. The CNPS sympathizes with the human impulse to build back quickly after severe fire damage. We see destruction and want to "repair what is broken. Looking across a scorched and blackened landscape, we naturally want to make things better. But in our rush to help, we risk making things worse." People, for instance, scatter fast-growing, non-native seed, plant flowers without checking where they're from, and build back homed devoid of critical features such as fire-resistant ceilings. “Be patient" the CNPS advises, "lands have recovered many times after wildfires. Once human-made debris is removed, the land will heal on its own in most cases.”(CNPS).

Kristina encourages healing all over the Pollinator Projects website and Facebook page. She shared one photo days after the fire in Phoenix happened. It is of buckets of sunflowers welcoming locals back to their destroyed city. This thoughtful gesture demonstrates healing and regeneration. The sunflowers respond to the the West's need for hope and a little color, but even more significantly, demonstrate what dedication to natural healing can achieve. The Phoenix reemerges after tears and time. Tears for what was originally lost and time for thoughtful reconstruction.

* This has been part one to a two part story. Part two explores the benefits of wildscaping, the danger of the plant nursery industry, the pervasiveness of the English garden design in North America, the reimagining of institutional landscaping, and the specific tools and resources we can use to regrow damaged lands.

References & Resources

LA Times Article "Will the Phoenix Rise From the Ashes?"

CNPS Fire Recovery Guide

Yosemite National Park's Video, "Monarchs & Milkweeds"

Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates Website

Pollinator Project Rouge Valley Website

Pollinator Project Rogue Valley Facebook Page

New York Time's podcast, The Daily, "A Deadly Tinder Box" on the fire devastation in Southern Oregon

Oregon State Article, "What Effect Will 2020 Fires Have on Bees?"

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