Smoke is the Smell of Starting Over

by Emily Shwake

Growing up near the Everglades, I got used to the idea that sometimes things need to burn in order to grow. After years of manipulation and torture, we rattled that river of grass into an ugly mutation of itself. Now, invasive weeds cannibalize their neighbors and the wrong animals roam, scouring for blood. What else can we do but start over? When the temperature dips and the rains slow, the wetlands are carefully burned to prevent starving wildfires from devouring the brush.

The Everglades were not meant for us. She didn’t unfurl orchids or bedeck herself in ibis or push trees right out of the water for anyone or anything other than her own survival and pleasure. She is a tempest, a shrew, an untrainable bitch who will suck the life out of you with the bare heat of the sun or the prick of a mosquito. Dressed in the toothy fangs of sawgrass, the spiky vines of devil’s claw, and the slinky scales of rattlesnakes, she almost dares unwelcome guests to cross her watery threshold.

The Everglades can be hideous and cruel, but she has always been more alive and more herself than any of us can say of ourselves. She has thousands of species and habitats that should not be able to coexist but do because their mother taught them resilience. Resurrection ferns can shrivel up and sleep for decades without water and spring back to life when the rains return. Growing like an open palm around the oak tree, the strangler fig leeches off its host and braces the both of them for hurricanes. Otters slip lithely out of the jaws of alligators that ferment their eggs in muddy piles of rot, and iridescent grackles speckle the ground, scavenging for their next morsel. It sounds like chaos, but everything clicks together so seamlessly. Or it did, anyway.

The true American — the one who arrived long before the continent was claimed under that vacuous name — has been here for tens of thousands of years and lived with the Everglades for almost as long. Even in those very early days, they were human, and chaos is built into the very nature of our species. They likely disturbed her peace and disrupted that miracle of balance, but they never sought to claim her.

Seeing her for who she was, in all of her glory and cruelty, the Natives thanked her for every gift and praised her children who died for their suppers. They trod gently through her plains and only took what they needed to live. They covered her with names from their stretched language — Caloosahatchee, Okeechobee, Kissimmee, Chokoloskee — and fed her the fire they knew made her who she was.

To the Everglades, fire is as essential as the rains that fill her swamps and the sun that feeds her children. Instead of waiting for wildfire, the Natives themselves started the sparks. Leading the heat as if it were a child, they steered it first this way, then that; they curbed it when it became unruly and swayed it from evil. It feeds on the dead and swallows those who no longer serve her. Some dramatically hiss and pop as they melt into the muck while other, more noble beings burn almost without a sound. Crying buckets of rain that extinguish the last of the embers, the Everglades grieves every single loss. After being opened by the heat, the pinecones bloom, releasing millions of seeds that drop to the freshly cleared ground. Spiky fans spring lushly out of blackened stumps. New grass rises from the ashes of the dead.

Then, the European came. In his hubris, he believed that he could capture and tame the beastly jungles that spat out his soldiers as the snake spits out the skeleton of its prey. He wanted the Everglades to change her nature to feed his desires. He told her she shouldn’t steep in the muck or curtail the hardwood or allow her brackish waters to spill out of their shells. He told her he could make her beautiful if only she would part with the spongy ground and the ropy roots and the fire. He tried to force her to care for new children and to disavow her own. He tried to drain her so many times, to leave her hard and dry.

Imagine thinking that you were powerful enough to overcome a being who continuously births the most hellish creatures. The Everglades decorates her manchineel trees with poison apples and a milky sap so lethal that your throat will swallow itself if you stand too close. Panthers stalk rabbits and deer but will happily settle for a cornucopia of tortoise eggs. Even the tread-softly herbs that seem soft and delicate will claw and bite at your ankles.

When the tribes who fought for the Everglades weren’t peeling off the European’s scalp, he was slaughtering his cattle and relishing his suffering. He hailed as a conqueror, but she and her soldiers conquered him instead. Juan Ponce de León wanted to make the Calusas his slaves, so they kissed him with a poisoned arrow. The people of Uzita, who held Juan Ortiz captive, taught him how to survive her, but he drowned when he weighed himself down in his old armor. Luis Cáncer craved immortality, but the Tocobagas broke his body before he could find it. Pánfilo de Nárvaez tried to escape after his treasure hunt led nowhere, but the shore yanked him back and shattered his boats. The more the Everglades fought, the more determined he became to possess her. Eventually, he succeeded.

An ecosystem isn’t all that different from a body. The trees branch out just as lungs do. The water flows from one side to another just as blood does. The dead fossilize in the peat, just as our memories do in a slush of irrelevant data. We only survive when the body maintains its precarious balance; the Everglades is the same. Each piece relies on the other and each instinct feeds a need, even if those instincts make her seem monstrous. If the European understood that, perhaps he wouldn’t have tried so hard to change her.

What happens when you take a piece of someone away? They become something else entirely. In their rush to fill the void, they twist all that is left into something ungodly. Like a woman undone, the Everglades stumbled into the crowded canopies, squinting in the mildewy shade, searching for some sign of herself and finding none. Instead, she found horrid, legged snakes longer than you are tall and trees that shed their skin and suffocating blankets of climbing ferns so thick that her children couldn’t see the sky. The Everglades felt her mucky flesh sliding off her limestone bones into waters that were once sweet but had since been tainted by the salt of the sea.

Having lost so much after fighting for so long, she collapsed, so broken that she couldn’t cry. That emptiness only brought more death. Without the rains, the sawgrass turned to paper, and those coy mangroves — mortified to be stripped of their watery skirts — dropped their leaves and gave their bodies to the sun. Finding no fish in the dried-out basins, the alligators ate their babies to survive. Storks and cranes looked for somewhere else to call home. They all begged for their mother, but she was lost.

The European sought to stifle the fire, but the inevitable can only be postponed for so long. When fire and land are kept apart for too long, they meet in a passionate rage. It is understandable. Who do you become when you are deprived of oxygen? Of food? Of the one you love? Frantic. Gluttonous. Insatiable. How can we hold it against either of them — the land or the flames — when they get carried away?

On the right kind of night, a single crack of lightning can open up the sky, bite into the dry earth, spark the dying wiregrass, and turn the world upside down. Bulbous clouds fall heavy on the ground, blocking out the sun. A red haze swallows tree after tree and scorches the sky to rust. Running uphill like a video in reverse, the flames seem to defy logic. The air boils and quivers until it is sucked dry. In its place fly disorienting black balloons that turn day into night and night into death.

Down the road, I lift my nose out of curiosity and lust — the sweet smell of smoke carries for miles, slicing through the silvery chill. My instinct should tell me to run, yet I allow the aroma to lure me in. Why are we so attracted to the things that destroy us? We are no better than a moth transfixed by the glow, so sure that she will be able to see God if only she could get close enough.

I can imagine being the jungle and dreading the moment another fire crawls through me. Feeling it swallow me as if I were nothing, I would mourn even the weeds that choke the sawgrass — it is easy to get attached to their whimsical flowers and ignore the ruthlessly colonizing roots. How many times could you stand it: Getting scorched so close to the bone that you can feel the marrow cooking?

We react no differently to love. We should flee; instead, we walk right into the flames, knowing that all too soon, they will die, and we will wish we died with them. Because once the ash dissipates and the world has turned to black, all that is left are the blisters of something lost. Everything feels cold after you’ve burned; your nerves are so exposed that the softest breeze is unbearable. Once the brand sets and the pain fades, we will once again let the smoke seduce us into standing as still as a forest waiting patiently for its end.

Some fires are too strong, too violent to ever come back from. They eat away at us until we are empty of all that we once knew of love. Once you are arid and desolate, you might learn to prefer the blackness. You might choose to have nothing than to deal with the tedious chore of rebuilding. Can you blame the man who decided to strip the Everglades of all that made her beautiful? After all, wastelands do not burn. They will not have to endure the fire.

It is violent and terrible, I know, but I can’t help but remember that after the fire surges through, hopeful sprouts will peak out of the blackened earth. I wonder if the fire could wash me clean, too. If it licked at my ankles and reached for my hair, would I shed this shell of me that I have outgrown and emerge charred and gleaming? Would the fractured pieces that I am so fond of finally melt and seal together? The scars would show, but they would only make me sturdier than ever before.

Fire isn’t an eraser that can be rubbed haphazardly over all our mistakes. Controlling fire is a power that you must hold with humility and patience and good intention. You must adore her children as much as she does. One wrong move and everything could all be lost. Burn on a day too hot, and you will sweat more than the swamps through which you tread, and your body will cook from the inside out. Burn on a day that is too dry, and those on the ground will spit flames at the trees. If you burn on a day when she is howling at the sun, the wind will make the fire bleed too quickly for you to catch it. Burning during the growing season can scald the delicate canopy, but not doing so would mean losing a generation of seeds.

When you handle the flames as delicately as if they were shards of glass, you can use them for good. You can walk into the wind with your drip torch and your hope, and you can listen to the jazzy snapping of the wood and the woosh of the flame. You can wash yourself in soot and let the smoke live inside you and know that it is fear that you are burning away. You can wait for the Everglades to slow her breathing and let her free-flowing tears wash away the smoldering embers. It will take time, but the grass will eventually rise up from the rubble, greener and stronger than before.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole