The Beauty in The Beast
In the boreal forests, many plant and wildlife species have not only adapted to fire, but their continued survival and success are dependent on it. There are flowers that can only grow after a fire, colourful flowers that are determined to show us that through raging hardships, beautiful things can grow. Over the past year, our community has fought through wildfire, displacement, loss and grief amongst a myriad of other hardships. It has been a dark and heavy time for many of us – but as a wise wizard once said: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”.
We were all somehow affected by May 3 last year and the long months that followed, whether we lost our homes and possessions, experienced financial turmoil, saw friends and family move away or suffered through anxiety and post-traumatic stress. As we returned through the ashes and smoke, new struggles appeared in our community as people faced insurance problems, workers were laid off and many battled various levels of stress. Many of us still fight this battle. This year appears to have been a study in darkness for a large portion of the population, as well as for myself as I lost my home, my father and my grandmother. But as we struggle with this darkness and the disorienting feeling of reclaiming normalcy in an extraordinary situation – we must never forget that light can shine through ash and shadow in the most unexpected ways. When times are hard, we must remember this light, this beauty.
During those first critical days and weeks that followed the fire, when chaos seemed to reign and as our world were marred by confusion, fright and displacement - people rallied to our aid. Trucks drove north filled with water, food and gas to help those that were stranded by the highway. Friends, family and complete strangers opened their doors for those who had nowhere to go and shipment after shipment of clothes, toiletries, bedding, baby formula and countless other necessities arrived. From all over the world, people sent us what they could. Across Canada, and even in the States, fundraisers and auctions were held to raise money for our community, money to help us regroup and rebuild. Volunteers spent hours at evacuation centres, strangers paid for hotel rooms, people hugged when seeing each other on the streets. Somehow, in some way, we were all touched by the kindness of others. The Beast – as terrible as it was – brought out beautiful compassion in people and it showed us the strength not only within others, but within ourselves.
Much of this light shining through the dust emits from people. It shines from the friend that suddenly appeared in your doorway when you couldn’t stop crying because you’re homesick for a place that no longer exists, carrying with them kind words and understanding. It shines from the partner and children that hugged you to make you laugh again. It shines from the co-workers that supported you, the acquaintances’ checking in, the strangers that spend hours of their time making quilts to bring comfort and show support to those who lost their homes. It’s in the random calls from friends and family long missing from your life, wanting to make sure that you’re okay. Looking back, the kindness and compassion of others can help you see your way even in the darkest of times.
After the evacuation, all throughout our community, people have felt alone and isolated, as if they are still evacuated and displaced. People are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, suffering from depression, battling PTSD/PTS and facing the increased risk of burn-out, but there is help out there for those who need it. Since the fire, something in the way we speak of mental health has shifted, and people who would never have dreamed of speaking of it candidly are suddenly opening up to friends, to family, to mental health professionals. Mental illness has long been regarded as a sign of weakness, something that is easily avoidable if you only will yourself hard enough to be happy. But now we know, we are learning, that this is far from the truth. We are coming to terms with the fact that mental illness is not a weakness, but that it is often a symptom of having experienced trauma, loss and grief - and that it can happen to anyone. One can look at it as we do the immune system; some of us never seem to get sick, while others catch a cold as soon as someone sneezes at the other side of the office. Learning that it is natural for our bodies to react when our minds are put through stress, and that it is also natural that we all might react differently, is a giant stride towards healing - both for individuals and as a community.
Openly speaking of how we are feeling without judging each other, including ourselves, for their emotional state is a beautiful thing that allows us to better understand each other and give each other space to heal. The wildfire changed how we approach one another, allowing us to be speak more openly about our experiences and helping us realize that it’s okay to not be okay. That these things take time. And that we are all there for one another.
Sometimes, we look around us and realize that we are covered in ash. It can be a desperate feeling, a hollow and overwhelming feeling that is laced with despair, but in the ash grows plants you would otherwise never see, emitting hypnotizing scents and iridescent colours. Sometimes, they are small and smell odd. That’s okay too. Lamenting over weak muscles doesn’t make them stronger, we have to sweat and push for that to happen. Strength develops and cultivates through difficulties, from sorrow we can learn empathy and patience. Emerging from times of turmoil and chaos is when we can see things with absolute clarity. You never know how strong you are, until your strength is tested. As we go on, we learn that strength is far more than gritting your teeth and riding out the storm. Sometimes, strength can be found in vulnerability, in asking for help when everything seems overpowering and dark.
The road to recovery has been bumpy, and will not be an easy ride right off the bat. One year later, our journey towards healing and normalcy is far from over - but along the way, our community has come together, we are learning to be there for not only each other but for ourselves as well. When life becomes overwhelming, when darkness is enveloping and it feels impossible to leave bed - remember the light, those acts of kindness, that realization that we are stronger than this. The Beast showed us and the rest of the world the incredible beauty of our community, that we are more than just an industrial patch in the boreal forest, that some flowers growing from the ash will surprise the world with their vibrancy. Together, we are the beauty in the Beast.