Some things can't grow until they've burned

Let’s review. What is burnout again? (You can read my first post in this series, "You can't grow from burnout," here.)

Burnout is overextension. Burnout is depletion. Burnout is a burned building that has been so ravaged by fire, there is no fuel left to combust. Burnout is a fire that puts itself out because there’s nothing left to burn.

Burnout is something we want to avoid, clearly. It’s entirely unpleasant, uncomfortable, and feels very useless, especially to those of us who run on passion and want to do a lot of important things in our lives. Getting to burnout means that you can’t keep doing the things you want to do, in the way you’ve been doing them.

To share from my own experience—I started writing about burnout a month ago, and then I hit burnout. I have to laugh at myself! I already knew I didn’t have this burnout/balance thing figured out, and what a timely reminder. I don’t have perfect answers for myself or for you, my dear readers, but what I do have are tales from my own error-filled experience and the desire to share ideas and images that help me move forward.

What keeps repeating in my head is: some things can’t grow until they’ve burned.

Photo, “Tree mortality” by NPS Climate Change Response, 2012. Text by Christine Bryant Cohen, 2015.

Photo, “Tree mortality” by NPS Climate Change Response, 2012. Text by Christine Bryant Cohen, 2015.

I find a lot of guidance for myself in the natural world, and sequoias—the giant trees that can grow over 300 feet tall and live for 3,000 years—especially fascinate me. Sequoias are a type of redwood, and they are very fire-resistant. They commonly survive forest fires and grow new bark over their blackened, burned places for the tens of hundreds of years of their lives. I visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in 2009. Being in their presence, I felt very, very small, very, very young, and connected in the web of an ecosystem that I can hardly grasp.

Particularly meaningful to me is the way that sequoias reproduce as a species, especially because the reproduction of organisms that live thousands of years seems so unimportant to the scale of time I can understand. Honestly, do they even reproduce? They live thousands of years! But they do, because even if they exist on a time scale that far exceeds my own, they are not immortal or eternal. They will each die, and so they produce offspring in a new generation to keep their species alive as a whole.

Sequoias reproduce by placing their seeds in cones, like other evergreen trees, but sequoia cones are not the wide-open cones that we know from common pine trees. Sequoia cones have a thick outer layer, and the seeds are buried inside that thick covering—where they can remain viable for up to 20 years. To get any of the sequoia seeds out of the cones, either insects or fire are necessary to crack open the cones and get the seeds free and onto the forest floor.

Fire is the best tool for healthy reproduction in a sequoia forest because it does several things at once. Fire opens the sequoia cones so that the seeds can get out, and it simultaneously prepares the soil for receiving new seeds by loosening and heating the soil, increasing the likelihood that a newly freed seed will germinate into a seedling (Kilgore, 1972). In addition, fire clears out brush and overgrowth in the forest’s understory, so that new sequoia seedlings will have space, light, and nutrients for their own growth (CA.gov, 2015).

Photo, “Female cone” by California State Parks.

Photo, “Female cone” by California State Parks.

The measurable benefits of fire for sequoia seedling germination are staggering. I read an article about all this published in 1972—and, not surprisingly, a 43-year-old article about 3,000-year-old trees is still relevant. They don’t change that quickly! What hit home for me was the result of a controlled burn study, which compared seedlings per acre on burned plots vs. unburned plots of sequoia forest.

In the Redwood Mountain Sequoia Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, one experimental burn took place in August, 1969. This allowed two months of seed fall before winter snows came. On plot 3, which burned hottest, more than 40,000 sequoia seedlings per acre were found during the first year after burning, while about 13,000 per acre germinated on lighter burned plots 1 and 2. The three burn plots averaged nearly 22,000 sequoia seedlings per acre the first year after burning. Not a single sequoia seedling was found on the unburned control plot.

Let me emphasize this again: On the three burned plots, an average of 22,000 sequoia seedlings per acre were found after a year—a year of snow, of weather, of insects, all that. And on the unburned plot, not a single sequoia seedling was found after the same year.

Without the fire, you get zero sequoia seedlings. Those very old trees will not produce a new generation without fire. But that necessary fire? The fire is terrifying. It takes over the whole forest it consumes. Some trees will survive, and some won’t. In the study I quoted, results were taken from controlled burns, where foresters intentionally set fire to 3,000-year-old trees that are over 300 feet tall. Can you imagine lighting that fire? Stepping back into safety, locking eyes with your coworkers, and hoping that your hypothesis holds true—that fire is what this sequoia forest needs to keep surviving.

Back to burnout. Fire in a sequoia forest is clearly necessary for the trees’ lifecycle. But is the fire of burnout necessary to our own metaphorical lifecycle, as passionate people doing important things in writing, business, nonprofits, or any other part of our lives?

Again, that repeating thought in my head: some things can’t grow until they’ve burned.

Some things have to get burned up, so that new seeds can even have a chance to be planted. The brushy undergrowth has to go. The soil needs to be loosened and changed by the fire’s heat.  And before those seeds can even get to the ground—the fire has to break those thick cones open.

If some things can’t grow until they’ve burned, then the fire of burnout can break you open.

Burnout, then, is a pivotal moment of transition. The old has been used up. (And I did it to myself.) The new is emerging, hesitant, unknown by the old way. (My old self could not see my new self. My old self had to be cleared out first.) Of course, the new growth isn’t the same organism. It’s the next generation. The new growth that comes after the fire of burnout—that’s what keeps us alive.

The burnout-self can’t carry us forward, no matter how passionate we are. Getting to burnout means that the course we took has already failed—and I know that’s hard to hear. But now that burnout’s fire has consumed and depleted our old way, the new seed-self that comes after the fire is what can survive. The hard old self, in its old way of being and living, has been burned and cracked open by burnout’s fire. And now, new seeds are free and ready to grow.

Questions for you to take with you:

1.       Now that I’m free of the old way, what do I notice?

2.       What space is now open in my day, in my body, in my mind?

3.       What newness can I step into, now that the old is gone?

Works Cited

CA.gov. Fire and the giant sequoia. April 23, 2015. http://www.150.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=27588.

Kilgore, Bruce M. "Fire's role in a sequoia forest." Naturalist 23, no. 1 (1972): 26-37.