Wildland Fire History — Killing of the Tree Spirit

George Robinson, Chief of Interpretation, Yellowstone National Park

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

Vivid images of fire are conjured from our history, our religions, our folklore, and our daily experiences. Often they are associated with calamitous or unpleasant events: encounters with fire–breathing dragons; biblical portents of Hades, the fire of the Seventh Seal, and Armageddon; the immolation of Joan d’Arc and the witches of Salem; Atlanta in flames; the Great Chicago Fire; the fire bombing of Dresden; a thermonuclear cloud rising above Hiroshima; homes and families being consumed in flames. The mind will hear the metered and reasoned voice of science and understands the value of wildfire. But, the heart is seldom a good listener. Instead, it hears the impassioned and persuasive voices of Bambi and Smokey the Bear saying that fire destroys, that it is bad.

In one sense, fire is the non–living analog to the wolf, and like its canid counterpart, it has an alter ego.

Just as the earth, and its interstellar neighbors were born in a fireball of cosmic proportions, there is a primal alliance of fire with humanity. Fire has warmed us and lighted our way on our long and unfinished evolutionary journey. It has given us great mobility. It has enabled us better to understand and manipulate our world. It has made it possible for us to stand in the sterile dust of a cold and distant satellite and look back on our fragile blue planet. Springing from a simple chemical union, fire has given us glass and steel, art and industry. In its most glorious expression, the Sun, it has driven the living engines of the earth and fed the oxygen–devouring brain. It has been a mirror, tool, and weapon for mankind.

In cultures throughout the world, fire has been a benign, mystical and religious symbol of great significance.

In a sacred grove in the hills of ancient Italy, the goddess Diana was worshipped with ritual fires. The guardian priest, the King of the Wood, was regarded as the spirit of vegetation, and believed to be endowed with a magical power of making trees bear fruit. While his life was held precious by his worshippers, the very value attached to it ensured his violent death. The ritual killing ofthe incarnate Tree–Spirit was believed to be the only way of preserving it from inevitable decay, as the man–god grew older. Each King of the Wood eventually had to be killed in order that the divine spirit within him might be transferred in its integrity to a younger and more robust successor.

A parallel can be drawn from this strange and recurring event in classical antiquity. In a sense, large scale, naturally recurring wildfires are not unlike a contemporary “killing of the Tree–Spirit” … a replacement of old and decadent trees with younger, more diverse and vigorous growth, thus insuring the health and integrity of the forest. As fire was a ritual artifact of the King of the Wood, it is now an instrument of natural diversity … the preservation of the spirit of the trees.

There is no beginning nor end to natural process. We merely see one series of changes merge, often slowly and subtly, sometimes quickly and violently, with another.

Our lasting impressions of the world are largely visual ones. We remember what we have seen. Yet, measured in the shortness of a human life, natural change is largely imperceptible. Because we are generally unaware of the changes shaping and reshaping our environment, we tend to fix images in our mind’s eye, to believe that the world about us should look as it did when we first saw it. For several decades, visitors have seen an essentially unchanged Yellowstone … like having a photo album filled with fifty or hundred year old pictures … now, and in years to come, changing images will be added, providing a more complete record of the growth of the forest family.

Paul Schullery, a wonderfully lyrical writer, adds perspective in the preface to his book Mountain Time. “Mountain time is without zones, midnights, or seventeen jewel works. The slower something moves, the longer it lasts. Mountains outlast trees, trees outlast people. Mountains grow old, soften, weaken, and shrink, like people do, but much more slowly.” To appreciate more fully the role of fire as a natural cyclic mechanism, we need a longer view. We need to think in “mountain time” rather than human time. A human life is inconsequentially brief in an evolutionary sense. Aldo Leopold placed us in the proper context when he said, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”

Fires of the intensity of those that burned in Yellowstone during the summer of 1988 have swept through the region many times before. They will re–visit the area again in the future, and they will be dwarfed in magnitude by other natural events. Change is an immutable characteristic of nature, and we are a late–coming variable in an otherwise timeless and naturally controlled ecological experiment.

Many years ago, our friend and mentor Freeman Tilden said, “The early Greek philosophers looked at the world about them and decided that there were four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. But as they grew a little wiser, they perceived that there must be something else. These tangible elements did not comprise a principle: they merely revealed that somewhere else, if they could find it, there was a soul of things–a fifth essence, pure, eternal, and inclusive.” The “body” ofYellowstone has been altered, but its “soul”, the “tree–spirit”, is intact.

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.


Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017