New Life

by | Apr 25, 2022

When you see the forest right after a burn, it’s pretty desolate. It can look a bit like a moonscape. But, pretty soon it starts to green up. The birds start coming in. You start seeing turkeys. —Gretchen Coll, Sandhills Conservation Coordinator

The first time I saw the charred earth beneath a stand of longleaf pines, it looked like total devastation. My reaction was shock and sorrow for what I perceived as loss. But as I learned about the importance of a prescribed burn, I came to realize that the longleaf pines depend on these forest fires for their survival. While the fire kills competing plants, the longleaf seeds and young trees survive the flames.

Once, longleaf pine dominated the southeast, in part because of its ability to survive frequent fires. But, clear-cutting and not allowing the forest to burn naturally almost wiped out the longleaf pines. Today, the prescribed burns are being used to bring back the longleaf forests. The fires promote plant diversity, create wildlife habitat, control the competition from other plants, and control insects and disease.

In the language of dreams, fire is seen as purging, suggesting a need for sacrifice while at the same time promising to open up new opportunities.

As we begin to emerge from two years of a deadly pandemic that brought an end to life as we knew it before March 2020, I’ve often felt like my life looks a little like a recently burned longleaf forest.

As an introvert, I confess that when the pandemic lock-down occurred, I welcomed the opportunity to continue the winter season of introspection, isolation, and freedom from social engagements. I was content to read, write, run, enjoy walks and hikes in the beautiful mountains where I live. I had long stretches of time to garden without having to stop, prepare for some event outside my home.

Slowly, I learned to enjoy Zoom meetings and readings.

Then I began to miss the life that I had pre-pandemic, the one where I freely went wherever I pleased, met with a group of poets, enjoyed a writing residency with others, entertained friends and family, traveled and visited friends. I wanted my old life back, the one that I was already beginning to romanticize.

But now that we are navigating our way through the pandemic, I realize that the pre-pandemic life I had no longer exists. Like almost everyone I know, the pandemic brought losses. A group of women I gathered with for meditation and deep connection has not made any attempt to gather since a Zoom meeting months ago.

A poetry group I have enjoyed for years ended any attempt to gather on Zoom more than a year ago. We are now geographically scattered. Friends have moved to distant states. Some have died. Those are a few of the changes. Not the devastation of Ukraine, but my own small losses.

Still, during the pandemic I’ve made new friends, deepened other friendships. I recently reconnected with a dear friend from college and her wonderful son who still has his mother’s sharp wit, sense of humor and profound kindness. Our zoom visit recently was the first time I had seen him since his wedding – 35 years ago.

Just last week, I unexpectedly saw a friend, another poet, who I had not seen since before the pandemic, at a live poetry event. We squealed, we hugged, we bounced up and down with all the wild joy of school girls. I don’t recall ever seeing this gorgeous, elegant woman bounce and certainly not squeal.

This past weekend, my past, present and future selves met on a glorious Saturday afternoon for a poetry reading a few miles down the road from my house. New friends and old gathered outside on a perfect spring day to hear three of us read our poems. It was a first, and it was glorious.

These are the moments. The process of new life coming to fruition will take longer. After all, the majestic longleaf pine takes 100-150 years to mature. In the Episcopal Church we observe 50 days of Easter. We are resurrection people, but know that new life is not a magic moment, but a process, a long process.

The writer, teacher, activist Parker Palmer affirms this in his book A Hidden Wholeness. From his blog, earlier this year: “I have been astonished to see how nature uses devastation to stimulate new growth, slowly, but persistently healing her own wounds.”

May we all find ways to reclaim new life.


First she reclaims the garden,
tangled north facing plot
where summer comes slow.

The root cellar holds cloudy jars
neatly stacked on wooden shelves.

A neighbor bush-hogs the brambles,
the wild blackberries, the weeds
grown tangled from neglect.

A storage shed keeps stories of better
days wrapped in cobwebs and dust.

An artist whose medium is dirt walks
behind his Gravely tractor turning soil
while she follows raking, breaking clods of clay.

Together they carve a spiral and dig
keyholes for herbs. The man plows long rows.

Autumn she plants buckwheat, begins
a compost pile. Winter she curls into the sofa,
reads seed catalogues and stokes the fire.

Spring brings blueberry bushes, flats of basil.
She plants by the moon and dreams of chickens.

A tree trimmer prunes the apple tree’s branches
split by winter winds and ice. Order brings its own
regrets, but she cannot resist the impulse.

Sunrise she kneels between the rows pulling weeds
from soil still damp with dew, thinks to stay awhile.

—Pat Riviere-Seel, from When There Were Horses, Main Street Rag, 2021


  1. Edison V Seel

    Love the blog … and the writer. I remember that garden, from when we were dating.

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thanks, Sweetheart. You should have seen the “garden” when I first moved into that house…or maybe not.

  2. Catherine Carter

    “And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flame are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one.”

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thank you for that reminder, Catherine! And for reading.

  3. Sam Barbee

    Lovely poem. Most all of us were scarred by the pandemic, in one way or the other. But we lean forward 🙂

  4. Pat Riviere-Seel

    Thank you, Sam. I don’t know anyone who was not changed during the pandemic and as you say, most were scarred. But yes, we lean, and we grow. “There is always light, if only we are brave enough to be it.”

  5. Bill Griffin

    Lovely essay and poem, Pat. Burn it! Several years ago I took a 3-day backpacking trip on the Neusiok Trail near the NC coast. One of our leaders was a woman who worked for the Forestry Service reclaiming coastal plain woodlands. Pond Pine, Longleaf, Table Mountain Pine are just 3 of the species whose cones only open after fire. Everywhere we hiked this woman would survey the tangled understory we were hacking through and proclaim, “THIS PLACE NEEDS TO BURN!” Love it! One of the biggest NC projects has been right next door to our beloved Weymouth — NC Nature Conservancy and the US Army burning thousands of acres around Fort Bragg. Red cockaded woodpeckers don’t seem to be bothered by tanks & exploding artillery but they sure hate scrubby bushes creeping up their trees.

  6. nancy dillingham

    “Lighting the Fire”

    She walks the dusty road
    remembers the charm
    of an arm on her back
    fingers tracing a map on her face
    lips touching the nape of her neck

    But the hard spur of living chafes
    chars her emotions
    strips bare her soul
    exposes old scars
    leaves her cold

    Alone in her cabin
    she folds her memories
    in the lockbox of her brain

    strikes a match
    lights the fire
    watches it burn

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Sounds like a great backpacking trip! And a terrific guide. I believe that the controlled burn in Weymouth Woods was the first I saw. I am so glad that the work is being done to bring back the longleaf and other pines. Now I’ll be thinking “this place needs to burn!” when I am in the woods at Weymouth. Thanks!

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Been there. Done that. Thanks for another terrific poem.


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