I wasn’t a great science student at school, barely scraping through two exams aged sixteen and only waking up in lessons when unusual words were introduced: The Uriniferous Tubules was going to be the name of my band, if I ever had one, so biology classes weren’t wasted! Years later I enjoy watching Chris Packham’s TV programmes but in truth more for the dry, witty banter than for the naturalism. Principally people, ideas and words inspire me, so I am surprised to find myself reading Britannica Online about pyrophytes – plants adapted to tolerate fire.
Some plants have thermal insulation, some keep branches high up away from fire, some protect buds so enabling them to resprout in the wake of fire. There are plants whose seeds are coated in resin which need fire to melt the resin and those which need chemical signals from smoke and charred plant matter to break seed dormancy. Certain fire lilies flower naturally only after fires and use ash-fertilised soil to bloom both speedily and prolifically.
I realised I’ve written two poems in recent times on this subject: After the Fire and Fire Poppy (partly inspired by the 2018 wildfires in California). The idea of Beauty for Ashes has been used as a title by others for helpful books and ministries. Ellis and Boyce’s orchid or dandelion psychological studies have also had utility for me. But metaphors aren’t perfect, and people aren’t actually plants. So, please don’t think I’m saying that pain is good, that we should seek trial by fire or that some people only thrive through pain. Pain is painful and healing is preferable to suffering. But life’s challenges and trials can overcome dormancy ‘like a seed in the smoke’ and ‘flowers can push up through a grate’.
In the Old Testament Isaiah emerged fruitful from lip-singeing coals and Daniel’s furnaced friends were ‘not destroyed by the flames’, neither did they smell of smoke. Flowers that bloom after fire are arguably even more beautiful than they are surprising. ‘After the fire the seed grows, after the fire new life glows, red.’