Reprinted from The Environmentor, vol. 11 no. 3, pp. 11-12.
Rebirth from the Ashes
In the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, the Phoenix was a fabulous colorful bird that could live for at least 500 years. But when it began to feel the weakness of old age, Phoenix would build a nest of cinnamon bark, cloves, and other fragrant spices – not to live in, but to burn itself up in! From the ashes, a fresh new Phoenix would arise.
The fabulous Phoenix appears as a magical minor character in folktales from the middle east to Russia (Firebird) and even China, but I found no stories in which it plays a major role. As a symbol of rebirth and fresh starts, however, the Phoenix resonates with people everywhere.
The capital city of Arizona, for instance, was named by an early settler acknowledging the ruins of irrigation canals and villages built by Native American civilizations who had abandoned the area centuries before.
Winter is the season for prairie fires. Town folks cringe at the sight of a wall of flames sweeping across range land and sending pillars of grey-white smoke high in the air.
But controlled fire is the prairie's friend. Traveling fast and reaching relatively cool temperatures, it burns off the dead leaves of the previous year's grasses and forbs (non-woody flowering plants) without harming their underground stems. Fresh regrowth emerges soon, taking up minerals freed from the ashes. Meanwhile, fire kills woody shrubs and trees that otherwise would convert the prairie into woodlands unsuitable for grazing animals. Native Americans who hunted on the plains knew this, and when lightning failed to start spontaneous prairie fires, they managed the grasslands with intentional burns. Now ranchers, and managers of prairies such as the Nature Conservancy's Johnson H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County, use prescribed burns to maintain and refresh the grasslands in their care. A green, revitalized prairie rises from the ashes like the mythical Phoenix.
Ecologists have noticed that bison, loving the new grass, often seem to be attracted by the smell of smoke. They were more puzzled, however, by the numbers of hawks and other raptors that often circled over the fires. Were the birds taking advantage of rising hot air masses on which they could ride?
Recent studies have shown that the birds were practicing “pyric carnivory” (“pyric” = associated with burning), snacking on roasted field mice and toasted grasshoppers that didn't move fast enough to escape the flames.
So when you see fire blackening the grasslands, think of the Phoenix rising renewed from the ashes of its old self.
Phoenix is motif B 32.1.2. https://mythology.net/mythical-creatures/phoenix/ Margaret Mayo: Mythical Birds and beasts from Many lands (Dutton 1997) pp96-102