The Serotinous Pine Cone

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I grew up in Northern California, where the threat of wildfires was a serious and annual occurrence. I remember waking up one Sunday in October to the sun glowing red behind a veil of smoke, and ash from newspapers and books scattering our yard. We evacuated to be with family in Berkeley while the Oakland Hills fire raged. We were blessed that our home was spared, the fire never came down into our neighborhood, but several friends, loved ones, and one of my 4th grade teachers lost their homes. Over 30 community members and firefighters died in the fires in 1991. To my young eyes, fire was scary, unnatural, threatening, and dangerous.

As an adult, I have a much more casual relationship with fire, perhaps best described as “approach with an abundance of caution.” So when I read a beautiful article in a 2019 edition of the New Yorker about the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, near where I grew up, I was immediately curious and a bit nervous. The article was about Indigenous land stewardship, ancient and modern forest management practices, climate and biology, and the specific role of fire in forest ecology. I had already been exposed to some of these ideas, particularly to the notion that fire is completely healthy and normal. What is not healthy is attempting to completely prevent fires which allows brush to build up and fuels more devastating fires, and humanity’s destructive impact on the planet in the form of deforestation of massive, ancient forests, the lungs of the earth. What struck me the most about these fires was that they were fundamentally generative. I read about how certain pinecones only release their seeds after a fire, when the ground is cleared of brush and these seeds can find their way into the soil. These sprouts and saplings can then grow in the sunlight that is able to penetrate a less dense forest canopy. Simply put, these pinecones need fire so they can turn into trees. I fell immediately in love with them. 

The metaphor they represented was overwhelming and powerful for me. Like clay hardening into a bowl or bread baking in an oven, these conical seed pods need the heat of the fire to transform. In this story, fire wasn’t destructive or dangerous, it was part of a natural cycle of growth, death, transformation, and rebirth that is completely natural for forest ecosystems. This specific biological process is called serotiny, essentially “the retention of seeds in pods or cones on the tree, often for many years, until a disaster, most commonly the heat of a fire, causes their release.” The pinecone (illustrated by Evon Zerbetz) has become the logo for Partake Arts because I love these little serotinous cones, and I am truly energized and moved by the metaphor they present. We have a lot to learn from these trees, these pinecones, these fires, these seeds.      

I am going to invite you to think about times when we have been the pinecone, experiencing the fire. Where are you and what is the metaphorical fire you are experiencing? Now what would happen if the fire were a good thing? This is essentially an invitation to reframe a challenge you have experienced into a moment of learning, and possibly even growth.