IT HAPPENED IN the state of Iowa, and when it struck, I happened to be mowing the lawn. The back yard of the rented house was at the edge of town, on the hillside. Leafy summertime, and from the yard one could see other hillsides, trees in the sunlight, to the horizon.
Could I have been pushing a hand mower or was there a gasoline engine on the machine? I think it must have had the engine, I think there were heavy waves of loud that afternoon. Back and forth…zoom….zoom in the middle of the 1960’s. Jonathan Seagull was an unfinished manuscript, forgotten at the bottom of a stack of other manuscripts.
Zoom…sometimes slowing in the thickest grass. How am I going to finish this lifetime, I thought. So many expenses, so little income from the few books. I didn’t know why I was here, right when I was facing…what? When you’ve got no money in a culture that needs money to live. I didn’t think of it as a divine test for mortals, then. It was the leading edge of disaster.
Why did I bother to mow the lawn? What can I do that will somehow stop the sound of destruction for this life? Could I get a job at the airport? Would a business there want me for an instructor? Some up times, as a writer, some down ones with other jobs. Will it always be up and down, hills like this lawn, trying to live day after day?
At least I was mowing the lawn. I turned the mower around at the high side of the lawn. A little distance below was a barbed-wire fence where there used to be cows, more hills, and the horizon. When I turned, I looked up for a second and the trees were on fire!
I stopped, I couldn’t believe! All of them! The shapes of the trees, near-trees and horizon-trees, were swept in waves of bright orange, shimmering sunrise colors, splashes of sudden blues changing second to second. The barbed wire was glowing, as if it was electricity, pulsing the same fires as the trees.
For some reason I didn’t scream and run. I stood there, unmoving, and looked. I didn’t think what’s going on? Didn’t think at all. Just soaked in the colors of the trees, the grass, the fence wires, the firestorm of colors, for half a minute. Then the fire settled down, the fireworks slower, smaller, the wire cooling until it was old wire again, and then the trees were just trees, everyday trees, green leaves and shadows in the afternoon.
After a long stunned minute, I closed my mouth and finished mowing the yard. I had no idea what had happened or what it was supposed to mean. What could I have said: “I saw the world burn up, but it’s fine now?”
Life went on. I was a flight instructor for a while, wrote articles at night for magazines. Step by step. There’s a reason. I don’t know what the reason is, I thought, so I might as well keep living until I learn why.
A while later, weeks, months, years later, I remembered the fires. One clue: they weren’t fires — they were auras! We all have auras we can’t see (well, some people see them). Do trees have auras? Later I heard about Kirlian photographs. Close but not the forest on fire, and the glowing barbed wire.
It’s never happened since. One half-minute in one lifetime.
In the Bible, the story about the burning bush that was not consumed, that was the same thing that I saw. Not a bush, though, a whole forest, horizon to horizon, afire for thirty seconds while I stood there, mowing the lawn. Was it whispering, This world is not what you think it is!
As far as I know, I haven’t written about that strange scene. It’s been locked in my mind all these years, and when I woke this morning I saw some trees out the window and they reminded me. They didn’t catch fire, they were just quiet little trees. Yet I thought, behind the everydayness of the trees, do their auras sweep upward like flames around them all? Do the fires of our own auras, I wondered, do they lift and fall as we live our screenplays, as we trace our beliefs on the world we chose for our lessons?
What lovely silent fires we light, never seeing them, as we play!