S F Ho, Fire, 2020, digitally altered photographs to accompany written essay. Courtesy the artist.
S F Ho: Fire
Someone told me that this place was a peat bog, though it doesn’t seem like one. The ground is firm, not moist. There is no moss to be seen. The area is crowded with blueberry bushes — escapees from nearby farms. There are tall shore pines sticking out of the bush, and the ground is covered in pink and purple heather, and labrador tea. I am on the traditional territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm, at a berry picking spot that is common knowledge in the queer community. I think of this as a queer place in opposition to its designation by the Canadian state as Department of Defense land.
Faggoty, hard, soft, sticky, berry-infused sex has happened on this land. The berries seem to be infused with the spicy taste of labrador tea, the soft colours of heather. Some might ask for permission before harvesting from this territory, some might gather in ways that are mindful of how their actions affect the ecological relationships that exist in this place. Many do not think about this, and initially I didn’t either. In some ways this text is a reflection of my ongoing learning process.
2017 and 2018 are years of intense wildfire in the Pacific Northwest. Mornings are suffused with an eerie sunset light due to the smoke that blocks out the sky, as if the day is perpetually ending instead of just begun. Smoke covers the ocean in a disconcerting fog. It envelops us so that we can’t tell where we are or which way we should go. There also is a massive fire at the bog, sparked by a human encampment. It is especially hard to put out as it spreads underground into the dry peat. The burning pockets form dangerous pits that collapse beneath your step.
Just before the fire, I happen to pick a small container of berries from the bog. The berries sit in my freezer for maybe too long a time until I get sick and am too weak to do much. I decide to make jam out of the berries and labrador tea from this place that I think is lost. The process requires all my energy. I sterilize jars and dig out the berries, hoping that they’re still okay. Since labrador tea can be intense in large quantities, I bind the leaves into small bundles so that they can infuse into the concoction without getting too mixed in. By the end I am too tired to screw the caps on the jars. Working at this slower, concentrated pace makes me sit with the smell and the feel of the plants. It makes me want to return to the bog.
I can’t remember large portions of the time that I was in treatment. Visiting this special place, I remember a feeling like being radioactive and lying on the ground and the ground likewise radiating into me. The earth-hot body-feel pulses hot all over, sun bright, sky blue. Sometimes I go alone, sometimes with a friend. These visits blur, but in them I feel growth and shifts in the season. The blueberry bushes are burnt into skeletal stands of charcoal. The branches scratch pictures onto Ari’s sky-blue jean jacket and my aquamarine silk shirt as we brush past them. New growth is already shooting up from the centre of these black tentacular creatures. True to its name, fireweed pops up everywhere, as it does after disturbances like fire. There are two kinds of fireweed here. I watch them grow from sprouts to tall flowers as the weeks, then months, pass.
In Chinese cosmology, the elements are not solid and fixed as they are in the Platonic model, but instead are forces of change that influence one another. Fire, sometimes called the Clinging, moves upward and corresponds to the heart / mind. It is fed by wood and returns to earth as ashes. In the I Ching, I see the trigram for fire as two bolts of energy that cling to, or are fed by, the nurturing energy of the earth. Within the hexagram for Grace, the fire trigram’s central yielding line is described as an ornament to be “used sparingly and only in little things,” which “comes between the strong lines and makes them beautiful.” In this framework, fire is delicate and energetic. It is not a destructive force, though not necessarily a generative one either. It is connected to and dependent on earth, plants, people, water, metal, and air. It only becomes dangerous when it is out of balance. As in many other regions, within the specific context of the Pacific Northwest, raging wildfires actually reflect extreme fire suppression tactics in contemporary forest management strategies. Before colonization, small wildfires or controlled burns set by Indigenous land stewards cleared out the accumulation of dry brush, preventing larger fires that could damage trees or homes. The success of this technology reflects generational experience of living in relation with this land.
Leaping beyond his limitations as an individual at the instant of his death, a certain party rendered manifest a gold chrysanthemum flower 675,000 kilometers square, surrounded and surmounted by, yes, a purple aurora, high enough in the sky to cover entirely the islands of Japan. Because the other, attacking army opened fire on their truck first, the soldiers nearby the boy were immediately massacred and he alone survived. A certain party had requested this of the gods on high, for it was essential that someone, someone chosen, witness the gold chrysanthemum obliterate the heavens with its luster at the instant of his death. And, in truth, the boy did behold the appearance high in the sky, not blocking the light as would a cloud but even managing to increase the glittering radiance of the sun in the blue, midsummer sky, of a shining gold chrysanthemum against a background of purple light. And when the light from that flower irradiated his Happy Days they were instantly transformed into an unbreaking, eternal construction built of light.
In Ōe Kenzaburō’s scathing satire of war and fascism, presented as a parody of an atomic explosion, I hear echoes of Japan’s imperialist impulse and the suicidal, nationalist drive of the writer Mishima. This immense and deeply unstable fire exemplifies the logic of violence and modernity carried out to its extreme conclusion. As frightening as this vision may be, in this passage I also recognize Ōe’s longing to give in to the seductive totality of violence, something that seems pertinent with the present resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism here and around the globe. When the world has gone so totally wrong that the god you’ve been taught to call an emperor is revealed to be as frail as your own self, when society around you has been reduced to horror, the finality of an atom bomb or of death by suicide may seem like an alluring solution. But, as much as some would want to have such power, even after an atom bomb, the world refuses to literally end. Technically, it is not an ending but a transformation that happens in the ashes of this irradiated light. From horror so profound that it seems like nothing can come after, I feel a collective push to resist by preserving and imagining the most generous forms of continuity.
Even though the wreckage had been described to her, and though she was still in pain, the sight horrified and amazed her, and there was something she noticed about it that particularly gave her the creeps. Over everything — up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trucks — was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of the plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew. Especially in a circle at the centre, sickle senna grew in extraordinary regeneration, not only standing among the charred remains of the same plant but pushing up in new places, among bricks and through cracks in the asphalt. It actually seemed as if a load of sickle-senna seed had been dropped along with the bomb.
There was no room for the moss before the blaze due to the overgrowth of domestic blueberry bushes. Now that the bushes have been cleared by fire, a tiny world emerges. One kind of moss is a purple-centred drippy umbrella palm tree with spaghetti for leaves. Another growth is lichen-y brown, with a six-sided snowflake-like pattern etched upon its flat head. Little orange mushrooms intercept this forest in miniature. Delicate tendrils with knobs at the end emerge through the carpet. Finally, tufts of vivid green sphagnum poke their way through. Through my own minor process of disintegration, I am keeping low to the ground, I am moving small and slow. My skin is tickled by the earth that is thick with life. I am just beginning to recognize the multitudes that ground this place.
Sphagnum moss is comprised of living, photosynthesizing cells connected to a long trail of dead cells that can be hundreds if not thousands of years old. The dead cells provide structure and carry water up to the living cells. The dead cells also expand as they fill with water, pushing out air to create an anaerobic environment that slows their decomposition. In this relationship, the dead support the living. They are distinct but not separate. I think about these ancestors. This entire ecosystem is a pocket of life left over from the last ice age. As I walk through the bog or lie in the moss, a massive network of sphagnum supports my weight. As I feel the moss softly yield underneath my feet, I think about the work of the dead that is activated through our movements and bodies. Death carries connotations of finality within this language, but in practice it points to a process that is, again, always changing. I think about how I may remain connected to the fabric of the world as I take part in this humbling process and let go of the ways in which I cannot not be present. Perhaps fire doesn’t only have the power to transform but may spark a perpetual cycle that can bring out the past.
It’s the night of the new moon. I lay out all the most beautiful food in the house and make a meal to share with my grandfather. As I light incense, I realize that it’s been many years since I’ve been in his presence. I think about sitting with him as a child when he was full of laughter and music, and I feel his joyful spirit running through me. I think about sitting with him in the hospital when he was speechless and distressed. It feels good to sit with him again. I am tremendously tired, and I’ve needed this company and connection. I stare at the three sticks of incense and see the interweaving of spirit, practice and community. It’s funny how fitting it feels to be compelled to continue such ancestral practices even as, through distance, death or sheer difference, I become more removed from my blood relatives. I think about the stories of hungry ghosts, perpetually empty and dissatisfied, and hope that this particular gesture can speak to such hunger.
I fold and burn a bundle of joss paper out in the backyard and remember doing this with my grandfather, for his mother, when he was alive. Watching the paper curl into ash, my mind wanders and dwells yet again on dying. I breathe in the incense and breathe into the uncertainty of this long year of sickness, accepting the fear of the unknown only to have it return so that I must embrace it again. The scent of sweet, carcinogenic smoke is a reminder of all the things that could kill me right now, but for the moment this inevitable threat also smells like home. I kowtow three times. My body is loaded with the weight of drugs, sickness and crazy fucking thoughts, but my heart is wide open. The last tiny ember disappears into smoke.
 Wilhelm, Hellmut editor and Cary F. Baynes translator. The I Ching or Book of Changes, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 90.
 Ōe Kenzaburō, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 100.
 John Hersey, Hiroshima (New York: Bantam, 1946), 89.
 Much of the thinking in this paragraph around sphagnum and ancestry is in conversation with Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay “The Red Sneaker,” in her book Gathering Moss (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003).
S F Ho is an artist who is 90% chill, 10% not, living on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ peoples. They’re into community building, books and being sort of boring. They recently finished writing George the Parasite (2020), a short novella about aliens, love and boundaries.
[Image descriptions: A series of three photographs, each with white text superimposed over one side of the image.
[Fire 01: Viewed from above, patchily blackened bare branches radiate from the centre of a nearly leafless blueberry bush, filling the frame. Leafy, light green shoots, shorter and more slender, crisscross and radiate from the centre. Around the bush, and visible between the bare branches, tiny disks of green dot the dark earth amidst clumps of smaller ochre dots. They are sparse on the left and thicker on the right side, where the grade subtly slopes downward. Around the burnt bush, slender-leaved single stalks of other plants in ones, twos, and larger clumps. Some are a deep magenta but for their green tips, and others are uniformly green.
[Text: "In this framework, fire is delicate and energetic, not a destructive force, though not necessarily a generative one. It is connected to and dependent on earth, plants, people, water, metal and air."
[Fire 02: A softly-focused close-up from below peering through ochre-hued filaments and bulging, bobbing green heads of moss sprouts oriented every which way. They are mostly out of focus near and far, a few as tall as an amber-colored mushroom on a slender stalk that peeks out and angles to achieve verticality on a gently sloping grade.
[Text: "As I feel the moss softly yield underneath my feet, I think about the work of the dead that is activated through our movements and bodies. Death carries connotations of finality within this language, but in practice it points to a process that is, again, always changing."
[Fire 03: In the centre, small, emergent leafy green shoots of a small blueberry bush regenerates from a muddy bog. The bush sits in a shallow depression at the foot of a fire-singed slope extending upward. Criss-crossing the slope are olivey-mustard-colored clumps of grass. Broken bits of dead branches litter the depression, amidst a confetti of small green things newly sprouting.
[Text, where the background under the letters has been blurred: "From horror so profound that it seems like nothing can come after, I feel a collective push to resist by preserving and imagining the most generous forms of continuity."]