I climbed up into the belly of his slurry bomber, followed the sound of his slight Irish brogue into the dark cavern. Now reach up to your right, grab the rail, pull yourself up to the deck. It wasn’t pretty, but I managed. I couldn’t see anything, but could hear his chuckle working its way toward me. This was his world. One hundred degrees of stifled air, no light, and some sort of chemical stench. And his soothing voice quoting out to me as we found our way to the cockpit.
All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.
Though he couldn’t fire up the plane with me in it, he could open a window in the cockpit. My first co-pilot chair. I hadn’t believed he flew with Hamlet in his cockpit. And so: Here we were–a couple stories above the tarmac at the tanker base. Late blue skies filling in our view belied the horrific wildfires choking my Big Sky state. And there–in the side pocket of his pilot’s seat, a worn green leather volume of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
What else did I not believe?
Last week my sister had stopped in the back pasture of her sheep farm. The idea to leave her chores in mid-chore and walk all the way back to the farm house to telephone her husband was so urgent, she didn’t argue with herself. So that was what she did and because that is what she did, she happened to be standing in the only spot on their farm visible to the start of a fire in the neighboring cattle field. Spontaneous combustion. First there was no fire and then there was fire.
And then rapid calm washed over her. 911, shovels, truck keys. For over forty minutes she fought the fire by herself, waiting for the rural fire department to arrive, waiting for her husband to drive the long road back from town. And when the fire was out, hours later, she called. When I heard her breathless voice, I thought I’d hear: Wild fire. But she said: Remember the burning bush? From the Bible?
It was just like that. The way it started. The way she happened to be standing when it did. Because otherwise, standing in any other place, she wouldn’t be standing now.
While I told him this, he nodded that all-knowing nod. Silence filled the cabin after my story ended. Maybe he thought I should hear the quiet way doubt couldn’t find a seat between us. He reached across me and turned the GPS unit off. We don’t need that on right now.
Once there was a forest fire, he shared, and once he was fighting fire in a plane just like this. And down below: three engine bosses and two ground crews. He could listen to their radio chatter on his headset. And ahead, after he flew over them he saw shimmer. You know the way a certain almost-gas can shimmer right before it ignites?
No. I didn’t know what that was like.
He heard the engine boss direct the crews into the very grove with shimmer overhead. Please, don’t–he interrupted. No time to ask questions. No time to explain. And so they didn’t ask and instead, they retreated. And after, that very section of forest burst into a crown fire.
That’s the way it goes.
And it was time to leave. But I didn’t want to go. Up here in the cockpit of a plane once used to shoot down torpedoes in WWII, I felt safe. When my feet hit the ground, that familiar taste of eluding trust would meet up with me again. But in this cockpit, with Shakespeare quotes filling the cabin, I was wise and able to understand everything must pass through nature. Once I left the plane, how would I hold onto this trust?
I had yet to meet the man selling jewelry in a booth at the Fourth of July parade. It wouldn’t be until tomorrow when I’d see the necklaces he made from the wings of jewel beetles. The female beetle flies to the smouldering bark to lay her eggs. She needs fire to live, and can sense its flame and hear the crackle of burning wood in the next county over.
Would I believe this beetle can detect a fire up to 50 miles away? –the artist asked. Yes, I wanted to, and by tomorrow evening I would become a believer and would walk away with a necklace of clacking, jeweled wings. Though the wings were not what the beetle needed to sense fire, it was something the beetle had on its flip side: Sensilla.