What Yellowstone National Park’s ‘Summer of Fire’ Teaches Us About the 2016 Presidential Election

In moments of uncertainty, when the rug has been unexpectedly pulled out from under us, we seek solace in what we know. From the vantage point of familiar territory we find strategies to overcome, motivation to persevere, and reasons for optimism.

After teaching science for 16 years, my area of comfort and familiarity is biology, and I frequently find myself looking to it for answers. Emulating nature’s strategies isn’t new—the field is called biomimicry, and it’s an exceptional model of proven problem solving. Nature’s wisdom has helped engineers, designers, and scientists solve many diverse problems, and here it provides advice to help us in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

Nature is the best role model to guide us through an election result that incinerated many expectations because it too has faced devastation and responded in spectacular fashion.  In the 3.8 billion years life has resided on this planet, it has encountered and overcome meteor impacts and volcanic activity, shifting continents and changing atmospheric chemistry, the freeze and thaw of ice ages, and an ongoing and escalating arms race between hunters and the hunted.  Despite surprise catastrophe and long odds, it has always found a way to flourish.

With that in mind, here is a nature-inspired lesson for this presidential election.

Catastrophe leads to opportunity

This lesson played out on a stage observable from space, but I had a front-row seat. It was the summer of 1988, I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park was about to be engulfed by one of the largest wildfires in modern American history, and it was our fault. Yet, the story has a happy ending.

Beginning in June smoke started filling the skies and fire after fire ignited, spread, and conjoined to produce an unstoppable conflagration that eventually affected over 790,000 acres of the park. For comparison, that’s larger than the size of Rhode Island. The firestorm was visible from outer space, and by all accounts, these fires were the epitome of hot, full-throated chaos. Furthermore, it was clear that we had created this destructive inferno.

Blame can be traced to earlier in the 20th century when, in response to a series of notable wildfires, a frightened United States adopted a zero tolerance policy for fire. It was during this campaign that the iconic Smokey the Bear was born, and the irony of his “Only you can prevent the madness” message had yet to be revealed.  And in classic American fashion we dedicated ourselves to eradicating our fiery foe with the same collective energy we poured into putting a man on the moon (we are, if anything, a determined bunch).

As year after year passed without appreciable fire, the forces of nature silently built up behind our dam of obstruction. Fallen trees, dead branches, dried pine needles, and leaf litter accumulated and turned Yellowstone National Park into an enormous fire pit filled with kindling.  All it took was a spark, or, more accurately some lightening, and the rest was history.

Flash forward to the last decade when an analogous fuel has silently (and not so silently) been building up in segments of the American populace. But instead of dead trees and pine needles, it was the equally flammable fuel of animosity and despair. It was the ill will that grows inside of an assembly-line worker when he reads an article about “white privilege” after his job packed up and moved overseas. It was the anger that builds inside a person when she sees a story on CEO compensation as she prepares for her day working two jobs to stay just above the poverty line.  It’s the feeling of isolation that grows when a person uses his vote to plead for assistance only to see an unflinchingly self-serving government grind to a stalemate in the name of some artificial ideological purity. Ultimately, it’s the fear that consumes people when they see countless examples of the American dream falling out of reach.

Legitimate or not, accurate or mistaken, these feelings grew inside a consequential part of the American population. They accumulated like kindling, and all it took was the spark of a presidential election to ignite the political firestorm we just witnessed.

At this point I can see you saying, “So we inadvertently burnt everything to the ground, just like in Yellowstone. Gee, thanks. Where is the happy ending you promised?”

It’s coming, but first we have to return to a decimated Yellowstone.

Back in the park, when the early winter sleet and snow eventually extinguished the flames, it looked hopeless.  Black toothpicks dotted the seemingly sterile landscape, the park’s celebrated animals were nowhere to be found, the scorched soil gave rise only to the smell of smoke, and the crown jewel of national parks appeared irreparably scarred. Basically, it looked how I felt the morning after the election.

But then the forest did what it has always done in the face of chaos, it embraced it and took full advantage of the new normal. It turns out that the ashen soil was filled with nutrients released from the fire. Pine cones, long ago programmed by an intimate relationship with flame, opened and sowed seeds into the environment. Whole swaths of previously dense forest were thinned, allowing young aspen trees enough light to grow. With the return of aspens, so too came the elk who preferred the aspen’s tender pulp. The increase in aspen trees took some pressure off the willows, which the elk had been eating, and a more hearty willow population slowed riverbank erosion. The changes cascaded through the environment, and despite our worst fears for the outcome of the chaos and uncertainty of the fire, everything worked out.

Today, it’s easy to be consumed by the aftermath of our political wildfire and stand paralyzed among the scorched skeletons of our hopes and dreams. But instead of focusing on the damage, we must be like nature, face forward, and begin to rebuild.

 If Yellowstone can bounce back from the decided devastation of a fire long over due, we should have hope we can overcome our own political wildfire and pursue opportunity in the renewal that always follows catastrophe.

For more nature-inspired stories, in both print and video, consider visiting NatureSays.org.