Time to Say Goodbye

How facing death can help us discover new beginnings


| September / October 2005


Years ago I accidentally started a wildfire. A gust of wind took a small spark to dry grass, and try as I might -- I did everything a former wildland firefighter would know to do -- I couldn't stop the flames as they spread rapidly from grass to brush to trees. Within only a few seconds I went from slowly waking up in a dreamy desert morning to standing face to face with a wall of fire. That fire -- with its beautiful orange, wild energy, and raw power -- was both mesmerizing and paralyzing. Fear rose up only when I heard a friend yelling for me to turn around and run.

Those few moments were the closest I have come to facing my own death. And in the next few hours, as we ran down a nearly dry creek bed and wondered how fast and how far the fire was traveling, I had to face the idea that I might have just caused the death of several close friends -- and other people I didn't know who could have been in harm's way.

When I reached Grand Canyon National Park rangers the following afternoon and told them I was the one who had started the fire, they told me we were lucky to be alive. They had expected to find bodies when they flew in by helicopter that morning to assess the damage. It turns out that no humans died as a result of the 52-acre blaze that scorched a rare desert oasis near the bottom of the Grand Canyon, killing juniper, acacia, and mesquite, as well as many rattlesnakes and lizards.

It may be a clich?, but there really is nothing like facing death to make you assess what is important in life. In a recent speech to graduating college students, Steven Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, told three stories, one about having to face his own mortality after being diagnosed with cancer. 'Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,' he said. 'Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.'

In this issue's cover section we explore the ways people are facing death today. The thought of death paralyzes some and inspires others. It brings some people together and brings others closer to themselves. For me, facing that fire in Grand Canyon changed my life and the direction of my career, the way I think about relationships and wilderness. It transformed the way I see the world, reawakening my lifelong passion for the ways that we are connected to fire, water, earth, and air. Now it's time for me to get back out into the elements -- and to write about them. So after six great years working at Utne, the last year and a half as editor, this is my last issue.

Utne has been such an important part of my life. I have loved meeting, writing about, corresponding with, and working alongside some of the smartest and most compassionate people I've had the pleasure to know. Now I'm off on new adventures -- first stop British Columbia -- and I hope to meet you all somewhere along the way.