Time to Say Goodbye

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.

Like my brother and I often say to each other, You might as
well live while you’re livin’

Karen Olson welcomes you to contact her at

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