Making hope, healing with fire ◐

Mekdela Maskal on repairing our relationship with the natural world.

Back in 2020, at the beginning of March, I had just confirmed a new group of climate-focused residents for The Strange Foundation’s Decelerator program. Then a few weeks later the pandemic hit, and everything—including our humble residency—was thrown into uncertainty. Artist and journalist Mekdela Maskal was supposed to join us with her collaborator, organizer and educator Sawdayah Brownlee, but as COVID dragged on and spring turned to summer, she ended up moving from New York City to California, and we were never able to meet. To put it mildly, that made me sad.

As someone whose work squarely aligns with the ethos of Dark Properties (strategic, poetic, imaginative, earthly), I was excited to use this editorial project as an excuse to reconnect with Mekdela. In the below interview, we pick up right where we left off—back in the weird, bad times of 2020—and learn how she used a health crisis to pivot her life towards healing, and into a deeper relationship with the natural world. She also shares insights from her experience working with fire, which she sees as a tool that can be instrumental in processing, and healing from, grief. This conversation left me feeling grounded and hopeful, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

— Willa 

Willa: Last time we spoke was half a year into the pandemic. You had just moved from NYC back to Northern California, where you grew up. What compelled you to make that move?

Mekdela: I had been feeling a shift coming for a while, even before the pandemic started. At the end of 2019 I had just finished grad school for my journalism degree. At the exact same time, I found a massive cyst on my right ovary. 

Finding the cyst threw me into a phase of wanting to understand my body more, but trying to learn about women’s health in our patriarchal world felt extremely overwhelming. As I attempted to get into realignment with my body, the pandemic was also beginning, which added another layer of complication. All these questions about personal, collective, and environmental health were intersecting in a very visceral way.

As I began to understand how many different environmental stressors were contributing to my health issues, that’s when I knew I needed to leave the city. I was like, “Okay, this shift needs to happen now.”

What kinds of environmental stressors were affecting you the most?

The necessity to produce, for one. In New York City, it’s hard to not feel completely confined by capitalism, and by the cost of living. Because of that, my attunement to my own body was just so out of whack. I had to get to this place of severe physical pain with something that had been speaking to me for a while, and I just was not listening. 

In May I had surgery to remove the cyst. As I healed, I kept journeying upstate and going to the beach because I was feeling this intrinsic need to be in less human-made spaces. I realized then that living in alignment with nature needed to be a major part of where I went next. And because of the pandemic, I just thought it made sense to go somewhere I had some rooting. So I ended up here, where my dad used to live. He now lives in Ethiopia, but we had just built a studio down the hill from his old house.

As soon as I got here, I could feel an internal expansion happening, physically as well as creatively. I was so constrained in New York. As someone who is super connected to process, I need space to create. Here I can be in that process without needing to be attached to an end result.

In this newfound freedom, I’ve started to collect ochers and make my own paints and work with clay. I’m creating with elements pulled from the environment. And I don’t have to engage with the market, which has been so freeing. 

Beyond being an artist with a journalism degree, you work as the Engagement Director for Covering Climate Now. How does your job fit in with your larger practice?

I have the strong opinion that climate news needs to be told from a local perspective. While I was in grad school I worked for a nonprofit newsroom in NYC. I was part of a project with the Brooklyn Public Library that brought journalists and communities together to rebuild trust by having newsrooms focus on key issues of actual community concern. I mention this because it speaks to a throughline in my work, which is relationship repair.

In April of 2020, right before I moved, I started working for Covering Climate Now. It’s essentially a journalism collaboration that calls on the media to break the silence on the climate crisis. Back in 2020, there was truly a dire lack of reporting on climate—especially around the 2018 IPCC report. Our founders, Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, noted that when the IPCC report came out, it named all of these industries that needed to be overhauled in order to avert impending crisis, but it didn’t mention media or journalism at all. They were appalled by that—both considering the lack of accountability that they felt like the media had, and also the lack of importance that reflected.

It’s our belief that all journalists need to have climate literacy, just like we expect all journalists to understand the basics of business and politics. The work I do now involves supporting journalists directly with their climate reporting. This can mean different things depending on the newsroom we’re working with, from running trainings to connecting journalists for collaborations. Overall, we try to create a community of practice around climate journalism that anyone can tap into.

What do you see as the main challenges right now for climate journalists?

They’re similar to the challenges of journalism in general. This idea of, “If it bleeds, it leads” tends to dictate which stories are told. In the news you’re compelled to follow crises, and anything else that can be sensationalized. That’s an issue with climate, because the story is actually long and nuanced. Extreme weather events tend to get immediate coverage because they’re intense and dramatic, but the long-term effects rarely get covered. 

As one example, what happened to New Orleans in the years following Hurricane Katrina? Not only in terms of the damages, but in terms of how communities come together to adapt? Those stories don’t often get covered.

An obvious extrapolation of this is, “If it bleeds, it reads.” Because of this, people miss out on a lot of climate stories that are actually more positive or hopeful—and now the average person is basically convinced the world is ending. I think this has resulted in many people feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless that they don’t want to engage with the topic of climate at all. Do you feel that way?

Definitely, and it’s hard. Especially since hope is not something you just have; instead, you have to make it. Hope is action.

I’m able to have hope because I am engaging in practices in my community that are making a difference in repairing the land, repairing myself, and repairing my relationship with the land. And because my work is hands-on, I can see these positive changes materializing.

At the same time, I am definitely struck by how much death is happening both to humans and to our living environments. I’ve been feeling a sense of tension over how to articulate this with words, because every time I say it, it doesn’t sound like what I mean, but: I don’t think that bad things need to happen for good things to happen. We don’t have to go through trauma to learn sacredness, or to repair relationships. And yet, it does feel like a direct path. My actual physical sickness did bring me this depth of embodiment that I’m not sure I would have accessed otherwise.

As an example, in many regions, bringing fire to the landscape actually brings health to that landscape. So while I don’t wish for a super devastating wildfire to come through, when one does, I’m not only feeling despair—I’m also feeling hope.

This feels like a good segue into your experience working with fire. Can you talk about that?

I started working with fire when I was really young. When we came to this land it was very, very dense. Just to put a tent down to sleep in, we had to start clearing and doing pile burns. When I moved back here three years ago, I began to redevelop that practice. 

This area, Nevada County, is a peak fire zone. We don’t really get rain from April until October, and there are lots of big dry trees. So that feeling of the potential for a fire to come through is very present. 2020 was a big year for wildfires, and many came very close to my home. I felt that fear in my body. It was the first time that I had to create an evacuation plan and make a Go Bag.

What did it feel like to know the fire was getting closer and closer to you?

While watching the smoke grow on the horizon and tracking the fires on my phone, I definitely had a heart-pounding, “better get ready” feeling. But at the same time, there was also this deep sense of quiet and calm. Some folks leave this area for the entire fire season, and just don’t want to be here then. But I don’t have that feeling at all. I have the feeling of, “If a fire is going to come through here, I want to see it happen.” I don’t need to be close to it, and I want to stay safe, but I do want to bear witness.

I also want to be able to support the community of humans, livestock, and other animals that need to get to safety when a fire is coming through. So I decided to educate myself on wildfire behavior, and to build relationships with the Nisenan folks here.

As I’ve developed that relationship, it led to me working on an art piece about grief, and about fire being taken from the landscape because it was outlawed by settlers when they arrived. It’s worth pointing out that many plants actually ask for fire, like giant sequoias who need fire or insects to crack open their cones and let the seeds out. Fire also clears the forest floor, exposing soil for seedlings to take root and helping remove competing species, like rapidly repopulating incense cedar.

Beyond fire’s ecological or environmental frame, it also has this inherent sacredness and power to help us transmute. Fire is integral to human existence. When used ceremonially, it can also help us process the grief that has stagnated in our lives—not only in relation to climate, but from the last four years of ongoing war, pandemic, and social unrest. As a culture, we have a real lack of collective grief practices. And fire, I feel, has the potential to weave all these things together.

It seems like the only collective grieving we do these days is through social media, which is wholly inappropriate. Grief is not an on-demand, scroll-through experience. It’s a personal process, but it can also be so healing when it’s experienced collectively. Right now, so many communities are grieving for so many reasons, and I feel like we almost never acknowledge that or give it the space it deserves.

It’s a reflection of how hyper-individualized we all are, that grief is so personalized. So much of our access to grief comes through the news cycle, or at least this kind of production of content.

Going back to fire, I had such a profound experience at Firecraft, a training program I did in Kashia Pomo territory. Before that, I was already engaging in prescribed fire or cultural burning, which is the act of bringing fire back to the landscape in a very slow, ceremonial way with a lot of care for the land. There is so much that goes into understanding the landscape enough to practice this, from knowing how different plants burn, to understanding what a balanced forest in a certain bioregion looks like, to tracking weather patterns and effects. That practice is so beautiful to me—just that deep knowing that has to happen.

Interestingly, Cal Fire is working to adopt some of these Indigenous practices. Before the training I wondered, “How does an organization like Cal Fire do that in an accountable and responsible way, while bringing in the original caretakers of different areas of land here?” I’m still learning about that, but the training that I did brought some of those pieces together for me. It was put on by a few collaborating groups—Fire Forward, Forestry Technicians Workshop, Kashia Pomo Cultural Department, The School for Inclement Weather, and Wudang White Horse Academy—and was divided into two sessions. The first was focused on getting Firefighter Type II certified, which is what you need to be on a wildfire suppression crew. The second session was focused on spiritual discipline and fortification and included Qi Gong, friction fire, and herbalism. It engaged every part of me. 

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the idea of “solastalgia,” which is a sense of homesickness one can feel simply because of the ways climate change has altered their home. Do you experience a sense of longing for the way things used to be?

I’ve never felt attached to memories of the way my life used to be. I am a child of immigrants and we’ve moved around a lot, so for me home has always been a feeling, not a place. Home is an experience of belonging that has to be built over time. This doesn’t mean I don’t experience grief when I see a place I love changing. And grief is of course present when I see living beings dying or getting hurt. But I don’t think I am yearning for “what was” so much.

To me, change is one of the most holy things. When I hear people say, “It’s all going to shit. We better be scared,” my reaction is, “How do you know that?” I’m not saying that it’s not scary and that bad things aren’t happening, but I think that direction of thought leads to apathy and hopelessness and lack of movement. Instead, we need to experience a sense of aliveness as we move into a changed world. This comes through action, and through relationship, as I’ve said before.

Can you say a little bit more about this idea of “relationship?” I think it’s an important point, this larger circuitry of connections that go beyond other people, and can include our land and plants and other communities as well.

It’s about reciprocity. “I’m not seeking to just know, but I’m also seeking to be known.”

In the first few weeks after I moved here, I hung up a hammock outside and would sit there while I worked. I noticed the hawks flying above almost immediately. After a while, I could tell that they were getting to know me, to trust me. As they became accustomed to my presence, they flew lower and lower.

This is a simple example of how we can bring familiarity to other beings as a form of mutual exchange. It can feel disarming to decenter humans from the ecosystem in that way, and to think of other beings as the center—to think about them and how they’re perceiving us. But this way of noticing and acknowledging allows a relationship to take shape.

We haven’t been taught how to listen to other beings who aren’t people. I mean, even human relationships aren’t easy… but beyond those, it seems we’ve fully forgotten how to communicate with different types of non-human intelligences. 

Right. It goes back to this kind of sacredness, and it almost feels like learning another language. 

My creative practice helps me get closer to non-human intelligences, and to really center them in my life. When I make paint and clay and I’m in a relationship with the land where I’m creating, it feels like a form of mutual witnessing. It inspires me to ask if it’s okay for me to take things from the land to use in my work, and that in turn leads me to ask more questions, like, “If I’m going to make this, who else should be involved? How should the life of what I create unfold over time?”

Trying to be in relationship with the natural world allows for these questions to be asked. It’s not necessarily that there’s a right answer—but it feels important to sit with the questions.

All images are from Mekdela’s Instagram

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