While we were on trail, I was in the process of memorizing the book of James. I’d recite it to myself as we plodded along, trying to ingrain its five chapters in my head. I’d started memorizing it long before we left for the PCT, but it turns out the chapter I was committing to memory was perfectly apt for, well, way too much of the trail.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell… With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things out not to be so.” (James 3:5b-6, 9-10, ESV)
On the trail, we walked through a lot of burned forests. A lot. They were often only a few miles long, but sometimes they stretched for days’ worth of miles. A couple sections of the trail were closed due to fires from last year, and Zach and I barely made it through California before pretty much the entire trail behind us caught on fire.
I thought the burn areas would go away once we left California, but there were huge stretches in Oregon and Washington, too. Most of the length of the trail is in a fire ecosystem, which means that periodic forest fires are important to the health of the forest. So, while the analogy doesn’t hold up perfectly, I could look around me while reciting these verses and see, in a vivid and tangible way, how great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire (or lightning strike, as the case may be).
So next time you need a reminder to hold your tongue, think of a burned forest. Think of the smell of ash, the ghostly scorched bark, and the searing heat from a sun overhead in a forest that casts no shade. Look at the tiny trees springing up after the inferno, which will take years to grow to full height. (If you like, you can even think of me grumbling under my breath about how this burn area goes on forever.)
And remember that words, like a fire, are all too easily misused.