Essentialism Tested by Fire: Anne Bradstreet’s Puritan Poem and Our Local Wildfire

In silent night when rest I took, 
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire. 

–Opening lines from “Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666,” by Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet’s poem became way too relevant to my students and to me in the fall of 2020 as the East Troublesome Fire roared through our county. I found myself rethinking my recent, somewhat flippant comments about “2020 being a dumpster fire of a year” and how our local wildfire might become “some version of Lord of the Ring‘s Mordor.” On a Wednesday night I looked out my front door and saw a scene that looked way too much like Mordor:  

Each year, I revisit Bradstreet’s “Verses upon the Burning of our House” in the fall, asking students to consider how American colonists would have faced such a fire: no insurance, no fire departments, no hardware stores, no, etc. Many of the lost items were family heirlooms and hand-crafted objects. Anne Bradstreet escaped the fire with her family member’s lives intact but her possessions in ash heaps. 

In her poem, Bradstreet wrestles with her faith and lets readers listen in. Using forms of Psalm-like reflections and Shakespearean soliloquy, she attempts to refocus her faith to commit to spiritual values while she grieves over the loss of material possessions. Such was the drama of Puritan life–inside and out. 

Even if we differ from Puritans in our views of religion and metaphysics, we can still find common ground with Bradstreet. The stages of grief and the psychology of trauma are clearly relevant. Wrestling with loss, acceptance, and commitment reveals our common humanity and what we think is most important about life. 

During the worst stage of the fire, two roads were closed that connected to our small town, which was on pre-evacuation alert. My wife and I started to pack so that we could head to Denver to wait at a safe distance in case the anticipated changes in wind patterns moved the fire to our area.

I found myself with only a few hours to pack up about a dozen of my most important books and other essentials items. Looking back, I think of Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. At the time I found myself facing a crash-course in essentialism. The experience got me thinking about what matters for pursuing an overall good life, and how these sudden emergencies test our priorities. I’ve heard stories about what sorts of things local people tried to prioritize as they evacuated, and the various items remind me of moments from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  

Now, as much as in Bradstreet’s time, we need to prioritize our closest relationships and best sources of wisdom for the sudden adversities and emergencies that we encounter in life. Ultimately, we need a source of values that fire and other forms of destruction can’t reach. That’s some spiritual reflection many great writers of the past invite us to consider. The work of such prioritizing helps us clarify and make sense of life.  

The experience with our local wildfire reminded me of something else. In a college English course, Dr. Gilbert Findlay asked us about our choice for desert island or blood-brother books if we could only have one book to live with (No shipbuilding books allowed!). I bet that Dr. Findlay often meditated about what one book he would want or need if he couldn’t access his ample home library. With books and other items that we treasure, such meditations might be a healthy, regular practice for thinking about what matters most in life: a sort of fire drill for essentialism.

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