The Wild Fire

Written By: Jessica Gartenstein

The Wild Fire

The year I was born Tom Hanks was nominated best actor for his role in Forest Gump, a gallon of unleaded gasoline cost $1.19, and the “Sunrise Wildfire” swept through the pine barrens region in late August. From the time that I had the cognitive ability to comprehend the English language, my parents always told me stories about the venomous fire as we drove down the Sunrise Highway on our way to Water Mill. When we finally approached the dull, desolate mile of rotted shrubbery, I could only imagine the fire as a dancing demon that swallowed life as it rhythmically swayed across the lushes floor of the earth, and the intoxicating smell of burning wood clogged my nose. It was as if the fire was still alive, yearning to beat me in a game of hide and seek. I believed that it was my duty to protect my naive younger brother from the fire that could strike at any moment and follow us a great distance to our home. The flames became my self-imagined arch nemesis that peopled my mind for years.

Only gradually, as I neared my eight birthday, did the fire begin to fade away from the depths of my imagination. Summers were no longer filled with fear and the smell of decomposing trees, but cooper-tone, burning meat, and magical endeavors. Long days in Water Mill played an essential role in my life.

I remember the summer I went on my first date. It was a humid, sticky Friday in June and we were driving out East that weekend for Father’s Day. I had a dinner date in the town of South Hampton with the object of my affection at precisely 7:30. As we drove on the Sunrise Highway, I observed that life was beginning to return to the pine barrens. It made me feel old. I was only thirteen. That night, while waiting for my date on a rusty bench in town, I realized that I didn’t understand boys at all. What was I doing? On the date I transformed into a neonate who was fascinated with the slightest foreign sound.

The tall boy with a defined nose and warm eyes broke my heart that summer. What ate me alive most was that I learned about the true meaning of jealousy, the one emotion I simply could not control. On my way home from Water Mill, I sympathized with the pine barrens, we were both recovering from internal burns.

The summer of my fifteenth year, I feel into a deep self induced depression. The drives to Water Mill were filled with fear and anxiety of the world around me. I was trapped in my own mind, I knew that my behavior was irrational, but I could not help thinking that my end was near. The ulcer in my stomach was beginning to increase in circumference. I went from being a pedantic youth to an insecure teenager whose sanity was rapidly dwindling away.

It was the fourth time driving by the pine barrens that summer when I noticed a change in myself. Little did I know that the only medication I needed was a reminder of the growth and beauty that the natural world provides me with. The pine barrens began to bring light back into my life and acted as a safety blanket to a world otherwise filled with inconsistencies. They triggered a series of warm memories that played in my head more frequently then re-runs of my favorite Woody Allen film. I began to recall long car rides filled with humorous quarrels and the sensation of eating gratuitous amounts of M&M’s until I felt sick to my stomach. I was intrigued by the scientific phenomenon that occurred when the hard shell of the M&M magically disappeared into a soft velvet heaven. Most importantly, the barrens reminded that every time I arrive in Water Mill, I am greeted by my grandparents who will always unconditionally love me no matter how many times I screw up. The world began to regain its worth. I realized the power of observing nature simultaneously age with me. I was slowly healing.

The next summer, my aunt and I took long drives in order to admire all of the aesthetic beauty that the Hamptons provided us with. More often than not, I would look at the grand houses and imagine what it would be like to live in one of the infinite mansions. My aunt would become increasingly frustrated when she tried to speak to me, but I was simply too caught up in my day dreams to respond. I began to look at those magnificent houses the same way that I looked at food; there wasn’t much I didn’t like, and the only question was trying to find some sort of balance between consumption and health. If left to my own devices, I would probably have had my aunt drive me around into the night time. That summer, I did not look at the pine barrens as a land recovering from devastation but a painting so perfectly proportioned that Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man began to look amiss.

My senior year of high school I was presented with a challenge while studying William Blake’s Songs of innocence and Songs of Experience. The question at hand was does nature imitate art or does art imitate nature? I quickly realized that the answer to a question like that is just about as simple as locating the last digit of an irrational number. That’s how you know a question is splendid: there is no single or right answer. But the question did remind me of the pine barrens. As I thought back to my oasis of now expanding shrubbery, I realized that nature and art became one of the same. When this rarity occurs, it simply does not matter which one is imitating the other. The only thing that holds true meaning are the emotions provoked while enjoying the greater beauties that mother earth has to offer. Looking up at of the tall trees that have grown more than twice my height in the span of 18 years makes time only feel like a wonderful illusion.

We still drive down the Sunrise Highway on our way to Water Mill. Now that I am older, my parents urge me to get a drivers license so I can drive them out East, but I know that if I do, the pine barrens will lose the life that my eyes provide them with.