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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn DuHamel

Fire Series #3 - Returning: Renewal of Vows

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

I’m home. I’m home. Let me say it one more time. I am home.

Late afternoon Sunday, August 30th, the words I had tried to will into existence finally appear on the Cal Fire CZU Lightening Complex website: BEN LOMOND, ZONE 004: REPOPULATE.

Too eager to wait for morning, I thank my hosts and hurriedly pack, barely able to jam my luggage and boxed belongings, dog crate and brand new air purifier into a car that seems to have shrunk since I bolted from home.

As my dog Benny and I pull into the driveway at 8:30, twilight darkening into night, I throw back my head and howl. My neighbors Kirsten and Rod arrive ten minutes later, as if prearranged. Maddie, their black and white terrier-mix, wiggles her way across the road to find me. When I drop down beside her, she moves as close as she can get, softly whimpering. Benny, eight months old, runs back and forth from my driveway to theirs, spinning, leaping, cavorting. Kirsten and I break our longstanding Co-vid protocol and hug, a long hug. Rod turns on the sprinklers and inspects the premises. There are no words for this joy.

As I make numerous trips from car to house, dismantling my home-away-from-home, a mated pair of two great horned owls hoo-hoo-hooo, back and forth. While their attunement is with each other, it feels like a welcome-home serenade.

Morning light will reveal what the flames claimed as they crested the far ridgeline and descended down the hills I gaze upon each day. Tonight, I turn on the lights and give my house a close inspection, so relieved that it doesn’t reek of smoke. Even the deck and driveway are free of the toxic ash that had accumulated; the wind – the very element that delivered the ash – has swept it clean.

After unloading, I brace myself to face my vegetable garden and potted ornamentals, imagining them shriveled, dead. But no, not one has died! I shower them with water and praise for surviving twelve hot summer days without water. A few of them seem even to have flourished, and I tease them that I will no longer be fooled about needing daily watering.

I finally crawl into my own bed, noticing the absence of any tears of relief that often follow extended tension and fear. Only the one wild howl. Perhaps I was too happy, too busy, too exhausted – in that order.

Rosy sunrise glow highlights burned areas below ridgeline

First thing in the morning I open the blinds to the low mountains several miles away. The sight of bare soil and burnt pines on the upper third of the slopes is heartbreaking. Still, I know it could have been so much worse if the firefighters hadn’t halted the spread. And it is just far enough away that I am spared the harsh details.

I walk Benny, then methodically tackle the mess – evacuation can look much like a burglary with drawers pulled open and objects strewn everywhere. In this case, I had been the robber, stuffing loot into my car, stealing from fire what I couldn’t bear to lose. Now I reverse the process, clearing, cleaning, and putting away, as if making amends. It feels a bit like Christmas morning as I unwrap each item from the many crates, delighted and admiring as I place each back where it belongs. This is a ritual of returning.

THE MORE PROFOUND RITUAL BEGINS later that day, after order returns inside my home. I walk the land, thinking about the Defensible Space Recommendations issued by the Fire Department in order to decrease vulnerability to future wildfires. They suggest a thirty-foot zone of “lean, green, and clean,” with no foliage right next to any structures and one hundred feet of reduced fuel load, including a six-foot clearance between tree limbs and ground. It’s only right that I do my part to protect the land as well as decrease the risk for firefighters. Without their heroic efforts, I would be sifting ashes rather than deciding what to trim. I am anxious to get started. In California, fall is the most dangerous part of the fire season, and the CZU Fire is contained but not extinguished, capable of another run if weather conditions shift unfavorably. Tragically, climate change has already transfigured reality: explosive wildfires are now a predictable part of our lives.

So I begin. Each day I wake shortly after sunrise and check a website for local air quality ratings that range from green to purple. Is Ben Lomond’s smoke-laden air too toxic or is it safe enough to work outside? If the color is green or light yellow, I eat a quick breakfast, grab my leather gloves, hat and shears and head out the door. I’m as eager as an athlete at the starting line, my only limits are shifting air quality, the searing heat of a rising sun and the muscular stamina of my body.

This work is practical, but it is also deeply personal. I have been on this land over fifteen years. The sandstone soil, the chaparral hillsides, the knob cone pines and oak trees, the lizards, rabbits, chipmunks, foxes, rattlesnakes and coyotes, all of these and more, have long been my companions. As I take inventory, I want to touch each shrub, each tree, the dirt itself. Odd as it might sound, it’s like being reunited with a lover after a long separation - you just can’t get enough of each other.

By nature, I am a conservationist - I don’t want to disrupt or change anything in the natural world. A caring friend suggested I hire someone to do this hard labor; after all, at seventy-one, I am no spring chicken. But I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. So it is I who explains, asks permission, then takes a deep breath and begins to tentatively trim Manzanitas that look more like sculptures than large shrubs with their twisting burgundy limbs.

Mature Manzanita bushes

No, this is my job, even though my hands are cramped from hours of clipping, my arms scabbed from stuffing sharp-ended branches with prickly leaves into green recycle bins, and my leg muscles aching from endless trips up and down the steep slopes. Who else would lovingly agonize as I make the tough decisions of what must go, apologizing to the plants near the house and deck? Who else would advocate, saying, wait, this pine tree can stay or this manzanita branch is doing no harm? I want to be the one to listen and respond as I make the measured cuts to strip away the lower limbs from the oaks, and to celebrate with each trimmed plant and their neighbors as energy and space is freed for new growth.

It’s hard work, crawling through dense thickets of ignition-prone chemise shrubs, contorting my body as I cut and then tug them away, but now I can see the contours of the land and envision pathways to previously inaccessible areas. My dog Benny seems to understand how intent I am on this intimate work as he patiently stays nearby, not trying to entice me away for a hike.

Previously overgrown, I discover new possibilities

This routine goes on for days and then weeks. I pause only for air quality alerts and temperatures that soar over a hundred degrees by noon. Though I’m pushing my limits, the more I lose myself in this work, the more ageless I feel. I notice boundaries begin to blur and expand. Not only am I losing track of the hours but also of my human timeline.

My leather gloves are the same ones I worked in almost fifty years ago. National Forest Service issue. The stitching has dissolved on most of the fingertips, but the leather is still tough. As I slip them over hands much more in need of protection than my twenty-something hands, I slide back into that period of time. I am using the same trusted tool – loppers with long wooden handles - the metal blades oiled and sharpened for the day’s work. After hours of labor they morph into an extension of my arms.

For six years in my twenties I did seasonal work – May through October - for the Forest Service, beginning on a survey crew out in the woods counting tree planting survival rates, then living several summers in lookout towers doing fire surveillance. I finished the last two years supervising Youth Conservation Crews. The YCC program provided summer employment and mentoring for local, economically disadvantaged high school students. So while I am now cutting Manzanita, chemise and oak trees, I am simultaneously working side-by-side with eight teenagers, cutting brush and limbing Douglas fir and ponderosa pine to clear trails and create visibility for logging roads. I taught them to take the trouble to cut at the base of the branch rather than midway, just as I do now, in order to make it safe and more visually pleasing. And those workdays ended like mine do today. Covered with sweat, dirt and resin, we would proudly look at the progress we made before piling into the van. There would be a few minutes of excited chatter and teasing until they fell asleep as I drove the bumpy winding dirt roads back to Oak Knoll Forest Service Station.

I loved those kids. I loved their energy, loved seeing them work together, the girls discovering their muscles, the boys their ability to work as a team. My interest in our group dynamics and engagement with their personal growth inspired me to shift careers into counseling. When I told them of my new plans, they said, “Good luck with that, but I can’t see you in an office. You belong outdoors.” They knew me; in the way people know each other when they work long and hard side-by-side.

So yes, I can now afford new gloves, with soft leather and closed fingertips, but instead I intend to repair these worn gloves with needle and thread, hoping to get another few decades out of them, preserving the memories that are ground into the leather’s grain.

WHILE UNDER EVACUATION, I occasionally wondered what ritual of return I might create if I were lucky enough to come back to an unburned home and land. How could I meet the profundity of the moment? What ceremony could hold this? As I finally complete this fire protection project in late October, I realize that rather than something formal, I have been engaged in a living ritual. It began with attentively returning each object to its rightful place inside the home and then continued with my meditative tending of the land. Perhaps more than ritual, this has been a rite of passage. While it may not be visible like a graduation diploma or a ring on a finger, I am not the same person who fled several months ago. There has been a renewal of vows in my marriage to this land. My Earth Dialogues website mantra has been, What we love we will not turn away from. What I keep learning is that love starts at home under my feet and expands, without borders, from there.

  • If you want to read the fire series in order, first start with "Lit Up" and then "My Greater Skin."

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