Fire Series #2: My Greater Skin
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
All poem excerpts from “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver
Look, the trees
their own bodies
IT'S AUGUST 18TH, YET ANOTHER day well over a hundred degrees. As the sun begins to lower in the sky, my dog Benny and I are finally able to rouse ourselves from our daytime stupor, drawn to the cool shelter of Henry Cowell State Park, one of several redwood preserves located in Santa Cruz County. As we head up the main trail, sequoia sempervirens tower over our heads. It strains my neck to peer up to the canopy, periodically interrupting our striding rhythm to gaze upwards while other late hikers pass us by. Our movement and the silent grandeur help to dissipate the increasing anxiety I have felt for my sister Sue's proximity to the spreading CZU Lightning Complex Fire. The massive thunderstorm that I witnessed two nights ago – over 11,000 strikes – has fueled widespread fires. Her community of La Honda, an hour’s drive northwest from me, is on alert for possible evacuation.
Eventually I sense the first signs of dusk – the San Lorenzo River, flowing just below the trail, exudes a dense scent as the cooling air holds the earthy fragrance of muddy banks and streamside shrubs. Juncos and crows busy themselves with final bursts of foraging, and the forest colors deepen in hue. Like the birds, I realize I better start heading home.
As I pivot, my glance is arrested by a fluorescent orange light on the fibrous bark and foliage of a nearby redwood. Wow! I search for what might be casting this neon glow that looks more like it belongs on a flashing tavern sign rather than illuminating an ancient redwood grove. I notice the trunk next to it has several large patches of the same color, splattered all the way to the top. I slowly turn 360 degrees, seeing other trees similarly “painted.”
As Benny and I reach the parking lot, I finally see the open sky and discover the explanation. The setting sun, angling through smoke-tinged air, is an intense crimson ball that casts a red-orange pigment on all it touches. The contrast from the darkening redwood forest has magnified the flaming effects of the sunrays that found their way through.
While the smoky air’s light displays on the redwoods are beautiful to see, my heart rate quickens as I drive home. It dawns on me that it’s not only my sister and her community that I need to worry about.
THE NEXT MORNING I awake to an acrid haze, unable to see individual trees on the hills a couple of miles away. I check the news. Not only has the fire grown 46,000 acres in twenty-four hours, but shifting winds have turned the momentum southeast, in a straight line towards my small town of Ben Lomond and my neighboring communities strung along Highway 9, a narrow winding road that hugs the San Lorenzo River.
Throughout the day I hear heartbreaking reports of burned homes and urgent evacuation orders for Bonny Doon, a sprawling community just over the ridge from me to the west. All day I try to reassure myself that surely we are safe here in Ben Lomond, about six miles, as the crow flies, between us and the conflagration. Like many surrounding communities, we have been given a warning that we might have to evacuate but I tell myself they are doing this out of extreme caution.
After dinner, I walk across the street to join my neighbors. We quizzically look at each other, our palms held upward, as crisp blackened leaves sift down onto them from the sky. We notice the white ash accumulating on the car hoods. I hear the same edge of adrenaline in my neighbor Kirsten’s voice as in my own: “These burned leaves are from the fire. How close is it?!” Later, I stand at my fence railing before going to bed, heart pounding as I watch a pulsing orange glow just over the horizon. I am seeing flames.
When I awake, our evacuation warning has turned into an Order. We must leave in the next few hours. I call my son Jackson and my other sister Deb. They rush to my house with empty vehicles that will soon be brimming with crates and boxes. We each prioritize that which speaks to us most deeply. Deb strips the walls of artwork; Jackson fills his truck with boxes of photos. After securing legal documents and my computer, I gather my history: crates of journals and letters, animal figures that have adorned my altars, the Christmas tree ornaments my grandmother made each year.
So interesting, in these rushed few hours of decision-making, what my hand pauses over and then stuffs in a box, and what is left behind. My friend Dyana once half-joked that in a fire she was sure the coyote skeleton I had pieced together from a mountain lion kill in the hills above my home would be in my suitcase. Yes, the coyote skull is carefully wrapped but I can’t bring myself to dismantle the arranged bones. They remain behind, as do the relics I recovered after my brother’s ranch burned to the ground in the Butte Fire of 2015. As do the photos of my ancestors hanging on my bedroom wall. I realize I am leaving these entities to watch over my home and this land, to beg the fire for mercy.
While this getaway may sound somewhat deliberate, it is anything but. I am running. Running through my house, through the garage, running around the yard watering plants, dousing the wooden deck. Benny’s feral intelligence has him firmly stationed just inside the open doorway. He seems disinclined to be out in the increasingly toxic air, yet he intently monitors our frenzied masked activity. The neighbors across the street are stuffing their cars and gathering their cat, dog and chickens. My son is on the roof cleaning debris, then pulling anything flammable away from the house, and finally trimming shrubs brushing against the slatted fence that might as well be kindling.
And he knows me well. He wants us out of here; while I want to grab just one more box, wet down one more thirsty wooden plank, take one last mental picture of what I might never see again. Finally he shows me his watch – it says 2:13. “Mom, you have 17 more minutes. Do whatever you can and then we are leaving.” And so it is.
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
I TENTATIVELY SETTLE INTO THE SANCTUARY of a friend’s home. I am beyond exhausted - from the frantic physical effort, the toxic air quality, the oppressive heat, the ongoing adrenaline, the terror of losing everything that didn’t fit in three vehicles, the grief for those who have already lost it all.
The rhythm of my life has been swallowed whole and spit out into a framework defined by Cal Fire’s online updates: 6 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., 9 p.m. I hang onto Fire Chief Mark Brunton’s every word about acreage burned, destroyed structures, weather influences. Throughout the day, I obsessively scan the updated maps, horrified as the fire perimeter expands closer and closer to Highway 9. Desperate for hope, I latch onto every crosshatch indicating an extended fire line. Chief Brunton explains the extraordinary challenge establishing a secure fire line between the conflagration and our communities on Highway 9, given the steep slopes littered with over a hundred years of accumulated forest debris. His calm, compassionate, knowledgeable manner soothes me, not only because I trust he is making good decisions but also because I believe he is telling us the truth, even when it is not what I want to hear.
The contrast in leadership couldn’t be more painfully stark as I also follow the tragic wildfires across our nation: a pandemic that spreads like an untended blaze, the ignition of accumulated years of racial injustice and abuse that have been ignored, and the devastating escalation of climate change. While I know the CZU Lighting Complex Fire will eventually be contained and extinguished, these other tragic disasters will continue to rage until we rigorously address them. On all fronts, I am consumed by fire.
When not following the Cal Fire updates, I scan the Neighborhood Next Door Watch postings where my local communities inform, alarm and reassure each other with underground news from those who refused to evacuate or photos from remote video cameras showing threatened areas still standing. I develop greater appreciation for the attachment my neighbors have for the land and wildlife and am touched by anecdotes of rescued chickens and horses. But I also notice I am getting triggered by a repeated refrain. A well-intended platitude, it is some variation of: “As long as you get out with your family, pets, documents and photos, count yourself lucky. That is all that really matters. Everything else can be replaced.”
My house and land have held me for fifteen years. They are part of me, my greater skin, as if my body is not defined by my epidermis but expands to include my house that shelters me and the cared for objects I have accumulated over a lifetime, each with its own humble story. My body blends into the deck where I sit daily watching the swaying knob cone pine and the chickadees, nuthatches, jays and acorn woodpeckers that have their chosen spots on the branches. My bones are the sprawling oaks and twisting manzanitas, my lungs are filled by the breezes stirring their branches. The fox and coyote who have peeked through my glass doors reside in my brain furrows. As Walt Whitman exclaimed, “ I contain multitudes!” and it doesn’t stop at my property line. I gaze out at forested hills and a familiar ridgeline that has defined countless sunsets. This is my body, these are my loved ones, all of this holds my history as much as any photo or official document stuffed in my getaway bag.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
THE SECOND DAY of evacuation, I hear that the fire is consuming the forest and homes on the nearby hills I gaze at each morning and has even crossed Highway 9 just north of my town. If the firefighters can’t hold the fire at Highway 9, they will be forced to retreat miles to the east to establish a new line, effectively abandoning our river communities.
I go to bed in despair, convinced that I will awaken to my worst fears. Sleepless, I try to imagine how I will go forward after sifting the ashes of my world through my hands, my solitary chimney all that stands upright. I simply can’t picture such a future, what I will do, just as I can’t imagine my life without certain loved ones, though somehow I would find my way, as I have before.
Dawn finally comes and the 6 a.m. report. I can barely breathe as I open the Cal Fire website. There are no words for the dread and then the massive wave of relief to find my community still standing. Fire’s grim reaper has given me a reprieve, for now. Many others are not so fortunate.
TWELVE DAYS UNDER evacuation. A twelve day crash course in embracing paradox: how to hold what I love against my bones as if my life depended on it, while understanding that the dark river of loss can wash it all away. Twelve days of fantasizing what it will be like to reunite with my home – if I am so lucky to still have one.
These long days also give me time to wonder what offering, what ritual could ever express my appreciation, not only for the brave first responders, but for the land where I live that has no other option in the face of fire but to hold its ground, to endure. And for the mortal beings with whom I share that space: the scraggly knob cone pine I watch from my deck is no less a pillar of light than the ancient redwood I strolled under at the state park. As is the tiny nuthatch who lives in that pine and the fox and the lizard that pass under its shade. These plants, mammals, birds and reptiles, this is their home, the place where they have laid their roots, made their nests and stored their food. They have no getaway bags, nowhere to go.
In truth, it feels the same for me. While I am so grateful for the space provided by my friend, eventually I must come home, to where I belong. To whatever is left standing.
If you want to read the first essay in this fire series, go to "Lit Up." A third installment will soon follow.
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All photos by author except for the fire map.
To listen to my recording of "My Greater Skin," click the red button:
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire started August 16th and was eventually 100% contained on September 22nd, thirty-seven days after the lightning storm that ignited it. Contained does not mean Controlled -extinguishing smoldering fuel and repairing infrastructure damage will take months. The arduous process for those who lost their homes can take several years. Total acreage: 86,509 Total burned structures: 1490 Fatality: 1
"In Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver
Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars
of light, are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders
of the ponds, and every pond, no matter what its name is, is
nameless now. Every year everything I have ever learned
in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side
is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know. To live in this world
you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it
against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.