It is in the darkness that kindness is revealed.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem says it best:
It is in the darkness that kindness is revealed.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem says it best:
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.”
Driving through the neighborhoods and vineyards of Sonoma County, I am devastated by the October 2017 wildfire destruction and deeply saddened by the loss of life and home. Without words. I am humbled by and respectful of the latent power of nature. Nature shares: water, wind and fire; without words.
Now a week old, the Detwiler Fire has consumed 76,000 acres and is only forty percent contained. The windswept fire rages in the foothills, feeding on dry brush that grew intensely during our rainy winter. The fire has devastated a section of California State Route Forty-nine and threatens two historic Gold-Country towns Coulterville and Mariposa, the gateway to Yosemite. These places names trigger sweet memories of friends and shared adventures along the Don Pedro Reservoir, the Merced River, Yosemite Valley and the Eastern Sierras.
Fire, is a natural part of ecosystems. For many trees, such as the Coastal Redwood or the Giant Sequoia, fire opens seed cones required for germination. Simultaneously, fire helps clear-out dead wood and thus provides nutrients necessary for new plant growth. As towns and cities grow, encroaching upon once remote wilderness, human homes and livelihoods are increasingly threatened during fire season. But, when a wildfire rages, threatening your community, it is difficult to ponder the benefits to the natural ecosystem. You only pray the firefighters working night and day can save your home from advancing flames. The work of generations, the evidence of a lifetime’s progress, can be lost within seconds to fire. The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote in his poem Fire on the Hills
“The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely.”
Dust to dust: when catastrophe strikes we experience the harsh reality of how quickly life can change; we begin to comprehend that humility as a means of survival; and we ask ourselves the question what really endures?
Friday, my dear friend and I visited the Carmel home of Robinson Jeffers and his beloved wife Una. Apprenticed to a stonemason, Jeffers built his house, Tor House, and then later, working solo, built Hawk Tower. Jeffers personally chose and hauled each stone up from the beach to craft these dwellings. Jeffers understood ancient stones – when listened to – share the song cycle of wind, water and fire tirelessly grinding granite to sand over the eons. The stone circles at Callinish and Achmore on the Isle of Lewis, placed by Neolithic peoples, have stood for some four thousand years, surviving wind, water and fire as well as the follies of mankind. These stones have survived, and are now artifacts, surviving evidence of a people’s existence. Jeffers wrote in his poem Tor House
“If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.”
Darkness appeared in the corner of my eye. The sun dawdled splashing yellow and orange in her wake. Stars like motion detectors tracked the sun’s journey. And then suddenly, almost without warning, it was night. In the beauty of the evening it was easy to neglect the rotation and forward motion of time. Ebb tide, the waves teased the shoreline, waiting, where families danced the crescendo. On the beach friends gathered sharing stories and laughter. Beach fires, first flickering, grew stronger against the night sky, a shield against the darkness, a memory of color and warmth. In this context, fire is friend, a restorative. Staring into the magical flames, I reflect and imagine, a ritual connecting humankind across the millennia. But miles from here, on this summer night of the fourth year of our drought, fire crews are on the line, feverishly working to contain an inferno, capable of erasing entire communities. Difficult to believe on this calm, still night, but scientists say this pacific ocean nurtures El Nino; the infant, powerful, bringing rain and flood to wash away our sins. We live in a fundamental time; a time of powerful extremes. It is feast or famine, flood or fire; forces are in motion changing lives forever in a matter of seconds. A minor traffic violation, becomes a struggle for power; a match is lit resulting in a conflagration of unimagined consequences. Lives are ended, families devastated, and communities entrenched. And for what? How do we heal the rift and bridge the chasm?
The renowned African American writer James Baldwin published two essays as a book The Fire Next Time, taking it’s title from a line in a Negro Spiritual, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.” In the first essay titled The Fire Next Time: My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, Baldwin discusses the history of race in the United States. Baldwin argues that Americans, black and white, must step outside themselves and re-examine what they believe, understand and fear. Counseling his young nephew, Baldwin writes “know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go…please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear…and if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it…you came from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
When I moved to San Diego last year, I did two wonderful things. First I joined the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter and enrolled in the Wilderness Basics Course. Second I started hiking with my brother-in-law Doug. We chose hikes in the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountains because of their proximity to Doug’s home and since I had spent thirty some years in Northern California any trail in Southern California would be an adventure for me. Our first explorations in the San Bernadinos included a hike through Jeffrey Pines on the snow covered Siberia Creek Trail, documented in this watercolor,
and a trek to the Pacific Coast Trail where it brushes by Big Bear Lake. Our final adventure of last year was in the San Gabriels hiking Mt. San Antonio (known affectionately as Old Baldy) with my friend Dan. Baldy is some twenty-two miles to the east of Mt. Wilson and Big Tujunga Canyon where the fires continue to burn now in their sixth day. I keep thinking about those mountains — a challenge for the north-south driver — but also a strong range charged with protecting the Los Angeles basin from the harsh temperatures of the Mojave desert and capturing moisture during the winter for the times of drought. I keep thinking about the wildlife and people uprooted by such a massive fire and the lives lost, some heroically and others needlessly. This evening I opened Gary Snyder’s essays Back on the Fire and thumbed to the “Regarding the Smokey the Bear Sutra” and this brief excerpt reads “a handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs showing that he is aroused and watchful, bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances….his left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits…wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but only destroys…wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness….round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great Earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her….” Thank you Smokey.
Sunday afternoon I swam on campus at the Canyonview pool. The cool water was delicious as I did my laps, a good way to exercise on a hot day! Built on a mesa, the pool provides a great view down the canyon to the northeastern section of San Diego County. On a typical Summer’s day the view from this part of UC San Diego extends across the Carmel Valley to the foothills southwest of Escondido. I’ve tried to capture this summertime view in my ink and watercolor drawing.
On a crisp clear day in Winter after a cold rain, one can see a dusting of snow on the hills — sometimes catching a glimpse of a snow capped Palomar Mountain (some 5300 feet above sea level) in the Agua Tibia mountain range. In August, however, snow is a distant promise, and on this day the sky was a very hazy and thick gray-pink color, a result I believe of the fires burning in the San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles. Crossing the Tehacapi and the San Gabriel mountains is the final driving test before Northern Californians — tired from slogging through the endless miles of Interstate 5 — are permitted to enter the City of Angels. It is dramatic country. The San Andreas rift zone lies on the San Gabriel ridgeline neatly separating the Mojave Desert from the Los Angeles Basin. The San Gabriels are also the majestic backdrop to the craftsman bungalows of Pasadena. In the autumn of 1888, Mary Austin — future author of The Land of Little Rain — journeyed from Pasadena to the San Joaquin valley. The journey — described in her book One Hundred Miles on Horseback — took her across the San Gabriels via the towns of San Fernando and Newhall and up the San Francisquito Canyon to the ridgeline and finally Tejon Pass. On her way to San Fernando she ambled past orchards and vineyards alternating with stony stretches “marking the wash of some mountain stream and covered with brown tangled chapparal, bristling with the dried stalks of that species of yucca known as the Spanish Bayonet…these stony places are the favorite haunts of the prickly pear.” Once she began to climb the walls of the San Francisquito canyon she encountered the “dark red satin smooth stems, and olive green foliage of the manzanita; sometimes bare and ragged cliffs with strata turned and twisted, and folded back upon itself, bearing on its face the marks of primeval fire and flood.” California has a summer drought followed by a risky fire season and native plants many of which have adapted so well to this climate that they don’t reproduce until after a fire. As Californians we all know that flood, fire and earthquake are part of living in this beautiful place, and many of us prepare as best we can, but their significance as life changing events cannot be overstated.