A week ago the dangers of fire season loomed in California; but this week an atmospheric river flows across the Pacific bringing rain and snow across the land from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The change has been radical and sudden, and we are grateful for the rainy weather. During the Thanksgiving weekend, snow blanketed the San Gabriel Mountains. At sunset, we walked in the Huntington Library Gardens and gazed at the twilight storm clouds glowing orange with purple shadows, seeming to feast upon the mountains. Gorgeous. Sublime. We gave thanks for this moment of beauty.
“The clouds will not wait while we copy their heaps or clefts; the shadows will escape us as we try to shape them…in all that we do now, therefore, direct imitation becomes more or less impossible…whatever skill you may reach, there will always be need of judgment to choose, and of speed to seize certain things that are principal…”
In this time of climate change we find graceful transitions vanish and blunt onsets prevail. Last week it was dry, and the threat of fire loomed. This week it is wet, and we are battered by wind, flood, ice, and snow. Our civilization believes it can conquer and control nature and in our acts of hubris, we have pushed nature to extremes. Writing about two great painters, Giorgione and J.M.W. Turner, Ruskin compared the civilizations in which they lived. The architecture of the Venetian Republic impacted Giorgione greatly; he “saw only strength and immortality, could not but paint both; conceived the form of man as deathless, calm with power, and fiery with life.” And Turner, living in Victorian England saw the exact reverse of this “in the present work of men, meanness, aimlessess, unsightliness: thin-walled, lath-divided, narrow-garreted houses of clay; booths of a darksome Vanity Fair, busily base…as to the strength of men to Giorgione, to Turner their weakness and vileness were alone visible…[Turner] must be a painter of the strength of nature; there was no beauty elsewhere…he must also paint the labour and sorrow and passing away of men; this was the great human truth visible to him.”
 Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing. Aquitaine Media, 2010. p.92
 Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151
 Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151
Yesterday I returned to Chalk Hill. It’s been a year since my artist residency at this glorious Sonoma County vineyard. Twelve months ago we were happily besieged by winter storms bringing the desperately needed rain ending our drought of many years. At that time, mountains and hillsides were deep green and the skies dark grays and blues. My painting Mount Saint Helena after the rain describes this past. The storms replenished springs, and rivers and creeks fueled by the deluge, rushed powerfully to the sea. But the generous rain did not protect Napa and Sonoma County from the ravages of fire, indeed, the rain may have accelerated growth, fueling the devastation; it will be a long time before our memories of Atlas Peak and Tubbs firestorms dim.
And today’s Mt. Saint Helena watercolor captures Spring’s awakening, but my colors are pastels, the result of this season’s dry Winter. Last year’s oil paintings of the mountain tell a different story, intense dramatic Spring color born of a wet winter. The season cycle reminds us of our fragility, humbled by the earth’s beauty and power, aware of life’s precious gift.
“History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago. It is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago…what survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of the human voice confronting it’s own mortality…the story painted on the old walls and printed in the old books is our own.”
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.
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.