“Destruction, creation, catastrophe, renewal, sorrow, and joy are merely human ways of seeing, human projections onto the landscape, the ecologists say. What is real, they say, is change." - from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore
Here on the north side of Los Angeles, we're all ashes to dust to smoke to flame. In at least four locations across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, brush fires, which first ignited Monday night, are reportedly 0% contained. Funny, now, to think that while I was out running earlier that day, I didn't think, as I usually do when the winds kick up fiercely in the afternoon, It's fire weather. In the newly-chilly winter temperatures, I must have forgotten the danger. After all, this week I began wearing a winter jacket to the office.
As of this writing - Tuesday - communities have been evacuated across our two counties over the past twelve hours due to the 50k-acre Thomas Fire consuming Ventura and Ojai; the 5k-acre Rye Fire burning in Santa Clarita; the closer 2.5k-acre Creek Fire in Sunland and Sylmar; and the fresh 2k Runner Fire in Thousand Oaks. Though many fires have burned this year, these are places where friends, including some of you, live. Where the artisan who designed and hammered our wedding rings has his business. Where my kids jumped horses over fences and then fed them peppermints and carrots. The burned acres will certainly grow as I draft this letter, along with other tallies: structures and irreplaceables burned, costs for what can be repaired, businesses destroyed, large and small animals lost, deaths. The Santa Ana winds blow strongest in December. It's going to be a long week with a lot of math.
[Wednesday morning edit: Thomas Fire is 65k acres, 0% containment; 7k acre Rye Fire, 5% containment; Creek Fire is 12k acres, 0% containment; Runner Fire is contained; a new overnight Skirball Fire by the Getty Center has shut down I-405 in both directions right through Los Angeles and has burned 50k acres.]
Fires need only spark, fuel, and air. In the coming weeks, investigators may determine it was a stray cigarette butt thrown out the window of a speeding car, or a bit of ash that floated up a chimney and caught on a palm frond. Maybe, like a nearby fire in October, an emergency flare too close to the shoulder rolled onto a spit of grass. Possibly, a bit of burning debris from one fire was carried on a gust of wind, and sparked another fire elsewhere. Last winter's glorious rains pulled our region out of severe into moderate drought, and spurred excellent new growth on the thirsty hills, which the dry summer desiccated to tinder. Even in recent weeks' chill, the humidity index hovered in the single digits. Then, Monday, the Santa Ana winds blew 60 mph gusts over a tiny spark, from some yet-known source, and now southern California is on fire. CNN reports that on the first night, the Thomas Fire was burning at nearly an acre per second. In New York terms, that would be Central Park ravaged in fifteen minutes.
In spots, like the one where I sit now in North Hollywood, for the very young, or the very old, or the very weak, these few days of ashy air may prove challenging. Nearby, my friends' 20-day-old baby, who I love, and his newborn lungs, is on my mind, because dust from smoky air creeps inexplicably through doorjambs and windowsills.There's a young man named Miles who's stood half asleep for a year or more on a busy corner near our house, his father in a wheelchair just behind him. Their clothes, skin, and hair are only variations of the same unwashed brown. Darby frequently gives them money, food, and clothes. What do they do in weather like this, cold and horribly gritty with soot? The patients in the mental hospital that burned in Ventura this morning -- what toll does a trauma of relocation take on a fragile mind? It brings to my mind the undergraduate student in a course I have been teaching this fall at Antioch University, who moved in November to Thousand Oaks, where the Runner Fire cropped up. She emailed a few days ago, just a week before the final class of the term, to say she's suffering from the mental illness that she's written about in her papers, and she won't be able to complete the course. She is on my mind.
Though I am ashamed to admit it amid these and other very real fire-related concerns, I'm also thinking of my week's running schedule, now disrupted. With my face hiding behind my hands, I confess that last night I sought out a local gym with a treadmill. Self-care seems indulgent, but also necessary, in the face of local disaster. I've grappled with questions related to this issue for years: How, when there is real suffering, can I justify my own passions and comparatively petty needs? When horses are being evacuated from stables where my kids used to ride, can I justify an hour on a treadmill? While standing outside Berklee College of Music in 2002 just before I enrolled, I wondered how I could devote my life to music and literature, singing about love and lovers' disagreements - for fucks sake, SINGING - while only a few sidewalk squares separated me from a man who stumbled through the streets suffering demons and dire poverty in the winter cold?
I attempted to reroute myself eight or nine years ago. It was a moment of reckoning, during which I was accepted to a Masters in Social Work program and awarded a competitive and generous fellowship. I might have done real good for some people. The program would have put me in the center of Los Angeles family and children's services, working with kids in the foster system and couples caught in domestic abuse.
I turned it down, and even now know that was the right decision. In the end, I released the award to someone more whole-heartedly suited for the work. My domestic and existential drama interests are more introspective: what it means to love and be a flawed human; the forked path of growing older, and what paths are necessarily precluded in the wake of the others we choose; the difficult link between womanhood and motherhood, and motherhood and daughterhood; how to live fully while fully aware of mortality's shadow. My mind untangles narratives with as much success as an old rabbi and a gaggle of Talmudic scholars worrying over the meaning and order of words. In other words, the untangling is probably its own kind of tangling, but working that web fascinates me.
Meanwhile, Miles and his father seek shelter from the ash, my ex-student fights for her sanity, and the fires rage on. Last night the Santa Anas whipped stronger. The Skirball Fire ignited, and the city is under more duress. People are calling for everyone to stay off the roads, to keep them clear for first responders. I, though, have an obligation to my students on this last night of class, and unless the university closes for the evening, I will cross town to hear their final presentations. They've been researching creativity, interviewing artists, and exploring their own creative impulses, desires, blocks, fears.
I can't say what is, in light of disaster, the worth of art. I can say that my students appear grateful for our discussions in class. They report new insights into their own helpful or unhelpful patterns, and curiosity to further excavate their artistic inspiration. After an in-class writing prompt that centered them in an early memory about water, we talked about 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who advocated for, among other things, women's rights and labor unions. He'd fallen into a deep existential depression and lost all drive for his passions. What eventually drew Mill back to happiness was the poetry of William Wordsworth, with what philosopher Adam Etinson recently called its "quiet contemplation of delicate thoughts, sights, sounds, and feelings, not just titanic struggles."
Poetry was a soul-medicine that reinvigorated Mill's passions, inspiring his return to the good fight. Wordsworth, and his literary descendants like Mary Oliver, David Whyte, and Kathleen Dean Moore (quoted at the top of this letter), have been my own soul-medicine. The story of the solace Mill found in Wordsworth assuages my concerns about the relevance of art amid disaster, or the connection between art and self-care.
Right now, Darby, the girls, and I are lucky. The air is bad, but the flames are far from our home. In the coming days, if you are local and need support from the fires - a meal, a bed, a shower, reprieve - reach out. We have all the fixin's for a pot of chili, a cabinet of of mugs and tea, and a fridge of beer.