We are here by the grace of trees and forests.
This is the first thing I’ve written since my family’s home burned down in last week’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The fire still rages; the smoke can be seen for hundreds of miles. I am choked for words. But, in flashes, I think of many things. Of the small deck they were building there in the stands of trees. Of how many years they worried over those trees—if just one had fallen, it would have destroyed their livelihood or even taken a life. I think of how fatuous that worry was, now. And how pointless their efforts to tame the land, to try making a tract of bramble, replete with nightly incursions of deer and bear, into a human habitat. I think of the things they lost—everything, really—things they had so painstakingly acquired since the last time they had to flee suddenly, fifteen years ago, elsewhere in California, never to return.
But mostly when I think of their home, I see the land. The untamed buttes and foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Open land covered in brush for as far as the eye can see. And the one sparsely populated ridge, cheerfully named Paradise. It was a precarious place for humans to live. It is gone, as are those trees. Standing high above, reaching into the sky, each of them met their end when a mere ember floated by, innocently igniting a leaf or a branch. And with each one, the fire spread. A week in, I don’t feel loss, exactly. More—a soft sorrow. Hillsides of brush and stands of trees are made to burn. On a grand scale, it is the natural order of this place. We say it is gone—Paradise lost—but the land remains.
The only things I can stomach reading now are about the forests of California. About matters beyond personal gain and loss. About a scale of time and place that is always with us, whether we see it or not. And conversations. I can hardly read—let alone write—because the echoing void of one single voice alone is too much to bear. I can only stomach words in conversation with others. The scale of “1” is all wrong; a tree is hardly a tree without its forest.
This week, I took much solace in an interview between Bradford Morrow and Richard Powers. The conversation meanders, but never strays from the forest path. Geologic time and place maintain their rightful position, standing over the conversation as they always do, if only we look up from our humble work and see them.