Fuel: A Field Report of the California Wildfires
A dwarf forest of chimneys huddles under spiny
Pewter and obsidian
Shadows in the flesh shivering over
Skeletons of the American Dream.
Particulate waves careen relentlessly
the ground, squishy with layers of ash
Tawny land plummets into the hazy basin
Scored dimly with highways and nameless structures.
A wispy, lean chorus of dry-throated
These dead trees still can sing.
Amber pine needles cling tight to
Or fan themselves elegantly across the silver earth.
Patches of sun throw the shadows in bas-relief
As I transcribe my story, dirty and inspired.
* * *
People in Wood Houses Shouldn’t Start
I’m supposed to be writing
about “the world of animals and live landscapes.” So
I choose an inhospitable, dead landscape that all other species
are smart enough to avoid. In this wasteland, there is no birdsong.
No rustling in the undergrowth. Not even ants. The only semblances
of “life” are the desiccated pine leaves and slivers
of tree bark swirling in the ashy wind. It is freaking freezing
here. Three weeks ago, the temperature here could have been about
16,000 degrees Fahrenheit. I hear the tarry rasp of the death rattle
shudder through the black trees stretching over this disfigured,
I’m on Hook Creek Road in
Cedar Lake, California. This cul-de-sac of houses was consumed by
the “Old Fire”--one of the wildfires that lay waste
to large areas of Southern California in October 2003. Six-foot
tall gingerbread men could call the neighbors’ fanciful, unscathed
houses home in this alpine community. I see rectangular concrete
foundations, crooked fingers of oxidized metal, burial mounds of
unidentifiable debris; and on one site, a water heater, gray and
slumped disconsolately in the corner. A burnt-out Volvo and a singed
VW microbus lie dormant on adjacent lots. Twisted aluminum ladders
litter the scene. A squirrel skitters across the roof of the next-door
neighbor’s house, which is unblemished and empty. The surrounding
trees are barren and black--stripped of their sheltering arms. The
white legs of chimneys are exposed, revealing fingers of smoke that
smudge their cavities. A small stream creeps past a stone bench
--its cold tears hardening into ice. My eyes burn, and my upper
lip and thighs go numb in the chill of this hostile environment.
I turn back to the car and drive
on, turning on the heater to full blast.
I Brake for Devastation
Finding what I’m looking for,
I park the car and scramble down the side of a slope off Highway
18. The “greater” L.A. basin is a vastly unimpressive
sooty smear below me. Waves of ash hammer me in this ferocious,
unprotected landscape. My already limited range of movement is congealed
by the cold as it mercilessly singes my ungainly, swaddled body.
Enormous, prostrate trees gleam metallically at my feet. I hear
the wind hissing through the ravaged trees: listen to me. I labor
my way over to a charred stump and sit there, wrapping my arms tightly
around myself. My head recedes turtle-like into my jacket and scarf,
as I fumble for my pen and scratch out a few notes in my journal
with my clumsy, gloved hand. I know you--talk to me.
I remember the barren tree with
a torn-off limb--the one that I envisioned and drew several years
ago. That wrecked tree clawed its way out of me. Angry and devastated,
it demanded that it be seen and heard. Not long before that, I had
remembered sexual abuse by a family member that had occurred when
I was a child. Having no Lewinsky-like stained dress to present
as proof, my story was rejected by my family. I relate to that water
heater, abandoned and left to burn in a fevered house. That old
fire transformed my heart into a lump of charcoal. The air swirls
around me, turbulent and dusky, and the trees begin to roar. This
swath of devastation makes me want to point and say, “See?
I told you so.” You need the PROOF? Here it is! My truth lays
waste to your fantasy of a safe home. Here’s your proof: Proof
that you don’t always have the upper hand. I like to see your
house of lies burned down. Wake up call….
This incendiary material makes for
a dangerous playground. I no longer have the stamina to stay in
this hell of a land, so I cross the highway and head uphill, where
fingers of light permeate the shadows. I sit in a sunny, protected
spot, and look around me. I’m surprised to see so much amber.
Amber pine needles tenaciously clinging to dead trees, and strewn
across the ashy floor. Amber patches of sun throw the shadows in
bas-relief. The warmth unfurls me, and I remove my black gloves.
There are possibilities here. I pick up a charred stick and test
it out on the page. The charcoal is soft and smoky-black. I curl
my fingers into the yielding, squishy earth, and smear ash on the
page to form tree trunks. It feels good to get in there; to pick
up and use nature’s tools, which are generously spread out
This soil is fertile. I sense the
green things that will appear here in the spring.
* * *
Unshouldering my heavy load
I lay it down to rest
Kali slips by softly
After putting me to test
Lingering lies I’ve longed
Slither through my hands
Sometimes Truth, though fertile
Can look like barren land
I lay my face down to the ground
And listen to the Earth
While Death licks the land like fire
And ignites my rebirth
Elektra Grant, in her best moments, lets
nature take its course.