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Decadent Fuel: A Field Report of the California Wildfires
Elektra Grant


A dwarf forest of chimneys huddles under spiny standing corpses
Pewter and obsidian
Shadows in the flesh shivering over
Skeletons of the American Dream.

Particulate waves careen relentlessly across
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 whispers--
These dead trees still can sing.

Amber pine needles cling tight to dusky branches
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 Fires


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, empty nest.

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.


Old Fire


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….


Amber Alert


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 around me.

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 for
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.

 

 

 

 

 
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