'...behind some fire trucks at the bottom of the road. Not sure if there were firefighters around, I acted nonchalantly getting my backpack ready. I filled it with a gallon of water and a bag of bird seed for the displaced critters that may be returning to their homes. I also brought Tibetan prayer flags and other altar accoutrements to rejuvenate the sacredness of the land, drinking water for myself and some of Shyla's hair and ashes--she's already scattered around the land in various places. It's been almost 3 years since I lived there, though only a few months since I last visited.
No one seemed to be around so I quickly put on my hikers and darted up the steep slope of the dirt road to get out of sight of any passersby. It's about a kilometer to the homes on the road, mostly uphill, rocky terrain with plenty of washouts and dips. I didn't see much fire damage for the first half of the trek, which kept my hopes up. As well, I had heard from my friend and neighbor, Layna Joy, who had lost everything on her parcel, that our other neighbor's dwelling was spared. Fire can be very selective in a sometimes bizarre kind of way. So, still hopeful that the cabin somehow miraculously survived, I cllimbed.
Memories trickled in as I turned each corner and noticed particular trees, ruts, and views. I drove this road for 10+ years and hiked it many times, whether diverting water flow during the rainy season or exploring the surrounding hills.
When the view of Layna's acreage surfaced, only then could I comprehend the intensity of the fire. What was once speckled with vibrant small outbuildings, trailers, oak trees, gardens and people was suddenly barren, stark, flattened and lifeless. Only spiny skeletons of Manzanita and other brush, reminiscent of a black and white film, remained. (Layna friends have started a GoFundMe site for Raven's Haven)
At the same time I could see the perfectly brown, bare wood structure and green trees of her neighbor's place standing tall against the horizon. The stark contrast and understood nature of fire was jaw-dropping in that moment. As I crested the hill to the parking lot, I saw a view of the land and sky I never did before, because both of the two-story structures at Walter's homestead were gone, leaving a bareness that was at once refreshing to the eye and extremely sad. Everything was flattened. And there were more tree skeletons and vehicle skeletons in the view.
Piles of reclaimed wood that Walter had purposefully accumulated over a 40 year period had disappeared. Poof. The same wood pile that we pulled from to finish the cabin, build furniture and bridges, gone. The memories started flooding.
So many scenes of Walter living his life. His wash tubs used for laundry were still in tact. The exercise equipment he spent his mornings using, still distinguishable, the 30-gallon plastic water containers, now melted to the point where the water inside stopped the burning, lay open, the water covered with a film of melted plastic and soot.
Memories of what his home looked like were triggered by new pieces of "art" that once were viable practical objects--the wood stove that I so carefully tended in the winters when he was ill, the Wedgewood cooking stove/oven, where Walter made hands-down the best pancakes with overripe pears and dripping with maple syrup, the heavy duty sink that would be piled high with dishes by the end of the week, whose cleaning would become a Saturday meditation to music and fresh air. This was the place where I learned how to live. From a man who truly knew how to live life well. Who lived more fully in the moment than anyone I've known. Who taught me this not through discourse, but by example, day after day after day.
Just feet away, where the zip line for the kids and grandkids once perched, oak trees were still green, and though burnt around and up them a ways, I knew they would survive. I've learned over the years that life is resilient. Resilient beyond anything I could have ever imagined. What was left of the inanimate objects at Walter's place will also take on a new life--maybe an art piece, maybe a remembrance piece for the family, or maybe scooped up by a Scrap Metal Joe, melted and reformed shiny new for some important or wonderful purpose.
I scattered bird seed around and continued on up the path toward the cabin, still in hope it remained. That its will to survive and provide respite for Walter's family was stronger than the fire. A fallen Manzanita tree barricaded the path just at the point where I had one time taken an unintentional fall, head first, over a wheelbarrow full of clean clothes, water, books and food. The resultant black eye and concussion landed me on Jim's couch for a week. Now, with just a small backpack full of water, I skirted around the fallen tree to find the bridge gone, with the gallon of paint that rested for years waiting for me to cover the bridge now deformed from the heat--shorter, but still distinguishable. What difference now would it had made had I painted it then?
The beginnings of the Aha! moment formed in my mind through a series of remembrances and questions.The concern when someone was logging acres and acres (and acres!) of oak trees for firewood--what did that matter now, when so many had been destroyed? The meticulousness of my pruning the shrubs along the path to the cabin, ensuring the least amount of damage, as they were here first. What was that for when now they were burnt to a crisp or just piles of ash?
JoAnn Saccato, MA is a mindfulness teacher, author, life coach, educator, and consultant in Northern California. She is author of Companioning the Sacred Journey and the forthcoming Mindful and Intentional Living: A Path to Peace, Clarity and Freedom