Agony and Endurance

Three years ago a ferocious forest fire ripped through the town of Paradise and rendered it to dust. the deadliest blaze in California's history. Nicholas Triolo juxtaposes the story of his boyhood friend Aaron who narrowly escapes its devastation, with the life and work of the 'inhumanist' poet Robinson Jeffers, who 'asserted that true endurance, what lasts on this planet, was only learned in a lifelong apprenticeship with animate Earth'.
is a writer and long-distance runner living in western Massachusetts. He is the digital editor for Orion, previously senior editor for Camas Magazine, and his work has been featured in Orion, Terrain.org, Best American Poetry Blog, Juxtaprose , and others. Triolo is currently working on a nonfiction book about walking in circles.
Centerville. The name suggests a prosaic suburban bardo, malted milkshakes and happy hours, not dramatically this or that, red or blue, up or down. But Centerville is anything but normal. The canyon community huddles between Northern California’s San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains three hours east of San Francisco, ancestral lands of the Mechoopda Maidu. Its lifeblood is Butte Creek, site of the last spring-run Chinook salmon in the state. Flanking Centerville are two communities: Helltown to the north, Paradise to the south.

After a decade of inflamed rent and student debt in the San Francisco Bay Area, Aaron and Kim Briggs returned to these Sierra foothills where they were both raised. Kim grew up in Centerville, while Aaron’s childhood home was three hours south, in the town of Murphys. Aaron and I were neighbours. Two years older than me, he would offer rides to high school in his mom’s Oldsmobile that smelled like dead mice, and what I remember most was him driving fast, as if he were being chased, the long sedan slinking around every curve.

We were together the first time I got plastered drunk, sharing a fifth of cheap Kessler whisky in his backyard. As two aspiring documentarians in the age of The Blair Witch Project, we thought it wise to prop up a camera in his room to record our descent from sobriety, evidence used against us the following morning when Aaron’s mother scolded us for getting doused on her watch. We shared many cracked earth summers in the Sierra foothills, skateboarding  and listening to bad heavy metal, for this was summer in California’s rural Gold Country: golden crisp, quiet, and bone-dry. 

6:25 am
Aaron rises at dawn beside his seven-months pregnant wife and shuffles from the bedroom, passing a nook set for their future daughter and through to the kitchen where, taped to the refrigerator, is a blank piece of white paper. After sliding open the glass door, Aaron walks onto the patio and scans the yard for wildlife. Most mornings he would return to that paper taped to the refrigerator and record his sightings – field notes for a children’s book, for his impending arrival – but today, no whitetail. No red-tail. Not even those two resident ringtails. 

Movement comes minutes later when something shifts overhead. An inversion flips cool air to bring it in low. Ash seesaws from the sky like snowflakes. Still no birdsong. Centerville locals are familiar with these signs of fire, as they’ve now begun to combust at a frequent clip, so a little ash here, a little haze there – nothing to fuss about.. 

Skies now fold and flurry as winds gallop through the canyon. Fog, then rain, then lightning, then thunder, then ash the size of peanut brittle. Embers and rain begin falling at the same time, something that makes Aaron’s forearm hair stand on end. One ridgeline east, a brush fire had begun on the Feather River near Paradise, started by a faulty power line. Spark to smoulder to flame to an infantry recruiting fuel at a forested football field per minute spitting hot-bellied enough to start orchestrating its own weather. 

Fire follows strict orders, loyal to the basic food groups that keep it alive, to endure. Desire pining for the desired. And yet fire isn’t all allegiance; fire is anarchic, too. It does what it wants. Eats what it craves. And this fire now desires its way 2,000 degrees hot and south and west toward Paradise, ever closer to Centerville. Desire devouring the desired.

8:10 am 
Fire’s reached town  limits. Get out. Now. 

When Aaron receives the text message from a friend in Paradise, smoke fills Butte Creek Canyon. Headlights cut through blankets of ash. After deciding to evacuate, Aaron and Kim prepare their house against embers and falling branches, raking away yard waste and removing dead leaves from the roof, clearing gutters and hosing the deck. 

Aaron had recently replaced the front door, and wood scraps cover the deck. All of it has to go. They had been renting the house for less than a year but planned to buy – a quiet refuge for their incoming newborn – and fire deputies inspected the home last week to ensure they cleared a hundred-foot radius around the property. Defensible space, it’s called. 

Aaron rips duffel bags apart and restuffs them with film canisters and cameras and boxes of family photos. He had been appointed family archivist after his father’s recent death, and several boxes of his father’s journals and heirlooms stack in the closet. Aaron leaves them behind, along with all of his books. He does, however, pack the Navy uniform his grandfather wore while riding out on the last World War II aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. Last boat to leave

10:15 am 
After packing their Honda Element  with only what fits, Aaron runs back inside for one last thing and, in his bedroom, he spots it: a slim book set on the nightstand. He slides it into his pack, deadbolts the front door, and goes on to help his in-laws evacuate. Here, Aaron’s nerves begin to contract. His chest tightens with every car that passes. He starts to count them in blinks, 
anything to irrigate his burning eyes. He wonders, for a moment, if his grandfather’s naval uniform might fit. 

‘I’m setting my stopwatch for five minutes. Then we’re outta here.’ More cars. More blinks. They finish packing whatever they can into their cars and drive off, Kim driving her car and Andrew driving recklessly in his, hell nipping at their mufflers. They exit the canyon and fan out onto the highway, into an exodus inching toward the valley. Authorities had bulldozed the median and it’s become an alluvial gush of traffic. They’d made it out, barely. Last boat to leave. 

2:30 pm 
The Camp Fire, as it’s now called, seethes to over 2,000 degrees and burns 20,000 acres in a few hours. The wildfire vaults over ridgelines to recirculate its own seventy-mile-per-hour breath to exhale flame into canyons and communities like Centerville. Aaron, Kim, and her parents take refuge in Chico. As reports of their homes surfaced days later, a phone company serviceperson reported his findings. 

Moon dust. All they found were four inches of what could only be described as moon dust. Aaron had left behind a shed full of bikes, and it wasn’t as if their tyres melted off. There were no bikes left. The aluminium vaporised. The washer, dryer, oven . . . gone. Not even a hollow cube was left. That’s how hot it was. The oven disappeared. 

The National Guard and FEMA quarantined the area, Humvees patrolling the streets armed with machine guns. Some hiked in for their stuff, to witness the loss. Others looted. The fire took two weeks to contain. In all, 153,336 acres burned. 55,000 people displaced. 11,000 houses burned. 85 dead. The single deadliest and costliest wildfire in California’s history.  

Countless wild animals did not make it out alive, and several thousand domestic animals were estimated to have perished in the fire. Pets and wildlife overwhelmed local animal shelters. Dogs with singed paws. Horses rescued from abandoned swimming pools. Deer high-stepping through hollow shells of homes. Ungulates on the side of the road, too blackened to identify. Raccoons wandering the streets looking like giant rats, their fur singed down to the skin. And those were the lucky ones.

From his temporary residence in the nearby college town of Chico, Aaron told me how much better off they were than others: tent cities popping up everywhere, families with nothing, nowhere to go, everything stored in their cars and having to return to work with children in tow. Aaron described one incident of a friend whose father lived in Paradise and was found running down the street with a group of others while firefighters sprayed a circle of water around them, a perpetual ring to stave off the flames. ‘Not to get all biblical, but it sounded like Moses parting the sea or something.’ Defensible space

Three weeks after the fire, I couldn’t help but fixate on one nagging detail: What was that one book he went back for, and why?

Three weeks after the fire, I couldn’t help but fixate on one nagging detail: What was that one book he went back for, and why

I learned that it was an out-of-print text by the poet Robinson Jeffers called Not Man Apart, a 1965 collaboration with the Sierra Club. David Brower, then director, had taken up residence in Carmel at the home of photographer Ansel Adams, and his proximity to artists who rendered this coastline best in film and verse inspired the exhibit book. Not Man Apart is a compilation of photographs set alongside Jeffers’s poetry, and it starts with ‘The Answer:’ 


It is only a little planet 

But how beautiful it is. 

Water that owns the north and west and south 

And is all colors and never is all quiet, 

And the fogs are its breath . . . 

All the free companies of windy grasses . . . 

pure naked rock . . .

 

. . . A lonely clearing; 

a little field of corn by the streamside; 

a roof under spared trees. 

Love that, not man apart from that . . . 

Cover of ‘Not Man Apart ‘(Photo: Nicholas Triolo)

John Robinson Jeffers was born in 1887, the same year France poured concrete for the Eiffel Tower, the same year Pearl Harbor became a naval base, the same year the largest snowflake ever recorded fell on Fort Keogh, Montana. After a childhood of worldly education and travel, Jeffers studied medicine at the University of California, then twice attempted specialising in forestry at the University of Washington, but despised his focus on commercial exploitation, so left. He returned to California in 1905 and became snared in a love affair with Una Call Kuster, wife to a prominent Los Angeles attorney. In 1914, the two eloped to Carmel, on California’s ragged central coast, the edge of the continent, and what followed was a marriage of art and madness, for what the two sought most was crashing coastline, to live with opposing forces in perpetual collision. They raised twin boys and Jeffers taught himself stonemasonry to build the family compound by hand, including the now-famous Tor House and Hawk Tower. 

Through the 1930s, Jeffers wallowed in and out of depressive episodes that thrashed at his creative outpourings, edge-pushing forms that eschewed human progress while focusing more and more on the living planet – tenure of granite, circumspection of hawk, entropy of salt and tide. Jeffers’s writing took to Greek tragedy: incest and murder, infanticide and bastardly conduct, all refracting the ways he witnessed humanity treating its fellow brothers and sisters and planet. Critics scoffed at his work as misanthropic, that it leaned too heavily against the human race during wartime, and it wasn’t until the 1940s when Jeffers began appealing to to a more popular audience. In 1942, he was the first American poet ever to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. But in 1948, Una came down with cancer, killed herself before the illness could, and Jeffers slid into an ever-steepening depression, working and wandering until his death on 20th January, 1962. ‘Profoundly Pessimistic’ read the subtitle of Jeffers’s obituary in the New York Times. Jeffers died before ever seeing Not Man Apart completed. 

Jeffers sought an extended geologic horizon, an all-but-forgotten vantage where humans were but small pieces in a vast and far older unfolding. Jeffers asserted that true endurance, what lasts on this planet, was only learned in a lifelong apprenticeship with animate Earth. 

. . . And we know 

that the enormous invulnerable beauty of things 

Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, and die without 

 

grief or fear knowing it survives us.

Not Man Apart is a book about the sea, but it’s also a treatise on endurance. Jeffers understood that ecological collapse was well underway during his lifetime, and every page of Not Man Apart reflects a sort of ablution, a baptismal scrubbing of our nearsightedness. And this, I think, was why Aaron went back for the book, his only book to survive the blaze. He returned for Jeffers’s collision of elements because it rendered so presciently – solidity and gush, arrival and departure, tragedy as cleansing agent. Jeffers heard the roar of the world coming from his own chest, and he pen-knifed an artery to bleed it on the page: 

Oh cage-hoarded desire, 

Like the blade of a breaking wave reaped by the wind, or flame 

rising from fire, cloud-coiled lightning 

Suddenly unfurled in the cave of heaven: I that am stationed, 

and cold at heart, incapable of burning, 

My blood like standing sea-water lapped in a stone pool, 

my desire to the rock, how can I speak of you? 

Mine will go down to the deep rock. 

My childhood forests will burn to the ground soon. I fear the day, as my father lives there, in a town much like Centerville. Jeffers called this anticipatory grief an agony of his own, but he also relished in its countervailing kin – endurance. Though we may be nothing more than ash fallen on a stage of incalculable nonhuman intelligence, we must also answer to that eternal hum in the background, a force that will both outlast us and be carried forth by us. 

Embedded in suffering and collapse, tinder and ash, an endurance remains, stamina drawn not from human ingenuity but sourced from a deeper, older well, inscribed in granite, salt, and flame.

In the midst of evacuation, Jeffers seemed to draw Aaron back into the smoke as an offering, an invitation, for the poet himself travelled parallel bands of impending loss and rushed headlong into the mess anyhow, facing the societal violence of his day alongside Earth’s unending patience. Aaron lost nearly everything in the fire but was still somehow able to hold these two forces simultaneously. Embedded in suffering and collapse, tinder and ash, an endurance remains, stamina drawn not from human ingenuity but sourced from a deeper, older well, inscribed in granite, salt, and flame.

 

On Christmas Eve, Kim gave birth to a girl at Chico Family Hospital. They named her Fern. She arrived several weeks early but was healthy. Aaron sent me a photo several hours after delivery. He looked worn but happier than I’d ever seen him, dressed in that yellow shirt he’d wear when picking me up for high school. A short video arrived of Aaron looking into the camera, Fern curled in his lap like a fiddlehead dreaming and nodding as if to say: What’s all the commotion? Ferns. Pioneer species. First to regrow after a disturbance. Four hundred million years of endurance. 

Go, Aaron. Scribble Fern on that blank paper hung from your charbroiled refrigerator, because perhaps the real book you went back for is now sleeping in your lap and now is the time to bring forth your work, because, as Fern grows from the ash of this unstable world, her flourishing will depend on reclaiming this bedrock endurance, the sort Jeffers knew better than most but where his agony had, in the end, consumed him whole.

In the final lines of Not Man Apart – a book I’ve now begun to take with me whenever I return home to the Sierra foothills – Jeffers haunts me still: 

Whatever electron or atom or flesh or star or universe cries to me, 

Or endures in shut silence: it is my cry, my silence; I am the nerve, 

I am the agony, I am the endurance.

 

 

Names have been changed to protect privacy

All quotations from Not Man Apart by Robinson Jeffers


Original sources:

Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet. Stanford University Press. 2015

Not Man Apart. Sierra Club/Ballantine Books. 1965

The Wild God of the World. Stanford University Press. 2003 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS

Our Autumn 2021 journal is a special all-colour collection of art and writing that delves into the legacy of extractivism

 

Comments
  1. I think it’s a very creative way of connecting the excellence of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry with personal experience until it leads to that magnificent and powerful: I am the agony, I am the endurance.
    A great article.

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