My own body clenches, arms crossing my breasts instinctively as crow converses across miles. ‘Who’s burning?’ I ask quietly, out loud. ‘Whose ashes am I breathing in now?’
Crow’s voice suddenly becomes high-pitched, like a frantic, bereft mother. I stand below, senses so dull I can barely smell the thickening haze now. I’ve come here to Mount Shasta, a few hours from my Northern California home, to get a couple of quiet nights away from parenting and non-stop work during an endless pandemic. But the threat of fire has followed me.
Crow is gone, though I was too distracted to see. I wander away from the now empty pine, toward an area of randomly placed stumps scattered among the towering evergreens. The sign says ‘Ancestor Grove’. I pick one that feels most like my dad – almost seven years gone – and sit. So ancestors, what do I do? I live in the heart of fire territory – it will all eventually burn. What do I do?
I get a one-word response: Move.
My father fled from his war-torn Baltic homeland, carried by my grandmother across borders toward safety. Like the crow, fox, songbirds, we know when to move out of danger. Knowing when to root and when to flee is ancestral knowledge that is older than humanity. We were born with feet, they say – so walk. My nose starts to run. Back of the neck blooms into a headache. Smoke is a great indicator to move.
The smoke and ash are lifetimes’ worth of trees’ stories. The wide-armed oaks I live under receive this storied smoke with wonder and grace, turning the carbon-charged narratives into green, robust growth. Fire feeds the land in so many ways. Wood becomes fire becomes earth. Burning needs to happen, but we have to reckon with how we have suppressed it, by digging our heels in and disagreeing with the impermanence of place, with the fact that we have legs to travel.
For the past 22 years – my entire adult life – I’ve actively lived with this question: How do I come to belong to this place? This place: the land surrounding the San Francisco Bay, where mountains rise out of the earth’s belly like a gasp. Mostly I’ve inhabited the northern chunk, where the nettles are ferocious and the salmon still grace a creek or two. Where trees that were a timid wish hundreds, even thousands of years ago, tower overhead and change the contour of the land they move through.
The plants have been my pathway in, letting me know what belonging feels like when I take the time to kneel and notice. I’ve learned their names and silhouettes: ceanothus, aralia, artemisia. Mugwort lines the creeks and sandy ridges, holding fast the topography. Elk’s clover feeds the winter weary while showing the way to water, and pedicularis is first to greet the spring with soft glades of fuchsia flowers.
In loving a place to the point that it loves you back, the heart is thrown wide open. These hills, plants and waters have reflected myself back to me, giving me the sensation of knowing and being known all at once. And I’ve learned that with belonging comes the possibility of unfettered grief. The love is great, and so is the loss.
Red flag warning. My homeland might ignite in flames tonight due to lightning and high winds, sparking the land like a striking match. It’s a warning that all my friends might be in another place tomorrow morning, evacuated, bewildered. Warning that this night – why is it always at night? – might be the one that truly changes everything. The anticipation rises through my chest then sticks: shaking fear of imminent danger. When the red flag warnings come day after day, week after week, they arrive as little soft pings on my cell phone that make my heart pause, my hands tremble, and my voice suddenly move up an octave as I try to mask my anxiety from my kids.
Finally, there’s a fire close enough and hot enough to scorch the entire county. The pings wake us in the middle of the night, but my partner and I let the kids sleep while we pad around the house, stuffing clothes and important papers into bags. A cop drives slowly down the streets yelling into his bullhorn, rousing my children at 4am. ‘Fire! Fire! Evacuate now!’
We flee without our flock of sheep, our chickens, the older cat who is hiding out under the barn. The drive into dawn is a slow one, tinted orange like the many days before and after, surrounded by tens of thousands of evacuees. Sleeping in smoke always brings nightmares.
These are not natural fires integrated into the flow of living landscapes. These are firestorms, razing the beloved redwood groves and the thick observant oaks. They create their own weather, moving so hot and fast that many people have died sitting in their cars, consumed while trying to flee. They leave nothing but blackened ash and toxic remnants of melted homes in their wake.
I remember the year the fire jumped the highway and razed an entire neighbourhood a few miles from my house. I started finding bits of burned books and charred mail in the sheltered redwood grove I frequented.
I hear the land moan in the moonlight, crying, go, just go…
I spend the rest of autumn praying for early rains and trying to unwind the knot that arrests my diaphragm every time a warm wind kicks up. The rain waits. I have trouble sleeping through the night. The optimists warble on about how this land was made for fire, the native plants thrive with it. True, I think, as I harvest from robust, fire-licked stands of yerba santa for my family’s lungs, but how do you describe the fire in that story?
Fire always needs a babysitter, or it will accidentally consume to the point of destruction. I commend the people now learning to do controlled burns, talking about how else to be with fire besides fight it, but now feels too late. Am I a pessimist for noticing all this? Am I listening when my eight-year-old asks at the end of each day, ‘Mama, are we going to have a safe night?’
The writing is on every wall, what’s to come. Is there any way it can feel like a long run down a grassy slope – full of lightness, despite the descent?
I hear the land moan in the crescent moonlight, night after night, crying go, just go.
Three thousand miles from California, at the edge of a river gorge, water hurling itself against the sheer granite wall, I speak a question into the cold wind: What am I doing here, River? The immediate response is not from the river, who is busy with the pleasure of travel, but from the quiet red oaks encircling me. Following the water, they say, just like us.
Forests are so friendly. And yes, plants are migrating – 13 miles a year to be exact – the birch and beech plodding north with ferns and bleeding hearts at their feet. I’ve come to this river in western Massachusetts to visit, imagine, and practice what it might be like not to live in California, to live with the red oaks instead of the tan and black, the hemlock instead of the bay tree. I try to be strong and accepting like them, but I am somehow more rigid than these root-bound species.
Standing in the rain, a soundtrack of thick, heavy drops tapping the top of my raincoat, and watching the river cascade down, the only choice is water – water as a force to mimic, water as a way-finder, water as the element that teaches grief and praise equally. Water reflects what’s not visible from my vantage point. What does water know?
Coming back home after the short visit, I only want to stay, but the land is nearly shouting that it’s time to go, time to burn. I can see more clearly that the time of smoke, ash and fire has begun – and will undoubtedly continue – to shift my lush homeland to a desert before my very eyes. To know a place, to have it in you as a part of every breath and birdsong – and to know you cannot stay – what does that do to a body? What does it do to mine?
It’s not an ordinary reason to move in the privileged world, it is an unknown leap. I’d stay and bear witness if I wasn’t a mother, but my children’s lives propel me into unknown territory. The why is in the golden grasses and thinning fog year after year, the thick smoke of autumn that my four-year-old’s lungs have breathed in since his birth, and the cry of the earth welling up through my feet: Flee! I must transform.
My heart is entertaining the idea that my body can stretch the length of this wide earth, relative to it all. Perhaps there is no place here that couldn’t feel like home. This is the grain of hope I grip as the plane takes off one final time.
Standing at the bank of a small, robust stream, one big tear passes over my high Baltic cheekbone. OK water, teach me to flow, I hear myself say. I moved clear across the continent to a landscape so vastly different, I am bewildered down to my cells by this strange new environment.
I’m far from home now, from the house my kids were born in, friendships decades deep, and the land that made me feel the most myself. The mountains are older here in western Massachusetts; the rounded, soft curves make finding a lookout perch difficult. I can’t smell it here, the spicy, camphor perfume of California bay trees lifting through the canyons, mixed with the paper-dry mugwort, salt-kissed on the stalk. No grassy open hillsides under wide, reaching oaks.
It’s dense here, difficult to find myself in. My bones long for those ferocious nettles, for the soft shawl of chilly fog rolling in after a hot day. But here there is running water, a season to soften, a lack of unchecked fire. I can sleep through the night again.
My bones long for those ferocious nettles, for the soft shawl of chilly fog rolling in…
The different-ness is hard to taste, like a new language rolling around on my tongue. My heart is buried in the duff. I haven’t slept outside yet. I haven’t walked in the dark. I don’t know this place, and it doesn’t know me. I did find a long red oak trunk to curl into yesterday and finally cry – that was some kind of introduction, but not an equal one.
Keep reflecting the land, it is the only way here, I write on a scrap of paper to keep in my pocket. I introduce myself to the hickories, refrain from promising protection, instead vowing to connect and live alongside them. I’d like to walk out and stand on the earth with gifts I’ve made out of seeds and reeds and offer them back to these trees, to say, look what I have come to offer! Instead, my tears stay hidden in my lungs, keeping my breath shallow, not even offering a giant exhale for the trees to breathe in.
Just when it seems I might stay in this cave forever, the lengthening light of spring begins to stretch towards me. Some of the plants I hauled across the country have begun to emerge from the thick blanket of snow. Calamus root made it in a frozen bucket, motherwort and black cohosh are familiar with this place. Out the window at dawn, a deer circles the hemlock with her nose to the ground, smelling old stories.
I am far from a place that knows me and whispers my name back with each exhale, and yet I know myself by knowing the web – the terrain, the community, and the weather that I live inside. How do I belong where others exist already, where no shred of me is native? How do I add to the sweetness of this place? Is there enough land to love us all?
Still, there are practical questions that need answering: who lives here? What birds, which bobcat? Who ate from the spirit plate, left out all night? Lemon-yellow butterfly, what joy could possibly make you so light? Can I know what the lake does – after all, aren’t I a vessel too?
We make a pact to visit the river every day, riding bikes down the hill and falling into the cool curved path of water. The kids dive under and stay down as long as they can, eyes open, fingers finding bright stones in the shallows.
While they play, I move upstream into the thickest part of the current. I puff up my chest with air as I fall back, and practice drifting down like a leaf, newly let go.