Fire and the Danger of What We Exclude
In writing The Uninvited Guest: Finding a Path to a Conscious Activism, I have to work in fits and starts. Is it always that way when you are riding the edge? I am working something through. This morning I realized there is an underlying myth that’s been tailing me for ages, like a recurring dream. More on that later. This is an excerpt from a story living me with mystery of an unknown ending.
I have a litany of visitors who have arrived uninvited, all of them changing my life in some way.
In the spring of 2009 Donald and I were sipping martinis in North Carolina when I again saw the flashing red message light on my cell phone. Donald’s brother Richard was turning 80 and we were toasting him before joining friends at a restaurant. I remember Richard standing by the fireplace, tall, tanned, and smiling, when I noticed the message light. Faintly disturbed, as in those days almost no one had my cellphone number except those who might need us, I quickly slipped away and punched in my code, having no idea of what I was about to hear.
There was not one message, but several. They were the phone calls you never want to receive, and especially when you are 3000 miles away from home. First the panicked voice of Ramon, our vineyard manager at that time who lived on our Napa Valley ranch and was managing everything in our absence.“There is a fire!” he exclaimed and hung up. Then there was a second call, and a third, each more panicked and beseeching us to please answer. By the time I got to the message from our son Jesse, I too was in a panic. Jesse was evidently just walking up the path to the yurt site as he left his message: “Mom, there has been a fire… it burned the yurt…Oh no, it’s burned all the way to the house!” and hung up. He too was obviously in shock.
I quickly returned to the festive gathering and blurted out,“There was a fire, and it has burned all the way to the house.”
Suddenly the room was silent. “Call Jesse.” Donald had assumed his take-charge mode. I quickly dialed Jesse’s cell number. I was relieved when Jesse answered. The fire was out, he said, and not much had been damaged, although it looked bad. There was blackened grass and trees everywhere, and the fire consumed the piles of brush we cleared for the 100 foot defensible space around our home.
But it demolished the yurt—the yurt that Jesse and his wife Lisa were living in while they were considering whether or not to take over managing the ranch. Jesse was refinishing the wooden deck outside the entrance to the yurt, leaving an oily rag on the deck while he took a lunch break in town. Evidently the rag spontaneously combusted. When he returned to apply the second coat, he discovered firetrucks choking the driveway and men rolling up hoses. Two helicopters had delivered 30 firefighters into the meadow who hurriedly dug a firebreak surrounding the quickly spreading grassfire. Part of the garden fence was melted, some of the lavender had burned, but the house, the goat barn, and the goats were okay, largely due to Ramon’s quick action to water down the ground.
Sometimes I use pictures of the fire blackened grass and trees when I talk about the importance if this uninvited guest, Fire. Actually, Fire is an important resident in California. Truth be known, excluding Fire has created a very dangerous situation. Not only has the underbrush built up when smaller fires have not been able to burn, but diseased debris, including, in the oak woodlands, acorns, have accumulated. As a result, many of our trees are infected with oak bore and now sudden oak death fungal infections. After this four year drought in California, we are losing way too many drought-weakened oaks.
I once heard Greg Sarris, the chief of the Graton Pueblo, say that “wild” is what happened when white man arrived. Towa Charlie Toledo called Napa County “a cultivated paradise,” so unique from what white man was used to that we didn’t even recognize what we are seeing. Fire was an important element in this cultivated paradise. First Peoples understood the need for pyrodiversity: diversity in the frequency and intensity of fire. When we try to exclude Fire, like the “uninvited guest” in the fairytale, Fire doesn’t disappear, but becomes more dangerous.