On Wildfire & the Comfort of Thousand+ Year Old Trees

— this post is dedicated to my cousin’s daughter, with appreciation & hope

“The five elements (water, fire, wood, metal, earth) are not always equally predominant; the four seasons make way for each other in turn. There are short days and long; the moon has its periods of waning and waxing.” —The Art of War

 

As a writer, I sometimes waver between an impulse to share my thoughts publicly and a need to stay out of the fray. It reminds me of the feral kittens that lived in my grandparents’ sheds. I spent hours trying to catch those cats, knowing they were too wild to let me hold them. I could tame them, I thought, even as they spat and ducked under discarded wash machines or squeezed between dust-caked boxes. But I wouldn’t give up.

With age, though, comes wisdom. What’s the point, I wonder in discouraged moments, of adding even one more word to our content-filled world? What’s the point of catching the cat?

I’ve noticed that feeling coming more often after spending the past few years using my writing to advocate for transportation policy change. Instead of focusing solely on creative writing & photography, I’ve been emailing and meeting with local government leaders, asking them to create climate action policy that moves our cities and suburbs away from car dependency. There has been some culture shift. But is it enough to succeed?

Even after all these years & effort, most people around me still own & drive cars. Nothing’s changed in my neighborhood, with added bus service or protected bike lanes. Way to go, city & county jurisdictions, & the companies nearby. Way to lend a hand to a car-free girl.

Maybe I’m becoming the feral cat in this analogy.

Can you blame me & other advocates for feeling a bit scratchy, a bit bitey? Our environment & climate sure keep on changing. Some places are changing before our eyes. I know I’m not alone in my concern that American culture isn’t responding. Click to see:

Still, sitting in my Portland suburbs apartment, sans air conditioning with another week of smoky-skied 90+ degree afternoons in the forecast, hearing constant car traffic, motor revs & sirens through my open windows, I wonder if there are enough of us who care. What if most people really do know how damaging cars are, but simply don’t care enough to start taking a bicycle to work, or to start asking or even demanding their city leaders to put in bus lines near them? Maybe this is what the 1950s were like, when people kept smoking cigarettes inside classrooms & hospitals & airplane cabins, because it’s “just what’s done.” (I’ve been watching Mad Men. It’s wild, how much smoking there is.)

With cigarettes, it’s different now. There are smoke-free areas. Maybe it could one day be like that with cars?

Maya Angelou, who I’m lucky to have heard speak in person, did not say, “when they knew better, they just kept on doing whatever they were doing.”

Maybe Americans feel it’s not safe for them to walk or bike, because of all the other drivers out there. Am I just wasting my time, using a bike and bus, spending my energy as a so-called activist? Yes, with age comes wisdom. With age can also come the decision to stop chasing feral cats that scratch and bite their adoring captor.

It’s shameful that the people in charge of making neighborhoods livable—the mayors & commissioners elected to lead & write policy to serve our greater wellbeing—won’t do the work to reprioritize our transportation so young people today can survive climate disaster, economic & otherwise. City, county, & state leaders, and boards of companies—whether Nike or Chevron or Cargill Meat Solutions—could also shape culture in a non-selfish direction. Don’t any of those fancy powerful people care enough about regular humans to lead our culture to change, either by policy or their own example? Will they give up their cars & take a bus, an e-bike? Should I just go back to owning a car like “everyone” else? Why shouldn’t I, too, hunker down & care only about my future, rather than our futures in common?

It was one of those hot, “life’s too short” August moments of reluctant readiness to give up working toward societal change when my cousin’s daughter, who was telling me she’s about to start her sophomore year in college, asked me, “Do you have a blog?”

It’s been a long time since anyone’s asked me that, and my heart opened up.

We were at my grandmother’s memorial in Kingsburg, California.

 

Church in Kingsburg
My grandmother’s memorial service was held at the Kingsburg, CA church my grandparents attended

I hadn’t seen my cousin’s girl in a long time, & hadn’t expected this family gathering so soon. Just this April, at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party—which was quite the shindig!—my aunts who were there had said it was time to start planning a party for my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She’d turned 96 last December.

But she passed away at the end of July. So here we all were, more than a hundred people, reunited.

While the memorial was a celebration of my paternal grandmother, my last living grandparent, there was also a palpable sadness. Things would never be the way they were. I’d never have a reason to come to Kingsburg again. Family had all left this place.

I told my cousin’s daughter how I always remember one Thanksgiving when she was very little, when I brushed her hair while her mother and I visited. That led to memories of my cousin & me as girls, playing on our grandparents’ ten acre farm.

We also worked. One spring break, after my immediate family had returned from living four years overseas, us girls helped rake almonds in the aging orchards, which seemed endless to us. Our grandfather made us keep the pace, while our grandmother worked in and near the house. I realized that’s how my father and aunts had grown up, with that hard work ethic. Like college term papers, harvests have a deadline. When the almond raking was finished, the four of us celebrated at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Antique almond huller
Antique (1920s) almond huller at the Casa de Fruta walk of antique machinery. Near Los Banos, CA.

In earlier years on the farm, we also helped gather eggs amidst the singing of hens. They laid eggs daily in cages built above ground. I never noticed then, how cramped the hens were. Their eggs would roll down the slightly tilted wire floors that came into vogue in the 1940s. Eggs gently descended into a protruding wooden trough that allowed convenient collection.

I tried to gather as quickly & deftly as my grandfather, but my hands were too small. I felt very bad whenever I broke an egg. Selling eggs is how my grandparents made their living. Broken eggs were lost money, but I wasn’t scolded. My grandfather just sternly said to be careful, to keep gathering. I think his actual words were, “Well, don’t break any more.”

Sometimes I’d point out a dead bird. It always seemed tragic to me. If it was out of reach he’d just say he’d take care of it later, and kept driving forward in his egg cart. I loved checking the brooder house to see if there were any new chicks. Though the valley summer heat climbed into the 110s, it was dry heat and a swamp cooler kept the house cool. When we grandkids stayed over, my grandmother let us have Captain Crunch for breakfast, a coveted cereal my mother refused to buy. (I refuse to buy it, now, too.) Oh, and once my grandfather let us shoot his rifle at a coffee can.

It’s the only time I’ve shot a gun.

 

The land my grandparents lived on
The house where my grandparents lived, as it looks today. Gone are the almond orchards, the chicken cages & brooder house, the backyard walnut tree and rows of grapes, and the front yard orange grove.
The land my grandparents lived on
Dirt road to the canal at the end of the ten acres. August, 2018

I always wondered about my grandfather’s gun. My dad told me it was to scare off dogs that would try to pull chickens by their feet from the cages. But both my paternal grandparents were Mennonite, who came from what is now the Netherlands and Belgium. They fled their lands for good several times, to escape religious persecution, primarily for refusing to be conscripted into military service. Bearing arms was forbidden in this branch of protestant Christianity. Many Mennonites eventually moved to South Russia (now the Ukraine). When their military exemption ended there, my paternal great great grandparents moved to America. It was the late 1800s, well beyond the Oregon Trail journey, the Civil War, and Land Donation Claim Act years.

My grandmother’s grandparents arrived in America from South Russia in 1874. Her grandfather became a homeopathic doctor in Kansas, where my grandmother’s father was born in 1885. Later the family moved to Oklahoma. It was a similar path with my paternal grandfather, making me a 5th generation American on my dad’s side. Eventually, my grandparents’ families migrated from Oklahoma & Nebraska to California, to farm and do business in the Reedley & Kingsburg area. My grandfather never went beyond the 8th grade in school. It was the depression; he opted to work to help feed the family.

Mennonites are still pacifist; to this day most refuse military service. Though I’m no longer a church-goer, the pacifism, at least the anti-war tenet, has been the one thing I could never fully let go. As an 18 year old college freshman, I protested that the war then was over oil, while my boyfriend at the time tried to convince me we were at war to protect women from being raped. I didn’t buy it. If that were true, we’d be at war in a lot more places.

But it’s complicated. On my mother’s side, which has deeper roots in the North American continent, there were no Mennonites. Pacifism wasn’t necessarily one of the family values. One of my maternal great-aunts packed heat on the floor of her pickup truck every time she drove. On my father’s side, ancestors developed & lived with an ability to detach from a place and flee it for survival, while on my mother’s side, they often stood their ground and defended it. Both impulses run through my veins.

But my father, and his father before him, were both registered as conscientious objectors. CO’s were required to do an alternative service.

My grandfather was drafted in 1942 during World War II. His alternate service was to fight forest fires. He worked at a Civilian Public Service forestry camp near Sacramento.

 

On the drive to Kingsburg earlier this month, there were fires—and thick smoke—up and down the I-5, from southern Oregon to Sacramento. Depending which way the winds were blowing, smoke was also filling the central valley due to the fire in Yosemite, where my parents honeymooned fifty years ago.

There’ve always been fires.

But this year’s fire season is said to be the worst in California history. Governor Jerry Brown said, “Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t had this kind of heat condition, and it’s going to continue getting worse. That’s the way it is.” I guess it is the way it is, since state DOTs don’t seem willing to stop prioritizing fossil fuel burning cars.

On the I-5, convoys of fire engines were heading south, presumably from the Carr Fire to the Mendocino Complex or Ferguson fires.

Click the firetruck photo to view this August, 2018 album & photo captions. Note: All photos from the car were taken from the passenger seat.

Even after adding the carbon offset fee, renting a gas-powered car and driving to my grandmother’s funeral felt like a concession to the status quo, like throwing gasoline on the fire. The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions of any sector in the U.S., at nearly 30%. But flying on short notice was three times the cost of a car rental, not including overnight stays. Amtrak was first repairing tracks; then disrupted by the Carr Fire. It’s also not direct to the valley. At Sacramento passengers must take a bus (after a layover at, like, 6AM) to the next train in Stockton. (I’ve done it.)

I admit: driving for the first time in months felt tantalizing, like that first sip of coffee after quitting—or maybe something more poisonous. From car-centric infrastructure ANYwhere you could want it, to the air conditioning, to the speed of travel, to the leg room in the 2018 Subaru Outback… I’m used to the public bus and my bicycle, or run-commuting.

I mean, WOW! In a car, the traffic signal triggers even work for you! It amazes me every driver isn’t shouting, “I’m king of the world!” like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.

Collectively speaking, cars are our era’s Titanic (insert melting ice cap “joke” here). There’s nothing like driving a car to see who—or what—America is built for, and what will be its downfall. What an addiction. When Karl Marx said religion was the opiate of the people, he hadn’t met the cars of 2018. Maybe he would have said, “Man makes cars. Cars do not make man,” contradicting what every car advertisement ever would have us believe.

If we don’t own a car, do we even exist?

Even my Mennonite great grandfather sold his homestead land under which oil was discovered, and in 1916, bought a new Maxwell with some of the proceeds.

But I’ve joined with those trying to awaken people to the impending climate reasons we ought to change our nation’s transportation behavior. It’s hard work living car-free when only a handful of people pushing for public transit & bicycle infrastructure actually do so without owning cars. Just think how many people own cars around the world. All that metal! The invisibility car-free advocates feel can be exhausting—and that’s in addition to the hard work of being forced to use infrastructure made for cars. Moral support is sparse, even in cities where leaders actually want residents out of cars. But the green bike lanes popping up in cities large & small across northern California was encouraging to see.

Advocates often use “fight” in their language, as in, “it’s a fight against car culture.” It’s the same with wildfire; we say we’re “fighting” fires (even though they’re often started by man). In the Art of War, it’s said, “He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”

Nature is a tricky opponent, though—whether mother nature or human nature. The secret may be that we humans belong to nature. Not the other way around. We may be nature’s caretaker, but not its master.

 

Feeling unappreciated & fighting with disproportionately small numbers can lead to a kind of chronic exhaustion. But it’s nothing like the acute, urgent kind of tired this season’s firefighters must feel. Theirs must be a drop dead tired. The community knows this about firefighters, and there were many signs of thanks & encouragement for them on freeway overpasses around Redding. Up & down the northern California I-5, businesses advertised free laundry, food & other support for firefighters.

Maybe no-drive days should be part of our support, as scientists are telling us the size and intensity of these fires are caused by human behavior & human habits. The firefighters’ work is immense, and the season hasn’t even peaked yet. How do they find the strength to go on when their work seems so endless?

Discouraged hearts can be hugely warmed by morale-boosting words, even those that may seem small. A tiny salute of thanks; a few words of recognition.

The moment my cousin’s daughter asked about my blog, I began mentally writing this post. “Uh, I do have a blog. But… I haven’t been putting as much poetry on it as I should,” I apologized. “Or photos. I should post more of those.” She softly replied, “We do need activism, too.” I felt both glad & inspired when she said how great her sophomore year was shaping up to be, that the dorm she & her friends were assigned to was one of the most sought after on campus, with its ocean views.

We do need activism, more than ever, but it hit me that savoring the natural & rugged beauty of this earth is a timeless need. Witnessing & telling of it is part of our work. It restores weary souls.

Driving home to Oregon, not sure if I’d ever drive this way again, I revisited some favorite childhood road trip spots, like Casa de Fruta. I explored it more thoroughly—and bought way more candy—than I was allowed as a child, discovering far more to the place than I’d known. I revisited the redwoods, spending hours along the Avenue of Giants in northern California. I sat on a Mount Tamalpais hillside, listening to wind rustle golden grasses. Braked just in time, gasping, as two white tailed deer bucks—then a third even closer!—leaped powerfully across the road, their muscle & antlered regalia just inches from the windshield. I telepathically saluted hundreds of cyclists, riding up and down the 101. Found a new old bookstore & cool cat in Gilroy. Camped at a misty Manchester, California campground. Saw a herd of elk. Drove Oregon Route 38 along the gorgeous, green Umpqua river valley.

Plaque with Chief Seattle's 1854 speech to President Franklin Pierce
“We may be brothers after all. We shall see…” —Chief Sealth

And though the idea of cutting a car-sized hole in a 2400+ year old tree turns my stomach, the rental car fit through the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, California. I could guess how Chief Sealth would have felt about it, after I read this —>

I found the letter framed at the Trees of Mystery, another tree viewing spot and museum along the 101 in northern California.

Wikipedia says the Leggett drive-thru tree was cut in the 1930s, along with several other drive-thru trees. They were apparently cut to stimulate automobile tourism.

I wondered if my grandparents had ever driven through this same tree on one of their road trips.

It’s hard to believe, but the tree is still alive.

 

© 2018 Naomi Fast

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