What I Learned from the Tea Fire
November 13, 2008, remains the defining moment when nearly all that I, and my immediate family, had ever created, nurtured, and owned turned into heat and light and ash. The images that seared their way into my consciousness that day remain at large in my daily world. I hover somewhere between an extreme pain that has never dulled and the turbulent excitement and energy of being forced helter-skelter into a new life. The raw necessity of instant reinvention and renewal has been both a curse of incredible duration and a force for self-examination and creativity that would never have been possible without such a total, all-encompassing loss. I am once again fully engaged and alive, though still adrift, awe-inspired and burning.
An entire neighborhood and way of life vanished that day, without so much as an apology from the perpetrators, though hundreds of lives were eternally altered. Without our desire or our consent, we entered the ever-growing global community of battered souls. There are scars that all of us survivors conceal, dark places that each of us shelters. We go there only because we must, a black visceral stream.
Arising before dawn on the morning after, I snuck behind police lines and, among fire and media trucks, drove along East Mountain Drive. Flames were still erupting from cars and telephone poles, gas lines and dying trees. The skeletons of gorgeous homes were everywhere. Places I had known all my life had ceased to be. The devastation intensified as I rounded the final blind curve. My gorgeous castle on the mountaintop was gone. In its place was a steaming, deathly grey toxic phantom.
Slowly I wound my way up the long driveway, choking on poisonous fumes. I arrived at a scene so oddly distorted, yet so familiar that my mind stretched far away to comprehend it. I put a moist shirt over my nose and mouth, but I was retching as my feet crunched over our former threshold into that smoldering circle of hell. I called for my cat, sought out any color or movement, and photographed the catastrophe as best I could, standing on the great stone deck surveying all that had been my world. It was thrilling and impossible and beautiful. Taking it all in, I suddenly was aware of the absolute knowledge that my life would never be the same. A sense of serenity, of enormous peace, came over my being. It would not last.
For days afterward, I combed through the rubble, finding ghostly remains of once-meaningful things. The library, now exposed to the sky, had collapsed into row upon row of bound volumes of grey dust. The bloated koi fish rotted in their pond. Our cat appeared from under the array of solar panels, feet burned to the bone, teetering and dying of thirst. Pages of magazines blew gently by. Post-apocalyptic cars lay in the sun, their aluminum guts spilling down the road. Neighbors conversed delicately. Police and insurance people patrolled the streets. The carcass of the local volunteer fire department truck lay on black rims as a silent testimonial to the profound futility of its impossible task in the face of such carnage and violence. The stench, the roar of that mythic beast, its blackness still live in me.
Bronze and steel, symbols of structural permanence, had melted in the intense heat. Amorphous blobs of glass lay everywhere. The chimneys and fireplaces stood as sculptural sentinels in the wasteland. Thieves had already raided the property. Our fruit trees and cacti, playground and vegetable garden, cottages and studios, cars and a lifelong collection of global artifacts, our paradise and sanctuary spread before me, lifeless, without any comfort or joy. Until very recently, my son, whose nurturing environment this had been for nearly the first five years of his life, had never been back to see his former home. His heart no longer knows the place. He is fierce and strong, resilient and imaginative and young. He has moved on.
The stunning thing to me is that, three years along, many of us are still hounded by the vultures of our society, those who prey upon the weakened, vulnerable, and displaced: the banks, adjusters, bureaucrats, charlatans, insurance liars, lawyers, Realtors, and construction hacks. What a stark contrast to the days immediately following the blaze, when total strangers offered up refuge, food, clothing, and solace, when the community coalesced into a fiery, indignant force. My family still thanks you from our deepest collective heart. We will remember you all.
For the moment, we live in the Berkeley hills, in a house built just after the catastrophic conflagration of 1991, in which nearly 4,000 homes and 25 lives perished. Twenty years after the fact, many of those victims are still deeply traumatized, others profoundly philosophical about their involuntary metamorphosis. Many could not or would not rebuild and moved away. Opportunistic speculators created a hodgepodge of architectural disarray. The phoenix has arisen here slowly. There is a memorial to commemorate the dead. The mountains of rubbish are gone.
There is a vast spectrum of emotions that permeates me still, ranging from absolute fury to a sardonic sense of gallows humor about the inevitability of it all. Those who choose to construct, own, or live in houses built in the path of wildfire must be aware of the many precedents, the rosters of such fearsome events. But the extraordinary views, the smells, the privacy, the closeness with nature all entice and lull us into a sense that our individual fates would prove different. It was not to be.
I have yearned unceasingly for my old life since that day. Generations of friends, the birth of my son, the creative splendor, the richness of community, the grandest of vistas, the ebb and flow of weather and light, the immersion in art and wildlife and orange groves, the promise of health and happiness all haunt me in a dream peopled by ghosts. There is a shadow, a falling leaf, a sage-scented breeze, a fountain, the shriek of a hawk, the moonrise illuminating that ephemeral vision. The specters of my parents are there, and the families of my brothers still thrive.
I awaken now to the reality of traffic and chaos and crime, the enticement and constant thrum of city life. There is so much that is different, tempting and desirable, deranged and eclectic, multicultural, dangerous, and absurd. There is pollution, a blare and dance of frantic profusion, the multifariousness of the bay, and the great panoply of natural virtues to be found all around us. There is much to enjoy.
I have not been able to heal completely. The beloved land that I cannot afford to rebuild upon is going to the bank, which hounds me every day. The thousands of pages of journals, poems, short stories, rants, letters, drawings, and songs, the photographs of youth and family and friends and birth and exotic travel, the ubiquitous art, the quality of life created after nearly a decade of envisioning, planting, and building, have all come to naught. Nearly all evidence of my life’s work and experiences, my identity, my hopes and joys has been incinerated and seemingly eviscerated from my soul, my memory, and my heart. I can still draw on some of it, but my creativity has limped into a deep cave. I, at nearly 60, am starting over. But I must. I have a family of loved ones to nurture. They trust in me.
We at first became refugees on a houseboat in Sausalito, displaced into a water world, devoid of familiarity and friends. We transitioned into our new life gradually, painfully, but, as a corpse becomes fertile soil in time, we adapted, became resourceful, and grew. We realized that we were suddenly completely untethered and could reinvent ourselves in ways we could never have imagined. We became distant from all who had known us, reclusive, mistrustful, reticent, and strange.
We can no longer imagine a life in Santa Barbara. We are addicted to change and are rootless and ungrounded, restless and intensely aware. We could live anywhere. My family has adapted far better than I have been able to so far, full of creative juices and the promise of the future. I am perpetually dragged into the past by bureaucratic and financial necessity and am often grumpy and depressed, awful to be around. But the struggle is now slightly less intense in me, and my anger is subsiding. I am beginning to forget, and that is good medicine for my soul.
I am intensely aware of the privileged and rarified world we lived in. Now we are far more conscious of the consequences of life in a hedonistic, myopic, and hegemonic country that regularly rains ruin upon other cultures and on the earth itself. Materialism is hugely overrated. The masses of injured souls in the world make our plight and sorrows irrelevant by comparison. The fragility of our lives, the intense beauty of existence, the absolute power of unpredictability must give pause to those who believe they can control anything, and so each day is a fleeting gift and a poem. We now anticipate the earthquake and the flood. Nothing is writ in stone.
I shall never cease in my longings nor stop wondering what might have been. But I have learned a sort of tenderness and toughness I never knew before. There is a tormented beauty, a sublime destruction on our planet. I am now familiar with the fragility of it all, how quickly change arrives, and how rapidly things can disappear. I wish everyone I have ever known great health and happiness and that those we left behind could come to their own peace with their destiny. I know the backbone of the community still resides there, and its pulsing heart is strong. We miss you and believe you will all see the seedlings grow and feel the cooling breezes in your souls.