It is a vintage summer evening in Santa Barbara and I drive along the 101 listening to the seventies at seven while the ashy sky glows and the Zaca Fire rages on. 105,000 acres of dry brush and conifer are now burning, 880,000 acres are currently closed, and, in the plain wording of inciweb.org: “A continuous fuel bed lies ahead of the fire.” There are 2800 firefighters on the scene. All we can do is wait.
Sections of sky look brownish and bruised. Sometimes we can smell the smoke even at the Ranch, and we are getting used to the sight of a plush white thundercloud in the distance across the mountains directly above the fire area, perhaps 25,000 feet in the air. My good friend Treebeard calls this cloud a “firehead”, but its technical name is pyrocumulonimbus, and it looks like it is fat with rain, but it is unlikely that its water will ever reach our thirsty ground. (For Treebeard’s scientific explanation and photos, go to this link: Firehead)
Everyone is a little on edge these days, watching the sky, wishing for rain, worried about the whims of the wind. The destruction of the forest and backcountry is unimaginable. There’s a real sense of loss and pending loss. People nearer to the fire have already sorted through their belongings and packed their cars. I remember how that feels. After the initial frantic frenzy, there is a weird letting go, a free fall, an overdue acknowledgement that our sphere of control is much smaller than we thought. I am humbled and grateful for having been spared on those occasions when the danger drew closer to our door, but one never loses that sense of vulnerability.
“Walk around feeling like a leaf,” wrote the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. “Know you could tumble any second. Then decide what to do with your time.”
It’s hard to feel any other way if you simply look up.
On Friday night we went to a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl – Stray Cats and Pretenders, a very 80’s show, a fine distraction. There was Chrissie Hynde, fabulous as always, strutting around in high-heeled boots, still sexy and not taking any crap. (I wonder what it would be like to go through life as talented and confident as that?) People our age were dancing and laughing under the sky while smells of smoke and skunk and marijuana wafted through the Santa Barbara night. (I can’t believe I live here. I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted.)
It’s hot. Monday morning I took a walk on the beach with a friend who is a practicing Buddhist, whatever that means. We strolled through sand and seaweed and talked about the illusions of permanence and possession, living in the present, the connectedness of all beings. (Some of what he said made sense, though I’m not sure who I would be without my guilt and anxiety.) I suppose I was looking for some kind of wisdom. “The only teacher,” he said, “is life as it is.”
Yesterday one tiny tomato was ready, yellow-orange, candy sweet. I heard Jeff Buckley singing A Satisfied Mind and Van Morrison singing Into the Mystic and I rode my bicycle up Coyote Canyon, never getting off to walk, and I wrote an email to my daughter and I finished a good book (A Thousand Splendid Suns) and I swept floors and washed towels. In the night there were shooting stars and strange rattlings and a hum of wind through a space in the rocks, and I caught the glimpse of a long face in a slant of light on my closet door, its expression blank until I hung my sadness on it.
And the Zaca Fire burned on.
So I walk around feeling like a leaf, and perhaps I’ll ride the currents of the wind when I snap from this stem, but I tremble with life for the moment. Maybe there is light in the lightness of one’s own evanescence.