This has been a bittersweet summer. Through the generosity of old friends we were gifted enough frequent flier miles to visit the East Coast. There we traveled from D.C. to Maine, staying mostly at the homes and summer cabins of people we knew. Hopscotching from a cabin on a pond to a lakeside Airbnb to a home on the coast, we were surrounded by green woods and almost always in sight of water. It was refreshing to be out of “Burnville,” a reassuring contrast to the summer drought and fire danger back home.
Disaster news followed us of course. The Carr Fire, outside of Redding, flared up as we were enjoying the coast of Maine and literally surrounded by water. Mourning the loss of another thousand northern California homes and knowing too well what the latest survivors were going through, we also felt temporarily safe and protected. I’ve always thought of Glen Ellen as a little slice of paradise – but on the flight back, I felt an unfamiliar ambivalence about coming home. The magnitude of what happened 11 months ago and a growing sense of uncertainty have tarnished my sense of the place I love.
A similar thing happened on a more recent trip to Kauai, where we were gifted a week at a timeshare. There we enjoyed lush tropical greenery, gushing waterfalls and the expanse of the Pacific close at hand. In many ways it fit the popular image of paradise. But just a week earlier, Hurricane Lane had caused severe flooding on the island’s north end. Homes were lost, roads and bridges damaged, and communities cut off from the outside world. Volunteers set up land and sea convoys to get residents and supplies in and out of the area. Donations were being collected to help the survivors – the swift and generous response reminded me much of our community back home.
We returned to hear of another fire near Redding that set semi-trucks on fire and closed Highway 5. (Not Arnold or 12, Highway 5!) Due to the smoke of that and other fires, Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival had to cancel some performances and move others to a high school stage. Our daughter lives in Seattle working as a nanny. The air quality there was so bad – the worst ever – that she had to stay indoors with the 18-month old girl she watches. Nowhere feels reliably safe anymore. It’s incredibly sad to call this “the new normal” and scary to wonder if even that term may be optimistic as climate change accelerates.
Our neighborhood is still a stark place, with a few rebuilds started and an equal or greater number of “For Sale” signs. After we finalize plans with our architect, hopefully in a few days, we’ll enter a time of even greater uncertainty, as we find out if we have enough resources to carry them out. Our neighbors just got their first estimate for their rebuild. I swore out loud when I heard the figure – $880 a square foot! It’s double what we can afford. At that rate we can afford a shack with an outhouse. It’s a good thing we just became empty nesters. This is an ideal time, if there is such a thing, for a rebuild.
I recently made my first visit in over a year to Jack London’s Wolf House. The plaque at the site has two dates. The first is August 22, 1913, the day a fire destroyed his dream home on the eve of its completion. The loss was estimated at about $40,000; London’s insurance paid out $10,000. Charmian, London’s wife, wrote that “the razing of his house killed something in Jack, and he never ceased to feel the tragic inner sense of loss.” London vowed to rebuild and had his workers cut redwood logs. By the time they had cured for the necessary 18 months, he was suffering from several health conditions and had only a year or two to live. The second date on the plaque is exactly three years and three months after the first – November 22, 1916, the day he died. His rebuild was barely started.
I don’t grieve our house as strongly as Jack did, but I do know that heavy sense of loss Charmian described and the effort required to keep moving. I can understand why Jack couldn’t manage to rebuild the Wolf House in the time he had. There’s a mountain of decisions to be made and the feeling of being at the mercy of forces, whether they’re wildfires or greedy contractors, beyond my control. No wonder there are so many “For Sale” signs on the cleared lots in my neighborhood. I understand the temptation to take the insurance settlement and walk away. As for us, we’re not giving up hope, but we are beginning to recognize the enormity of the task ahead and find ourselves more aware of how much uncertainty the future holds.
Jill and I are committed to rebuilding and making our place as fire resistant as we can. We’ve also agreed that if we get burned out again – unlikely but possible in these uncertain times – we’ll move into Santa Rosa; or the cooler, moister Sonoma Coast; or maybe further afield. Disasters change the trajectories of lives, communities and landscapes. On Kauai there are thousands of feral chickens running around and you can hear roosters crowing everywhere. The story goes that Hurricane Iniki blew down their coops in 1992 and released the ancestors of today’s wild chickens.
Of course uncertainty itself is neither good nor bad. Things just feel less predictable than they used to. There’s even a grain of hope in that idea, since good things have also been appearing unexpectedly. A year ago we couldn’t have imagined all the twists and turns ahead. As we told people on Kauai, “If it wasn’t for a disaster, we wouldn’t be here.” Neither would the island’s wild chickens. Like them, we’ve lost our nest and have taken to calling ourselves “empty nexters.”