I greeted the anniversary of the fire in early October with mixed emotions. Considering the devastation we’d faced in the wake of the disaster, our lot had come a long way. After the debris was removed, the earth looked ravaged with holes and heavy equipment tracks. But by late summer that had been remedied by a state program which filled the ‘over-excavation’ and pulled out even more debris, including an old septic tank and asbestos pipes. When they were done, the land was smooth and clean. After a year, we were back to zero.
Often that didn’t really feel like much. It’d already been a year – how could we not be further along? Well-meaning people inquired – “Do you have a contractor? A permit? Have you broken ground?” I would admit, a little shamefully, that none of those things had happened – we were still finalizing plans. Our insurance adjuster was taking notice as well, saying that if we wanted the full payoff, the rebuild had to be finished within two years. Suddenly the clock ticked louder – one was nearly gone. Without a final plan, we couldn’t get an estimate from a builder. And without an estimate, we didn’t know for sure that we could afford a rebuild. A number of people we knew, including our next-door neighbors, had decided it was too expensive to rebuild. Sometimes I envied the fact that they had moved on.
The only thing flourishing on our empty lot was an elderberry bush up by the road. Burned to the ground, it came back with last year’s winter rains healthier than I’d ever seen it. It had pushed out stalks in all directions, grown ten feet tall into a leafy fountain of lush green that had been covered with white flowers in spring and now was beginning to set dark berries. I’d studied a little fire ecology and knew, second hand, that many plants benefited from the right type of burn. For thousands of years, California’s indigenous people set fires intentionally for just that reason – as a way to care for the land and keep it healthy. Seeing that borne out on my own property was inspiring.
As the “fire-versary” approached, each survivor responded in their own way. Jill left to spend the weekend in Ashland with our daughter Kyrie. I stuck around. I passed up a number of events marking the occasion, but did attend a small observance with other Glen Ellen folks at Eldridge. Judy, the woman who led the ceremony was an indigenous Californian from the Santa Barbara area who has lived in Sonoma Valley for many years. Afterwards, knowing that California’s native peoples used elderberries for food and musical instruments, I invited her to gather some from our property.
She arrived in the late afternoon. We did a little ceremony next to her car, purifying ourselves with a smudge stick of sage she had brought. Walking over to the elderberry, we found the stalks heavy with dark berries. I bent one toward a big pot I’d brought to collect them in. As I did, they started falling off, clanging into the kettle on their own. We laughed – the fruit were so ready that we hardly had to bother picking them. It was as if they wanted to be harvested. A gift from the elderberry.
With some long-handled loppers, I cut several stalks which Judy planned to use for clapper sticks and flutes – traditional musical instruments. Working in the warm sun gave us a chance to talk and get to know each other a little better. Without the fire, that moment would never have happened. It felt as though circles great and small came together that day, some that extended well beyond my own lifetime. I was grateful for the berries; for Judy’s presence; for the return, on a small scale, to traditional practices; for all the fire’s unexpected gifts. And my relationship with the land shifted ever so slightly.
It was hard, a few weeks later, to watch the Paradise fire ravage another place I’d known. Jill and I met nearby in Chico, which was now absorbing refugees from that disaster. Here in Glen Ellen, it was hard to watch the return of smoky skies and poor air quality, hard to think of so many new survivors experiencing what we had, hard to read of the death toll. With it came the grim realization that we had been lucky – at least we had a town to return to – it made the future seem even more uncertain. And it made me more determined than ever to reduce our carbon footprint.
But in the past couple months, things have begun to move just a little faster: we’ve finished our house plans and sent them off to a structural engineer and a required energy consultant. From the best we can tell, it looks like we can afford to rebuild. We’ll soon be making a decision on a contractor, submit for a permit and then break ground. That’s the plan. As Jill and I used to say when we were traveling in developing countries, “We’ll find out what reality is when we get to it.”
If there is wisdom in the elderberry, it is in its ability to come back after being burned to the ground; in continuing to give even after everything has been taken, in its assertion of green life amidst devastation. That afternoon with Judy and the elderberry marked a fresh start on the land – a glimpse of the past and the future. A blessing and a beginning. Our lot, rather than empty, now feels pregnant with possibility.