A glimpse of the other side
By late February, 16 months after we lost our home in the Nuns Fire, we finally had all our ducks in line: architectural and structural engineering plans, a geotech report, and a wonderful contractor who had come out of semi-retirement to build our home. We submitted a packet to the county’s Resiliency Center. Ten days later, after a little back and forth, we had our permit.
The very next day our contractor called, with profound regret, to say he was having serious health issues and needed to withdraw from the project. Getting that news, on the verge of breaking ground, was a big blow. Pretty much every contractor we knew of was booked months out. Still pondering how to regroup, I returned to my office a few hours later to find a message on my machine: “Hi, this is Mark. We talked a few months ago about your rebuild and I wasn’t able to do it at that time. I just took on a partner and we have a slot for you if you still need it.” We jumped on his offer, checked his references and met him and his partner Dave out at the site.
We chatted about the project and realized we shared a lot of acquaintances. In fact Mark grew up in the area and worked in the old Shone’s Market as a teenager. Much more recently, in the spring of 2017, he’d retired as Sonoma’s Fire Chief after 30 years as a firefighter. But he went right back to work when the fires hit that fall, bringing critical knowledge and experience to the task.
As we shared fire stories, we all got a little misty-eyed. Mark told us how traumatic the experience has been for many firefighters. “We’re Type A people,” he said. “Our job is to protect lives and property. Our thinking and our training is to go for a positive outcome. But this went beyond anything we’d ever experienced. It was overwhelming for many of us.”
It was with profound gratitude and relief that we signed Mark on. On the evening before we broke ground, Jill and I visited the site at dusk with a friend. She led us in a simple ceremony for releasing the past and blessing the future. It happened to be May Day, or Beltane in the Celtic calendar – a time to celebrate the peak of Spring, the growing warmth of the sun, and the coming of summer; a time of fertility and new beginnings.
Over the next few days, trenches were dug into the earth, wooden forms set and concrete poured for the foundation. Finally something tangible was rising where memories and dreams had hovered for so long. The timing turned out to be perfect. Almost as soon as the foundation was poured, a light rain set in – perfect conditions for concrete to set.
Up by the road, one of my favorite plants, a spicebush, was coming back after being burned to the ground. Though its thick, dark green leaves have a tropical look, you can find it growing as a native along our local creeks. The flower buds were just beginning to appear, getting ready to bloom into bright red blossoms with the fragrance of mulled wine or spiced apple pie.
Unfortunately the spicebush was growing in the middle of our new driveway, right in the path of progress. Though they’re notoriously difficult to transplant, we had to try. As fellow fire survivors, we felt some kinship there. We talked it over with Dave, who very carefully dug it up and moved it to a fresh hole in the backyard. With shovels in our hands, Jill and I filled it in and pressed the soil around the roots with our shoes. The plant reacted with shock at being uprooted, dropping loads of wilted yellow leaves and unopened flower buds to the ground. There was no water on the property, so we brought it in milk jugs a gallon or two at a time. Even with the best care we could give, the spicebush looked like it might not make it.
As the season’s last rain tapered off, our benefactors, Margie and Ritch, decided to clear an overgrown path down to Sonoma Creek. I was gone, but Jill chipped in. An afternoon’s work gave us access to the water’s edge, where the sun filters through the green leaves and you can enjoy the sound of flowing water. Just a minute’s walk from our trailer, it’s a little slice of heaven. As another dry season begins, it feels a world away from the specter of fire.
We’ve been enjoying the human community here, too, with the six of us living on the property and some near neighbors, it’s really a small village. We cross paths often, share casual conversations and sometimes a meal. I’m looking forward to moving back into a house, but not too soon. Life here has had its challenges, but it’s pretty sweet. I’m going to miss this place.
A few weeks after it was transplanted, the spice bush still looked unhealthy, even with regular water. On a gardener’s advice, I sprinkled some plant food around it. Not long after, new leaves sprouted from the stems and the base. It was a small miracle that reminded me of something a grape grower told me – “the vines tell you when they’re happy.” The spice bush began to look happier, even optimistic.
We lost a lot in the fire, but that is balanced to some degree by a sense that what survived has taken on a deeper meaning. We pulled a brick from the ashes that Jill’s grandmother had recovered from the ashes of her own home, in San Francisco in 1906. Its story is bigger now—more than a distant and abstract loss, that brick speaks to survival and resilience and finding the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. In many ways, our world and that of many others, ended on an October night two years ago. Since then, we’ve had to feel our way, little by little, into a future different from what we ever imagined. The journey has been long and sometimes overwhelming. But as individuals and as a community, there’s a growing sense that we will persevere.
The fires of 2017 will be a permanent marker in our lives. But we’re starting to get a glimpse of the other side. It’s important to remember fire’s destructive potential. It’s also good to recognize how its disruptive power has stimulated new friendships to form and deepened old ones. How it has led some of us to a heightened sense of gratitude for what we do have. How even a burned and uprooted spicebush looks like it might flower once again.
P.S. Thankfully our first contractor’s health concern was a false alarm.