First and foremost, Anna and I would like to thank everyone for their concern. We and all the animals are safe and things are temporarily stable.
In short, it’s kind of like in the olden days when every so often you‘d go outside and see a big fire breathing dragon a few miles away up on the ridge line. You knew that at least for a little while you might be fine. But then…. It’s kind of like that.
And for those wanting a little more narrative detail, here you go. There might be some helpful tidbits for those who find themselves in a similar situation:
Our dog Tierra and I had been in San Diego for the previous 10 days. On Wednesday, a Sebastopol neighbor called me after midnight (thank you, Toby). He was out of town, but had word of a blaze that had ignited near Geyserville. He was worried, he said, about the wind speed on the ridges. The winds were gusting at 90 mph, driving the flames 200 feet in the air. The next morning I looked at the weather projections for the coming week and my amygdala went into overdrive. In anticipation of the current situation, I composed a meticulous multi-paged fire preparedness punchlist, organized by event and threat level, and I emailed the list to Anna. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Anna’s attorneys could easily put forward the document as evidence if she were ever to initiate divorce proceedings.
Sick as she was with a bronchial infection, Anna started preparing on Thursday. She wet down the property (before the well power would go), filled buckets and trashcans with water, schlepped family archives and photos and journals to the steel shipping container (still on the property from when we rented out our house to Tubbs fire victims), loaded the cars, charged her electric car and all devices, etc.
We stayed in intermittent communication. She prepared all through Saturday until the power was cut. She could not access the internet (even on her phone), but I was able to keep her apprised of the situation and sent text updates from San Diego. Evacuation warnings were issued that evening. By then I had decided to come home, but couldn’t leave because I had misplaced both sets of glasses. With limited night vision it would have been foolish to drive the 10 hours in the dark. I lay down at a midnight, but continued to check notices on my phone through the night until the mandatory evacuation order was issued at 4:30 am.
Tierra and I got on the road. I figured it would be light by the time I hit the Tejon Pass and I could drive blind until then. A dear friend texted and said I could pick up some Latvian pirogs on my way out. I stopped in Oceaside at 5:30 am, scrambled some eggs, placed them on a stack of Latvian rye bread, and grabbed the pirogs (Thank you Raz and Velta Sulcs!). Most important of all, Raz gave me her glasses (Thank you again, Raz).
Back home, our friend Toby helped Anna carry the remaining irreplaceable items into the steel container. The thousand dollars of All Clad? Replaceable. The moldy journal from high school? Not. Anna loaded three dogs and three cats into her car. She left the chickens. With Jupiter clambering back and forth on the dash, she called for advice on evacuation routes because she could no longer access Google Maps. I pulled over at the Las Pulgas rest stop at Camp Pendleton and took a look. The patterns were self-evident. Rather than descend into the line of dead standstill evacuee traffic on the Gravenstein Highway, I encouraged her to drop off the back ridge from our home into Valley Ford from where she was able to quickly make it to Petaluma where one of her patients had generously offered up a one room cottage.
I continued on up the 405 – fortunately the Getty blaze had not yet ignited. The Central Valley was a sea of dust. The winds were sufficiently strong to create white caps on the California Aquaduct.
Dropping in to the Bay Area, the skies were eerily clear and things felt strangely quiet. Power had been shut off to much of the Berkeley and Oakland hills. I thought it curious how even close to major situations, life can continue to feel quite normal.
I arrived in west county around 1:30 pm. With no power anywhere in Marin, I couldn’t get gas, but I did find a zone in Petaluma that still had functioning pumps.
In Petaluma I entered a 21st century climate change version of Noah’s Ark. It’s definitely not as big as they make it out to be in the Bible. But we are so very grateful and it is definitely cozy and welcome. I, along with all the animals and a sick and exhausted Anna, are now clustered together in the small room. We have internet via our phones. And we’re close enough to home where I can check on our property.
I visited the house last night and it was definitely a little spooky and forlorn. The winds have desiccated many things. Water and power are off. A pallor of smoke infuses the air. I ferried more things to the shipping container and fed and watered the chickens. Tierra sniffed and explored the perimeter. I checked adjacent properties for fallen trees. I found my first edition copy of Stephens Hopi Journals and Titiev’s Study of the Hopi (one of only two type written original copies that exist in the world) and placed them in the car. After I locked up, I felt like I was forgetting something. I returned to the darkened house. I rummaged in the warming freezer and there I found it. I grabbed the foie gras.
I drove south through the smoky pitch. By the time I reached Petaluma, the winds were receding. Anna was passed out. I crawled into bed. Tierra jumped on top of me and we fell fast asleep.
As for the current situation:
Last night fire containment slipped from 10% to 5% and the grew from 55k acres to 66k. Firefighters were battling most of the night to control the blaze in the Foothills Park neighborhood in Windsor (you can see the concentration of hotspots on the Sonoma Incidence map). They are also working to hold the line at the 101 Freeway.
Depending on the shifting winds, smoke can be pretty bad. Presently (Monday afternoon) much of it appears to be blowing south toward San Francisco and the Bay.
The biggest present concern will be what happens when the second wind event hits tomorrow afternoon thru Wednesday. The 50 mph winds will be coming from the north east. If they carry embers over the 101 it will be a big problem and could spread quickly down the entire Russian River corridor. Our property would be in the path of that event.
For those who are concerned and want to follow, you can check out the dynamic incident and wind maps I posted on Facebook.
At present, however, we are all fine and any effect has been largely collateral: At our home, no power and no water. Lots of smoke. And us and our animals living in our own private refugee camp in Petaluma.
For those who know the full demographics of our household, Jupiter, our 18 year old Vermont barn cat (thank you Bruce and Mary Taft!) is napping in the cottage bathroom. Every so often she comes out and demands that we get with the program. I love having her here because she is the definition of fortitude and resilience.
At a recent North Bay Bob Dylan tribute, I met a biochemist who manufactured blood proteins to treat hemophilia,. As we talked, however, she announced that one day her work would go away.
She explained that blood coagulant requires twelve distinct proteins. The genomes of hemophiliacs, it turns out, are unable to manufacture number eight. But it’s now possible to engineer a virus that contains the missing gene sequence. And if we introduce the virus to hemophiliac bone marrow, the DNA will repair and gain the ability to manufacture the missing protein. It all sounded miraculous and strange.
Musicians took up their instruments and the lilting chime of Mr. Tambourine Man filled the room.
Fifteen months ago, a young Greta Thunberg left school and held a sign outside the Swedish Parliament. She stood alone. Skolstrejk för Klimatet her sign read.
A year later, millions of young people around the globe struck for climate change.
In this long hot summer without precedence in human history, it feels indeed as if our planet is burning with fever. And yet I feel tremendous hope. I marvel at the mechanisms by which the genome of the body politic can repair itself. Change does not come just through governmental edict, but can sometimes begin with a single act. Any small act taken by any one of us. We need not wait to take those small, but necessary and infectious steps — gene therapy, if you will — that will allow our children to have a future.
We need a system change, rather than individual change, Thunburg said to the body of the UN.
But we cannot have one without the other.
To do your best is no longer enough.
We must all do the seemingly impossible.
Everything needs to change.
And it has to start today.
With a perspective, this is Andrew Lewis
It was the Day of Days.
On the eve of the invasion, the Allied commander penned a letter in the event of defeat. “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he wrote. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Before dawn, 13,000 boys fell out of the sky into the hedgerows of Normandy. My mother-in-law’s father was among them. Don Bowman was a radio man in C Company, 501st Regiment, 101st Airborne. Each by each, the boys flew off the stick into a hail of fire. One out of five would die that day. Bowman did not.
There was the Day of Days.
And then there were the days after.
Bowman’s military records hint at his story. That year the 101st fought their way across Europe. Operation Market Garden. The Ardenne. Battle of the Bulge. Liberation of Dachau. Eagles Nest. One Purple Heart. A Bronze Star for meritorious valor.
Bullet after bullet.
Medal after medal.
Body after body.
Until victory was had.
But even in victory, the price paid cannot be measured. In 1969, estranged from his family, alone in Los Angeles, an alcoholic traumatized by war, Don Bowman purchased himself a cemetery plot.
When asked to list friends or family, he wrote, “None.”
Those boys gave their lives to save Europe. And now that confederation is being abandoned for want of leadership and the erosive force of nationalist and isolationist fervor.
On this day I think of Don Bowman.
I think that perhaps we owe him more than simple remembrance.
Why does the burning of Our Lady affect me so?
I’m not a practicing Catholic or even a Christian really. So why should this conflagration matter?
Although I am not of Christian faith, Christian tropes do apply here.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was designed in the form of a cross, and the bell towers stand at the position of Christ’s feet when he was brutally nailed to that Tree of Life.
The spire once rose directly above the center of the architectural crucifix – that ashen vehicle of sacrifice – and when the spire burned and fell, it pierced the nave like a spear piercing the heart, not of Christ, but of the Christ.
And like the original crucifixion was so intended, this sacrifice may perhaps have shaken us again from a slumber.
When the great teacher and expositor of belief Joseph Campbell was once asked where he prayed, he answered simply, “Notre Dame,” Our Lady. Even if he had not been there in years, he explained, her profound space was still his spiritual home.
But the sorrow over her burning is not about denomination. Nor is it necessarily about Christianity or Islam or any other belief system. The burning matters not so much because it is even a religious thing.
It matters because it is a human thing.
It matters because for many it was a place of secular pilgrimage. How many of us have taken pictures of ourselves with family or a fiancé there among the gargoyles and demons, as if to say, we one day will die, but here, if just for a moment, we once lived and we once loved.
It matters because Notre Dame is the symbolic center of France (and you could even argue modern Europe and in general the West) – Ground Zero if you will – from which all distances are measured.
And the center – in a time in which the center struggles to hold – matters.
In his recent book, The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents how in a highly calculated way foreign actors have worked to undermine political and social cohesion in the United States and in Europe. A third of Brexit twitter posts were generated by bots as part of a covert Russian media and troll campaign. The same forces have launched sophisticated social media campaigns in the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, France, and the US intended to invalidate liberal democracies. Deliberate untruths foment social divisions, including the Yellow Vest movement that has torn apart Paris.
But this is not just about one nation’s imperatives pitted against another. It concerns an assault on truth itself. We are being incited to let ourselves be governed by emotion and impulse, by vague belief in what we wish to be true and not in facts themselves.
As our fears are stoked, the spectres of authoritarian governments have risen across Europe and within the United States. Authoritarian leaders do not necessarily seize power. Afraid, we willingly give it up.
In this strange world, fact and truth are denigrated. Chaos becomes the brand, disintegration the goal. By turning us against each other, more can be accomplished than through a multitude of guns.
As our passions become inflamed, the centre cannot hold.
And without a moral or spiritual or truth-bound center, unhealthy impulses grow to fill the void. We frame anyone beyond our immediate tribe as outsiders to be either vilified or feared or destroyed. We turn our selves away from one other.
It took 183 years to build Notre Dame, slightly less time than the United States itself has even existed. Our Lady represents the greatest of human endeavors – that painstaking and collaborative work that contributes in some small way to a great edifice beyond our own cognition. Something so vast in conception that in Our Lady’s first construction, neither the first stone masons nor their children nor their grandchildren would ever live to see her completion.
She is about honoring something greater than one’s self.
Call it the perfection of democracy. Or human emancipation, or equality, or the extension of universal rights to all forms of life, or the prevailing of truth over momentary whim or lies or fancy.
So, strangely then, her burning may now promote a different kind of faith. Not necessarily in God, but perhaps in us. Not the us vs. them, but the very center that is simply the collective and embracing us.
For decades the foundation dedicated to preserving Notre Dame struggled to raise funds. But in the hours after the fires were extinguished, more than 600 million euros poured in from donations both quite large and incomparably small. We donate because, perhaps, we’ve been awakened to the thought that the center must indeed hold.
Her burning matters because it reminds us of the profound need to come together in a time when individuals and forces are doing all that they can to drive us apart.
I bring kindling in from outside.
I build a fire in the wood stove.
A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.
Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.
I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.
Why? Because he faces forward. And because I am facing back. And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self. Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.
On most days I work on the creek. Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.
But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.
And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.
I watch how the water flows. I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt. I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it. I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.
Granted, it’s not much. So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.
The answer is, well, no. But it is, in fact, what I am doing. For whatever that’s worth.
On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur. I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages. Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.
His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.
Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.
The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika. I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union. While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home. I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.
The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together. They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy. They had to apologize. It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible. It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything. In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America. They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.
You are in charge, now, they told me. And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus. I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said. I am so sorry.
On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students. And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.
And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall. If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?
We all are in the process of dying.
I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss. And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living. That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none. So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.
I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.
This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music. I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.
She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age. And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.
So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.
And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.
Perhaps this will be the year.