Friday, March 24, 2017

45 Years of My Words Away
by Conrad Levasseur

So how do I write about something
that took 45 years of my words & art away?

Journals, articles, poems, drawings, paintings, manuscripts,
travel sketches, a library & research files, every letter
and post card from the three kids, Margaret, family, friends.

A gold rush mine of memory
that I wanted to dig into in retirement
to shovel, rake, sift, pan and separate
all the nuggets from the general debris.

After the fire…..
only the rammed earth adobe walls
still standing.

Everything else melted,
bent, pulverized into
soft, fine ash.

Even the half dozen
cords of wood
in the open field
that were chain sawed, split, stacked
neatly in geometric rows

patiently waiting through
the drought dried summer simmering heat
to perform their duty
in the Vermont Casting wood stove…….

as soon as the first beautiful
silver frost wolves of winter
came running down
the slopes
of The Sierra

now sit
but a handful
of delicate
fine ash.

The power of the flame
to totally dissolve
a refrigerator,
liquify glass
and melt machines.

All those hundreds of hours
spent getting beyond clearance
with the undergrowth…..
inching my way through
oak, manzanita, cedar, pine,
miners misery, poison oak, star thistle

NOW….. BEYOND--BEYOND clearance.

Every nook, valley, slope, hill
creek, drainage on the acreage

nakedly exposed
beyond all my years
of intimacy with them.

There were some ghost books
that lay on their backs,
binders spread open,
at a hundred and eighty degrees,

an accordion of pages
eerily beckoning
to be picked up
and played
one last time…..

collapsing with their final breath
when delicately touched
by a finger cautiously seeking
that final secretive tale.

Somehow family history
still clung to the walls……
reminding me of archeological sites
I visited around the world.

I first thought
of leaving the walls
to be buried
by moss, lichens, vines…..

a new forest monument
to my family living
for a short period together
at the edge of the grid

my mother's ashes
spread around the property
weaving a genetic thread
from the Old World to The New.

When Margaret and I drove back the first time
and got out of the car……both of us thought
one of us whispered, "The silence…….
it's so quiet here".

Unimaginably quiet……
beyond the cherished silence
that had nurtured us
all these years.

No tracks of squirrel, skunk, raccoon, bear, coyote,
mountain lion, wild turkey, wild pig, dog, cat.


One set -- one set
out of dozens before
of deer tracks
clearly imprinted
in the ash sealed road.

Of course,
the walls did have to come down
the land did have to be cleared

leaving an open, empty field.

A haunted forest?

Or, a fresh, new
Field of Dreams?

Yet to be written.

Friday, January 13, 2017

By Pam S. Dunn

            Sarah and her husband were looking at retirement property on California’s central coast when they heard the Butte fire had jumped from Amador to Calaveras County. When they left Thursday morning, they thought the fire was out, but by Thursday evening the town of Mokelumne Hill had been evacuated. By Friday, they began making phone calls, and Sarah’s friends told her that their neighborhood was in flames.
            After years of working in stressful jobs, they were living the back-to-the-land existence they’d always talked about. At first, she had the energy of a Gold Rush settler. She and her husband whacked and burned, recovered from poison oak rashes, dealt with star thistle, chaparral, and an overgrown ten acres that needed reclaiming. When it snowed in those days, it seemed a mere skiff, a dusting on the ground that vanished the next day. They’d remained full of rural romanticism. Washing lettuce leaves one at a time. Swiping earwigs and sow bugs down the drain.
            In later years, she’d proven not up to the toil. Everything began to weigh on her. Their particular elevation seemed to be nice only in two seasons, spring and fall. Lately, you could snap your fingers and miss the mountain’s golden poppies and the fall’s autumn colors. During the summer fires, she drove though billowing smoke and hot ash, flames on both sides of the highway. In the winter, inching along S bends around wrecked and stranded vehicles, she feared that sudden slip that would match the skip in her heart. The loading of wood into the stove, vacuuming spider webs, canning garden vegetables, and listening to O.E.S. bulletins about the latest wildfire or winter storm—it hit her in a horrible sort of way that there was no point to any of it.
The last time the power went out, her husband carried the flashlight, revealing an aged, craggy face she didn’t recognize. The flashlight’s beam played around the room, bringing out the shapes of things. Then he went out to start the generator that ran the pump and refrigerator. She realized if he died, she would be cut off, helpless. It must have been at that moment, when she began to doubt their retirement plans.
            In September, it was over one hundred on California’s central coast. They’d looked at several retirement communities that day. Back in the hotel, she googled the latest Butte fire results. Fire had a different language. Containment in percentages. Fire lines. Nights you prayed for cool downs so the firefighters could get an edge. This time, the fire was raging in the Jesus Maria canyon—moving so fast and hot, the flames were chasing people from their homes.
            On television they watched firestorms that looked like tornados. Homes they recognized burning, trees exploding like bombs. When they arrived home on Saturday, gray smoke and hot ash billowed across the road, the sky streaked red and black. Fire trucks parked everywhere along the main highway. Helicopters carrying water buckets churned overhead. The road going to their home was blocked.
            “Did you have animals?” the Red Cross worker asked them. “No, just stray cats,” Sarah answered. Both of the cats they’d brought with them from civilization were gone now. One got old and died and the neighbors’ dogs killed the other one.
            The next day they told their insurance company they had no idea if they would be coming back to anything. Then Sarah and her husband went shopping for a cell phone and clothes. Everything they owned was in their suitcase. Oddly enough, they had their swimming suits.
            The few friends they contacted reported the same thing: their homes were gone. They began to fear the worst. They ate at cafes and watched the television hoping for some change that would slow the fire’s path. Of course, their particular area had weather cycles that were impossible to predict. Five years of hot weather and drought when the foothills went up like flaming fireballs and the rainy seasons, torrential rains, impassible roads, and floods in the lowlands. This last season with no spring and a foot of snow in April. At the motel, she thought about pulling the covers over her head until the fire burned itself out, when she might venture forth again without this painful fear lodging in her chest.
            It was a week before they were finally allowed onto the property.
            Along Mountain Ranch Road, the land was burned, homes were gone. The town itself had survived. Their hope began to build. And then three miles beyond, they entered the canyon areas. The blackened trees still standing. Homes turned to ash. At the end of the gravel drive, sitting on metal rims, their truck looked like a heap of junk, the tires vaporized. The storage sheds and pump house were nothing but rubble. Sarah was too stunned to speak. The accumulations of a lifetime were gone. She could make out parts of things: the couch’s springs, the wood stove, a hulk that might have been the kitchen range. Everything thing else had been turned to ash or was buried underneath the ashes. Charred and blackened, the wood stove had been hurled to the ground.
They looked at the outline of their house.
“It’s burned down to the J-bolts sticking out of the foundation,” her husband said.
            She stood looking at all of her world. She tasted dust and smelled the burn. And yet, oddly, she recalled why they had bought the place, what it had meant to her. She began to cry and her husband came to her and hugged her close.
            They would start over.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

2015 Butte Fire legacy
by Pru Starr

my jeweler friend no longer works
a blobmelt inventory breaks her heart
incomprehensible to those who weren’t evacuated

transform an ugly story twenty minutes before the house burns down
only rubble survives its raw beauty

cherry-pick my jewelry box when my brain says
“I’m coming back”
who wears melted gold around her neck when its clasp no longer opens?

what does the new back look like

how does a dish cope in a new shape
will the teacup hang without its  handle

rusty hacksaw suspends in burnt wood
where is the bed when only its twisted box springs remain?

remember heat snap shards in gray ash dirt
water turns to mud where there was once a garden

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Our Mothers’ Lamps Burned Up in the Butte Fire
By Donna Becker

I like to think of the lamp
that stood so many years
at my mother’s bedside,
the red flower painted
Sears reproduction
of a kerosene lamp
from an earlier age.
I think it reminded my mother
of her aunt’s nights
in the cold farmhouse.
The lamp found no place in my home
but happily, it did in yours.
That lamp in your cabin,
in your new quieter life.
“Just right,”
you said.

Your two lamps were
of fine pale green porcelain
painted and gilded
with more delicate flowers,
silken shades.
One sent to the restorer
at great cost
after the cousin’s dog
knocked it into pieces
on the floor.

These lamps of our mothers’ evenings,
which they loved for the
glowing prettiness.
Their hands each night
turned the knobs
to darkness
in a way
we love to remember.

Oct 2105

California Fires, 2015
By Donna Becker

Sun through smoke
makes a pallid orange shadow.
Sunrises and sunsets, which might be glorious,
are a sinister pink,
Each leaf, usually a gift of green and grace,
is now only desiccated brown fuel.
The thin smell of smoke
stops me, 
makes me alert like an animal,
smoke carried for miles,
or maybe nearer?
The sound of each plane and helicopter
a possible harbinger.
Tiny fragments of black ash
on the wind -
someone’s home burned and scattered,
flying in pieces high in the atmosphere
landing here.
The breeze warm on my skin
shakes the dry leaves in warning.
September 2015

Make It Rain by Jerry Allen Zellers                                                                                     Dedicated to my dad, Scott Zellers, the bravest man I know           
It was a hot, dry year in a long line of hot, dry years stretching back through the past decade, and we stood at the peak of a fierce drought.  The priests of meteorology were predicting heavy rainfall for the winter, and we prayed to El Nino for salvation.  I took a dive into the pool.  Floating on my back, I gazed up at the sun through the fingers of a mighty oak tree.
I was on the deck, facing westward, when I caught my first glimpse of the smoke - a thin, grey column rising small but ominous over the ridge against the clear blue sky. A column thickening and turning black before my eyes, reaching from beyond the hills.  I sent a text message to Dad’s phone with a picture, getting Mom’s response that they were on their way home, about five hours out. 
Then she called. “The fire is on Butte Mountain, so as long as it’s on the other side of the river we should be safe.”
“It looks so close.”
“If you want, you can call Cal-Fire.  They’ve probably got a lot of planes out right now, so they should know what’s going on.”
“Alright, I’ll do that.”
Butte Mountain is about ten miles northwest as the crow flies, on the other side of the river canyon dividing Calaveras from Amador County.  Cal-Fire confirmed what Mom had said.  Taking one last look at the smoke and mounting the quad with a jump, I drove back to the house, my mind spinning like a cog seeking broken teeth.
Lunchbox, my sister Rachelle’s boyfriend, arrived. He described what he saw, an isolated but burgeoning fire in the canyon spewing copious smoke and the early stages of aircraft intervention.  The sky was turning red and yellow as we spoke, with the sun falling and the smoke rising.  I caught my first whiff of brimstone, carried on a bitter and merciless wind.
The power went out.  I called Mom again; who told me the fire had jumped the river.  As the last rays of the sun stretched futilely over the land, I took the quad to the hilltop again, beholding a terrible sight.
Flames were coming out of the canyon, sinuous, undulating yellow teeth devouring green earth in the shadows of the setting sun.  A choral drone echoed inside my skull, dreadful, as if the flames spoke – as if they were alive.
Mom and Dad got home at a little past nine and we shifted gears. They had seen the fire coming up the canyon as they came down the mountain.  A glow emanated over the ridge, and the air was rich with the scent of carbon.   Dad took the truck out on the back road, presumably to shut off the water to the forty acres and check the status of the fire.
We shuffled and struggled to prioritize by lamp and candlelight, stampeding through the living room/kitchen chaotically like servers in a restaurant.  Mom suddenly stopped, smiled, and pointed at something.
A praying mantis was meditating on the couch, still and chill.  Mom gazed at it with unabashed wonder, as if, for a moment, everything she and Dad had worked for over the past thirty years wasn’t in the path of destruction.  It was a snapshot of hope in a montage of futility.
I tried to catch the four cats, starting with Runt, one of the oldest and most docile.  Mom brought Mr. Brown Pants, one of two baby goats, from the upper pasture.
I grabbed my guitar and two boxes packed with Buddhist texts I acquired working for a non-profit Tibetan book bindery. I gathered enough clothing and hygienic products to last a week or so.  
Dad had pulled the truck up next to the gate to the horses’ pasture and hitched up its trailer.  Mom and I hauled the unwieldy cage with the cats from the front yard, stumbling and cursing with them all the way.  I returned to the house to finish packing as Mom helped Dad with the horses.   A few minutes later, Rachelle, Lunchbox and I lined up with our cars behind the trailer.
“We’ll meet at Raley’s!”  Mom shouted, driving the truck loaded down with dogs in the cab, the goat and cats in the bed.  There was no room for Cyclops and Baby Bee, the oldest of the horses, in the trailer.  Separated from his family, faced with bewildering abandonment, Cyclops let out a heartbreaking scream, and my hair stood on end.
Mom led Rachelle and me down the driveway to the highway.  We turned right, bypassing the fire by crossing the canyon into Amador at a higher elevation.  Dad had announced his plans to stay, so he wasn’t with us.  Dad was gearing up to face the dragon, and no one could stop him.  I wasn’t leaving him, so I pulled over at the turnout before the canyon, turned around and drove back.
I saw Dad in the front yard with Lunchbox in the heavy rain of ashes. Dad gave me an inscrutable look as I approached.  His dark blue eyes made me flinch, and his red skin, burnt from decades of working outdoors, was a constant reminder of how lazy I was in comparison.  His head, large and round, sat on wide shoulders, and his biceps were the size of oak tree limbs.  As with Mom, I felt insufficient in his presence.  His gaze then turned to the west, and he said, “Basically, the fire is here.”
Dad commanded Lunchbox and me to hose down everything.  “See that leaf pile right there?” he said to me.  “Drench it.”  Lunchbox took the fire hose and walked around the house, spraying it down over and over again.  I soaked everything in sight into the early hours of the morning.
I slept a few hours until sunrise and started in on moving dry rotted wood away from the house to the front yard and soaking it.  The sky took on a deep reddish-yellow hue as smoke grew closer and thicker, blotting out the sun. When I saw a Cal Fire plane bank sharply overhead like a fighter jet out of World War II, I imagined the pilot shouting to me, “What are you doing?  Get out of here!” The air was bitter and coarse, like burnt toast.  We couldn’t stay.
I had no room left in my car when Dad came across the front yard with his Fender American-made sunburst Stratocaster, an electric guitar he’d bought when we were kids and all talking about forming a family band.  “You got room for this?” he asked.
“I’ll make room,” I promised, and I did.
We departed in a convoy.  I visualized the fire ripping through the house, the teakettle flying through the kitchen and the granite floors rising and separating with the heat.  I visualized the chickens jumping from the roost in flames and Cyclops and Baby Bee running through the pasture, dodging falling trees, terrified.
We took CA-49 to the vista point at the top of the hill.  I could see smoke rising in thick black columns all along the river canyon, overtaking the sky. It was surreal that part of that smoke could be from our house.  We headed down the hill to our people.
We began to put the pieces together. We could now trace the fire’s growth.  By the end of the day on Wednesday, it had grown to 1,200 acres, and had jumped to 2,600 by 6:00 Thursday morning.  By 7:00, it had broken 4,000 acres.  It doubled, and then tripled, to 14,000 acres as firefighters struggled to squelch spot fires igniting constantly ahead of the blaze on bad back roads and uneven terrain.
In the early afternoon, the entire town of San Andreas was evacuated.  The fire had torn its way through half of Calaveras County overnight, coming to knock at the door of the county seat. Many evacuation orders were lifted shortly after, but it reached an arm southward toward Angels Camp, where many residents and their livestock had fled to the fairgrounds serving as the main evacuation center of Calaveras.  Mokelumne Hill, Glencoe, West Point, and Wilseyville were all evacuated as the fire stretched east and west along the canyon, and the population of the park surged, with tents popping up on any available patch of grass.
The next morning, we packed up, cleaned out, and left.  There were scorch marks on the land right outside of Jackson, then some more by Electra Road near Butte Mountain.  I crossed the river and ascended the hill.  Coming up on Moke Hill, I could see into the canyon, stripped bare and ravaged.
What do you do when the fire’s coming at you?
You crank that valve, raise that nozzle, and make it rain.
Make it rain.

Facing the Monster
by Rebecca Fischer

The billow of smoke towered over the horizon. Even miles away at Camanche, the plume was impressive, swirling, and ominous. Destructive.
            “It looks like a monster,” I told my uncle, who was sitting beside me in his old white Ford.
            “It is a monster,” was his simple reply.
A few days prior to this conversation, my uncle and I, with the help of one of our cowhands, had been working our cattle down by Camanche. We had stopped at El Torero in Burson for lunch. Sitting there looking out the window, I thought about the fire, the smoke. Despite our work, the fire was the main topic of conversation.
            Then the call came from my dad. He had gotten word that the fire had spread to Jesus Maria, and could get to Hawver Road. He had cattle out there. We better go get them, as a precautionary measure.
            Since my dad was still on his way, we finished our lunch, but ate quickly. My uncle called a couple of his friends. “Looks like we’re headed out there,” he said to a machine. Would they get the message in time?
            Hawver Road got its name from my grandmother’s family; they had a ranch out there. It was never my favorite road. The break at the top of the hill—where it drops down into that narrow, steep, jagged section of road, rock to the left and air to the right— terrified me when I was a child. It was more terrifying that day, not because of the fire, oddly enough, but because of the traffic. Evacuees were racing out of there, since Hawver Road is one of the few safe exits from Jesus Maria. Meeting all these cars head on with a gooseneck, a livestock trailer pulled by a truck hampered our trek down. We were in their way, and they were in ours. Congested.
            There was a log in the road, poorly cut out of the way in a turn. We took the turn extra wide and managed to inch past it.
Finally I made it down to the corral, the smoke billowing above me on the ridge. I was entranced by it as I swung up into my saddle. For a moment, I felt my insignificance in comparison. This thing could swallow me whole and spit me out, horse and all, charred and ruined. Yet the other cowhand and I chatted about the fire somewhat amiably, as we stared into the eyes of the smoke. He believed the smoke was misleading, that the fire was further away than it looked. I prayed the cattle weren’t going to be difficult to get in the trailer. They like to run away wildly from the corral. I never look forward to working with them.
            That day, though, my dad’s cattle were cooperative. They were gathered together on one side of the hilly field, and they trotted right along fence. One of our friends arrived, and on foot walked out into the field to turn the cattle into the pen, and for once they obliged. We had them in within minutes of arriving, something that had never happened before.
            There were about fifty head of cattle altogether, plus the horses; two trips worth with only three trailers. My uncle hadn’t heard from his friends, and we weren’t sure if they were coming. Hauling them out was a good half-hour drive one way, especially with the traffic. A plane roared over us, close enough I felt like I could reach out and touch it. I looked at the remaining cattle in the pen. I wondered if we had the time to come back.
            We loaded what we could and headed out. Unfortunately, the best place to turn around to drive back to San Andreas is up the road, toward Jesus Maria. My uncle and dad went up, but our friend, who was hauling the horses in his smaller trailer, figured out a way to turn around inside the corral.
            As we drove up that narrow part in the road I don’t like, we almost collided with our other two friends, both pulling trailers. They had gotten my uncle’s message. We took advantage of what little space the side of the road offers and pulled off to let them by. I jumped out and ran to the first truck, to help them load and tell them how to turn around in the corral. And with that, I descended back into the burning pit.
            As we reached that tight turn with the log, an old van came blazing up, and barely avoided a collision with us. This was good and bad; good, because we didn’t have an accident; bad, because now he was in the space we needed to take the turn wide and miss the log. Inching by didn’t work this time. The log caught the fender of the trailer and bent it. We could hear the tire rub it as we continued down Hawver Road. Miraculously, it didn’t pop the tire.
            We met another vehicle shortly thereafter, a smaller red car that refused to back up and scooch to the side. Our friend managed to maneuver around the stubborn driver, his agitation growing from his annoyance.
            At last, we made it back to the hot corral. The two trailers were just enough, and we loaded the remaining cattle. The trailer got caught on something again, this time on the corral, and broke one of the boards.
            On our way out, I rode with our other friend, since he was the last out of the corral, and I had to close the gate for him. He lifted a small cooler bag from the back seat and offered me a cold drink. I hadn’t noticed how parched I was until I was guzzling it. The mirror temperature gauge read 107 degrees Fahrenheit. I was sweating, and became aware of how badly I stunk with body odor and smoke. As a bit of embarrassment rose in me, I scolded myself. Now is not the time to be self-conscious, Becca. I didn’t envy the firefighters.
            As we drove up Hawver Road away from the corral, my eyes finally settled on a ragged old house, tucked up on the hillside. Tin roof, aged wood, chipping red paint. My great-grandparents had lived there; my grandmother and her sister grew up there. I felt my heart twist. A piece of my history. That house had survived so many long years. Would it survive the night? Another plane swooped over the ridge, this time depositing the bright red retardant right there, over the pine treetops. The fire had been closer than I thought. We opened a wire gate by the cattle guard, so that animals that had been turned loose could escape, if needed.
            Back at the top of the hill, some evacuees had congregated to smoke pot and watch the hills burn, parking on both sides of the narrow road. It was difficult to squeeze our way between them with a trailer full of cattle. I posted about it later on Facebook. There is a time and place for everything, but I don’t think that was one of them.
            My uncle slept in his truck that night, out where we took the cattle. Even though we were quite a distance away, he got worried the fire would jump Highway 49 and spread toward us again. We no longer questioned the spread of the fire. Even miles away, the flames lit up the night sky with an orange glow.
            A few days later, when the fire was finally out and the roads opened, my family went out there to assess the damage. Aside from a couple of fences and some boards on the corral, the fire had moved around the property, the barn, the house. Everything stood intact. We questioned why that was and finally decided it was because the cattle had eaten the grass down. The retardant helped. But still, no ember floated in, alighted on the aged wood, and set it ablaze. Not one, and it could have, easily. The place had been surrounded by fire. Out of all the houses, why not this house? We had a cousin stop by our main house, to tell us with tears in his eyes that he had lost his home. There are many stories like his. To this day, people are in tents. Others are selling their scorched property. Only some have rebuilt. And then there’s this house. Tired, but unscathed.
            It feels greedy to be thankful.