by Rachel Boughton
Koan: Two monks roll up the blinds in exactly the same way. The teacher looks at them and says, “One gains, one loses.”
I’ve been thinking about the Santa Rosa fire, thinking about it a lot, since I live in Santa Rosa and I woke up on Monday morning a number of times to the smell of smoke in the house. It smelled like someone was burning incense, but it made it hard to sleep. There had been an epic windstorm the night before which made me feel cozy and warm in the house, with the wind whistling and crashing around outside. In the night the dogs were eager, antsy, barking at me and waking me up periodically to go outside. Finally, unable to sleep from the smell of smoke, which only got worse after I opened the windows, I gave up and turned on the computer. Multiple powerful wildfires that had started in the wee hours. A call to 911 told me that, of the 60 fires in Santa Rosa that night, one was on the next road over. It was apparently time to get out of there. So we went. I took almost nothing, because what do you take? why this and not that? What’s going to matter? Dogs, a journal, some clothes, a computer, my two rakusus, my purse. I had no way to transport the two sheep. 4 horned 200 pound feral sheep won’t get in the car, and I didn’t want to let them out on the road, so they would have to take their chances. I was hoping they were as tough as they acted. On the way out of the driveway we could see the red glow on the ridge and a tower of flames closer by, appearing and disappearing and reappearing again. There was a line of fire sweeping the fields. As we drove south out of town the smoke was so thick that we could look directly at the sun as it rose.
Why? Why now? Why us? Since the fires began, I’ve noticed I don’t really believe my explanations. I don’t have energy for them either. Explanations, when they come out of my mouth, just kind of drop on the floor and die. The only thing that comes to me right now is there’s no right way to do this. Which is to say, a person can’t do disaster wrong. Or right either. You don’t need to be prepared, to have courage or foresight, to be powerful or even a survivor. You don’t need to feel more or feel less or be a rock for others or for yourself. You don’t need to have been more devastated, less devastated, to have lost everything or lost nothing. You get to have your experience, your life. Like the two monks in the koan, nothing you can manufacture will let you get it right and that means you can’t get it wrong either. There’s something mysterious and beyond explanation in the way the world works.
And I notice that people of all sorts can be remarkably kind and dear to each other, brave and selfless, without even knowing how. And whatever your superpower is, whether it’s kindness or hard work or ingenuity of a gift for storytelling, it is a blessing.
Here is how I’ve been doing it, a story among stories:
I was a refugee from our house in Santa Rosa for a week. For a while I spent much of my time looking at satellite maps that measured the fire and heat from the ground, the progress of the fire on the road near us. On Tuesday night I saw a photo showing that the house had had a very near miss, with the fire burning all the way up to the front door. Wednesday I decided to try and go back for a visit. We got in the car, with my friend from New York who has been stranded with me, the dogs in the back seat and we headed north. I wanted to see what there was to see and, if I could, to feed the sheep and give them water and bless their fuzzy demonic heads.
Driving up the highway from the East Bay we began to see the air get murkier and murkier. I began to notice that I was looking at everything as though it was fire fuel, as if I could see though its condition of being alive to the smoking cinders it could become. This was involuntary. Imaginary before and after pictures were creating themselves in my head. I could see smoke on the horizon. I felt my body get more still and tight.
At the coffee shop on the way in to our small village, people were subdued. Closing early today because we don’t have enough staff, the sign said. But the roads looked normal, nothing burned up. There’s a feeling, arriving on tiptoe, of relief that it’s not all gone, not everything in flames, not at all all gone.
On the 15 minute drive from the coffee shop to our road we could start to see the blackened hills and smell the smoke more. These were some of the hills that had a line of fire sweeping them as we left early Monday morning. At our road there were two police cars blocking and people talking to them. I pulled over and went to talk to them. The policeman said that no cars were allowed, but he wouldn’t stop us from walking up on foot if we liked, at our own risk. It was safe, he said, the fire had already been and gone.
We climb the hill, which I think of as a 3 minute drive, almost home. It turns out to be a 45 minute walk, steep and strenuous. And I’ve never appreciated it like this before. It’s beautiful, it’s familiar but unfamiliar. It smells of smoke and has changed, but not very much. The hills beyond on one side are burned, the side of the ravine is alternately green and blackened. There are still some late blackberries to eat. There is the sound of a deer foraging. There are no cars. So still.
The house is around the last bend on the left. You can see that the fire burned up the mailbox and the trunk of the eucalyptus tree beside it, on the right side of the road. The tree split from the heat. Someone abandoned a fire hose there. You can see that the fire jumped the road just at the bend where our house is. It flew over the bank into the front garden, blackened it in some places, other places are still green.
As I walk into the house, I notice something unexpected: I love this stuff, all the stuff I imagined as I left I would be happy to do without: the homely things around the house, the art, the blankets and furniture, books, and outside, the trees and the leaves on the ground. I’m appreciating everything the fires have spared. And also I’m completely full of gratitude for the firefighters who had been so good as to keep it all from burning up, with hoses and axes, had turned the wildfire back right as it reached our door.
We go in the back and the sheep greet us, possibly even glad to see us, though they make a point of not sharing their feelings. They’ve been through a lot too, and it’s a pleasure to give them extra alfalfa. For the moment, although I know the danger is still real, it’s alright. Through no particular virtue, we’ve been allowed to continue to live here, with the sun shining low on the field, autumn coming in the usual way.
Fast forward: it has been a week and a day since we left our house, and we’re back in it now. The air is still smoky here, and we are discovering bit by bit what happens to a house that has had such a close brush with a fire. But we were really really lucky, and others weren’t. Some 5% of houses in Sonoma County were destroyed, not to mention the wildland and the parks and the ancient oak trees that were homes to all the birds and beasts. Over the last week I’ve come to appreciate this koan more. One gains, one loses. In some very important way this losing and gaining isn’t personal. It doesn’t make us more virtuous to have lost a house or to have kept it. It’s just very random. And I can give myself a break from trying to manufacture reasons. I have neither time nor enthusiasm for that right now.
And finally this evening I discovered that my favorite park, a county park where I like to walk the dogs, is closed because of a whole lot of fire damage. I went in tonight to see who had survived, which of my favorite trees and meadows. I noticed that while I was there I walked on different trails, and found many places I hadn’t ever seen before. When I don’t have what’s familiar, other things become possible. I have been hearing other people notice this too, in different ways. Someone 20-something was talking about building new kinds of communities here, tiny houses, ways to have happy lives that aren’t so expensive and cumbersome. When something is gone, something new can grow. I’m not sure about gain and loss, I’m not in a position to say. And although I’m still shaken, I’m also hopeful in a new way.