Letter From the Desert: Relict Populations

This weekend I left the desert. I spent time watching things go up in flames. Some of the flames were literal. My homeland is on fire. Tens of thousands of acres of California: on fire. Manzanita and ceanothus wilt and smolder, catch and burn. Live oaks and poison oak. Chamise and toyon. Pipevine and clematis. All of them surrounded by pale introduced grasses, by flammable scotch broom, by a hundred million sources of ignition that would not have existed four hundred years ago.

If there is a biome I love as much as this desert, it would have to be the shrublands of Coastal California. The sinuous, smooth red trunks of manzanita and the honey-scented blossoms of ceanothus, the spinach taste of miners lettuce in the spring, the quiver of Calochortus blossoms in an early summer breeze.

On Sunday my friends and I drove past a fire on a freeway verge. A firefighter was dousing each small smoldering spot. The fire seemed well on its way to being put out. That was at 2:45. By 4:30 the wind had shifted, and the fire took out a tennis club. No one injured. It was almost too small a fire to gain notice given all the others.

The day before we had hiked up a small hill just south of the Carquinez Strait, not far from where I lived 15 years ago. To the north, beyond the familiar freeway threading through the oat-grass hills, beyond the bay and a range of mountains, a dark smoke column loomed.

In 1991, the Oakland Hills firestorm killed 25 people, burned almost 3,000 homes. I lived three miles downwind. Embers the size of chickpeas fell on our house. The landlord had thoughtfully installed metal roofing and siding some years before, but I spent an evening hosing down the dry wooden steps out back, the nearby trees, the neighbor’s fence. For days afterward charred pages of books landed in downtown Oakland, printers’ ink still visible in black against the black of the page. Ecclesiastes 1 fluttered atop a streetcorner mailbox. The New International Version.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back

I picked up the shard to read it. It crumbled in my grasp.

The fire that would doom me burned 14 years later, a seeming world away. Manzanita, live oak are accustomed to fire. Oaks resprout atop blackened trunks. Manzanitas burn to the ground, then send up shoots from buried burls. Bishop pine seeds cannot spout without a hot fire to release them from their cones.

Sagebrush and Mojave yucca take longer to come back from a fire. Joshua trees, longer still. Blackbrush never comes back. In June 2005 70,000 acres of desert vegetation burned in the heart of Mojave National Preserve. I watched the fire as closely as I could from 500 miles away. It unraveled me. A month later, I watched as a handful of surviving cottontails devoured singed yucca at the northern edge of the fire scar.

The fire had stopped just short of Caruthers Canyon, an outpost of the coastal shrubs I loved so thoroughly. Caruthers holds a population of manzanita, of ceanothus, of live oak, hanging on against all odds in a canyon slightly moister than its neighbors. It is a relict of a wetter time in the Mojave Desert. The Hackberry fire could well have scraped the canyon clean.

It would be too easy to call the Hackberry Fire of 2005 a pivot in my life. Too oversimplified. An environmental journalist for the previous 15 years, I collected bad news for a living. The Hackberry Fire was just one piece.

But there was this: a month after the 1991 Oakland Fire, I stopped into an animal shelter looking for a friend’s cat. I didn’t find the cat. I came home with a young dog instead. Fast forward. A year and a half after the 2005 Hackberry Fire I stood, head bowed, and listened as the vet told me my hanging on to him was becoming cruel. “He smells like urine,” said the vet. “He is skin and bone. He could fall and break a hip. I have to be blunt here. I have to advocate for him, as sad as it may make you.”

On Saturday, atop that hill, I watched traffic threading along the freeway through the oat grass hills below. I remembered the drive home from the vet clinic along that stretch of highway. I remembered my dog struggling to stand in the back seat to nudge my elbow as I drove. All that pain and what he wanted above all was to ease my sorrow. An ember from the Oakland Hills firestorm, lodged in my chest all these decades since, blooming into searing heat and flame.

My final flight to the desert a dozen years ago was in part due to midlife crisis, in part due to divorce, in part due to longing for change, But if I am honest with myself it was in the main to forestall such visceral memories arising in me at a thousand places on the map; the songlines of loss. I had procrastinated my remembering of that tender, horrid moment on the highway. This weekend that memory hurt, but also felt like it had happened to someone else, a self I remembered only in the abstract.

Did I lose something in delaying so long? Or spare myself something? I don’t know.