Kowana Valley is shaped on the map like a butterfly, two wings of golden-brown floating in a sea of GIS-forest green. It’s one of my favorite places on earth, home to friends who are central to my music family. For the last two days, I’ve been glued to the internet, watching red and yellow circles on the Current Wildfires Map creeping towards that little butterfly-shaped spot. To the south and east of it a massive wildfire approaches. At the time I’ve posted this, roughly 50 homes have burned.
Set in the oaks and pines of the Sierra Foothills, Kowana Valley is a heavenly piece of land, a wide valley set between mountain, split by a creek that sports two swimming holes, Native American grinding rocks, wildflowers, blackberries and willows. Any time I’ve spent there has been idyllic. I’ve slept outside on the lawn under stars and been woken by bees buzzing in clover; I’ve plunged into the cold waters of the creek; I’ve walked the perimeter and nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. Once a year for the last 20 years, it has been the site of a three-day camping party for folkmusic lovers; we play, dance, sing, swim, laugh, and eat. Many of us have played tunes together for decades; the party reunites those of us who have moved away from our original roots. Families come in all shapes, colors, and tones.
Since the fire started, I’ve been thinking about loss.
Two years ago my county burned in the Butte Fire. The fiddler and I were lucky, spared from losing our home, our town, our little housing development. But friends of mine were not so lucky. They lost everything but what was in their cars when they sped away from the crackling flames in abrupt evacuations.
In the mountains we take precautions to save our homes from wildfire. We rake away pine needles, trim away tall grass, cut back brush. But we live in a forest. A forest that traditionally burned often before Europeans arrived. Fire, like shit, happens.
No matter how hard we try to build safe places, it’s sometimes not enough. One friend who lost her home said, “We thought we were safe. We had a rammed earth house, a metal roof. We didn’t think it would burn. Yeah, people in stick houses, they had nothing left. But us? We had rubble!”
I’ve talked to people who still forget, turn up their old road to what was once home. It’s a shock to them once again, to find nothing there. Some people are rebuilding, replacing what they lost; others moved away; many have found rentals and stayed in the county, unsure of their next steps.
It’s been seven months since my mom abruptly ceased to be. I am still not used to her absence. If my mind is not occupied with work, writing, podcasts, conversation, it drifts to my mom. These days I’m beginning to think of happy times we shared, but more often if drifts to that last month of her life. One minute she was talking to me, complaining about politics, laughing at the funny papers, making plans to come to my house, and then the next minute her blood pressure tanked and she drifted into incoherence, then a coma.
She died, not because of irresponsible actions by anyone, but because she was sick. She had fought a long battle against her disease. She outlived the prognosis for most people diagnosed with it. She was a good patient, following doctors’ orders tightly, giving up things she loved—wine, salt, bananas, leafy vegetables, dairy, broccoli—until in the end the list of things she could eat was very short. Her deprivations no doubt helped save her life. But at last, the wall of safety, the medicines, the diet, the antibiotics—none of it could save her life. Her poor body was ravaged by the disease, and death, like fire, is an element of this planet.
My mom built a family that was home, and she was the heart of it, the house of it, the metal roof and packed soil that protected it. Her death hit us like a fire. We are left with rubble. I’m not sure what kind of family we’ll rebuild; I’m not sure what it will look like. The loss of her is so great that perhaps we’ll simply stay fallow, leave the emotional rubble to eventually be swallowed by the overgrowth of time. That remains to be seen.
Yesterday I choked my way through dense smoke to the grocery store and bought the foods that I love but don’t usually eat because I’m always watching my weight. You know, trying to be healthy. Macadamia nuts, ice cream, kettle corn. And I ate them last night—yes, a binge— while watching fire circles on the map roll towards Kowana Valley. I sifted through memories of the valley, of my friends who not only own the land but are stewards of the land.
The butterfly shape of the valley is slightly bedraggled looking, but on the map the image is flying directly, bravely, hopelessly into the future towards the fire. Because that’s all it can do.
Disclaimer: I do not receive anything but love from the folks who own Kowana Valley. You can read more about Kowana Valley at their website: http://kowanavalley.com and you can stay at their lodge (after the fire, of course, and please keep your fingers crossed, pray to whatever God hears your supplications, or just keep cool, wet thoughts coming towards the Central Sierra.)