Suzan Still: Standing witness to cataclysm

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susanstillStanding witness to cataclysm is a mixed bag. On one hand, we—my husband, assorted fur children and I—were prepared to flee for our lives in the face of California’s Rim Fire, that ignited over 400 square miles of our backyard over the last month. On the other, the writer in me watched with terrible fascination, knowing that I might never have another chance to view such devastation so close at hand.

In one single day in late August, the fire consumed over 50,000 acres of Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. Fire storms rose over the hills, pushing up great cauliflower-shaped mounds of pyrocumulus cloud—basically the moisture from millions of trees exploding and vaporizing from the intense heat of the flames. During the day, west wind kept our view clear to the east, where we could see flames cresting the ridges and watch the air battle as tankers and helicopters swarmed over our home, as if it were a war zone. Around 3 a.m., the wind would shift and come down from the Sierras, bringing with it a solid wall of smoke that made sleeping impossible and reduced our range of vision, come morning, to a couple of hundred yards. This was the pattern to which we attempted to adjust all through the long, hot, smoky month.

I know the terrain that this fire is consuming, as I’m native to these mountains. And I know intimately the area where the fire started, the deep V-shaped canyons of the Clavey and Tuolumne Rivers, because I was part of an archeological survey there. I know that down in the bottom of those 1000-foot deep canyons there are aboriginal sites thousands of years old, with deep bedrock mortars ground into stone outcroppings exposed by the waters. There, willows bend over the grinding holes, ancient oaks yield the acorns the MiWuks ground into meal, and the only sound is birdsong and the rush of the river over smooth stones. It is—or was—a small paradise of old-growth pines and oaks, where bear and deer are—or were—ever-present, and where peace seemed eternal.

Now, a different kind of peace has overtaken these kernaled places—the peace of utter devastation. Experts are saying the complete denuding of over a quarter of a million acres is “unprecedented.” They blame two years of drought, conservation practices that would not allow controlled burning, the steepness and inaccessibility of the terrain. Scarcely anyone blames the hunter whose illegal campfire started the whole thing, although word on the street is that he’s in jail for his own protection. Many people lost their homes, their cattle herds, their barns and vehicles. More than that, they have lost the forest that was their home, and it will be many decades before they see it, again.

I have to say that there are times when I’m on the side of fire. What we have witnessed is a dwarfing of the human endeavor. It’s easy for me to understand why so-called primitive peoples thought of fire as a god. Their understanding may go far deeper than that of the fire scientists who are weighing in daily about the Rim Fire. As I watched the massive smoke and firestorm clouds arise, day after day, I came to think of fire as a bitch goddess, stomping over the land on thunderous legs, claiming it as her own, designating it for her own purposes. Who are we mere mortals to question such ferocity, complete abandon and ultimate control?

There are benefits to this diminishment of human powers. The most obvious one is that our citizens drew together as a unit. People took in friends and strangers who had to evacuate their homes. Horses, dogs, cats and cattle were farmed out to areas not threatened. My friends housed someone’s tortoise; we prepared a home in our vegetable garden for our friends’ miniature donkeys. Signs popped up all over the county, addressing the more than 5000 firefighters who poured in from 46 states, thanking them, blessing them with safety. People opened their homes to the firemen, cooked them endless meals on backyard barbeques, baked them bread and cookies. A 41-year veteran of firefighting said that in all his years of experience here and abroad he had never witnessed such an outpouring of community spirit and goodwill. Out of the heat and destruction, something fine and strong was forged.

The fire has now consumed over 258,000 acres and is eighty-four percent contained, but the remaining sixteen percent is raging through the Emigrant Wilderness, one of the crown jewels of the Sierra Nevada. At night, I think of those virgin acres lying in its path, and I grieve. I mourn, also, the animals, insects and birds who could not run fast enough to outdistance this fast-moving holocaust—the porcupines, raccoons, skunks, snakes, lizards, the baby owls in their hollow trees, the butterflies and bees. Even deer and bear, fleet of foot as they are, could not run long or far enough to outdistance this explosive fire. One of the first positive news reports in the last week was the discovery by a fire recovery team of a cluster of several dozen turtles in a burned-out, waterless hollow. The team created a pond for them, out of sheet plastic. Another benefit of this disaster: compassion for our fellow creatures is prominent in our hearts.

Will all that I’ve witnessed turn up in a novel, one day? Almost surely it will. I have a novel in progress, one of four, that is based in that archeological project in the canyons. One day soon, when the restrictions are lifted and it’s permitted to enter the burn area, I’ll put on my boots and plunge again into those canyons, to see if anything remains of the groves I so vividly remember. And no matter what I find, it will be recorded faithfully for my readers. This is another benefit of disaster: the heart opens to receive strong, even painful, truths, and they gestate there, until they are birthed for the edification of us all.


Suzan Still is one of our newer authors. She wrote Commune of Women and Fiesta of Smoke. You can learn more about her and her books at our website

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On October 4, 2013
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