Seeds lie in wait in the dry dirt of the chaparral ecosystem, sometimes for more than 100 years. They hold within a secret, a key to rebirth adapted to the nature of their surroundings: many of these seeds germinate in fire. Phoenix-like, the foliage and plants of the chaparral has evolved beautifully to the regions where it grows. These Mediterranean-like climates allow for evergreen scrub brush landscapes dominated by species of stalwart plants and herbs that stabilize otherwise barren hillsides and provide shelter for the fauna in their midst.
I recently had the chance to witness firsthand how this remarkable ecosystem regrows with the energy the wildfires bring, forces we tend to see as only frightening and destructive. It wasn’t always this way; for many centuries, the hills of central coast California burned cyclically and wildflowers and plant life within the chaparral learned to wait til the fire cleared dead wood and overgrowth to send out new shoots.
The Ventura hillsides burning, December 4, 2017
Once the evacuations and sirens, wildland firefighters and countless trucks had all receded, and the residents of our central coast community returned home, we found ourselves surrounded by ominous black hills where rambling green chaparral brush used to grow. In its place, the fire left only the scar of hardened crust of black and grey-white ash.
Some of the usual roads felt oddly foreign, winding through dark hills that echoed the destruction of the houses and structures in our area.
A couple months after the Thomas Fire burned through, I hiked up a familiar trail at the Arroyo Verde Park to see the ghostly landscape and get more perspective on the fire. We are fascinated by flames, the beautiful curling glow of red and gold--all the more fascinating for their capacity for pain and loss. Houses and farms, horses, wild animals, all perished in the wake of this incredibly destructive fire. Having seen the blaze on the hillside from our balcony late that night in December, I felt a flash of the primitive fear our ancestors must have encountered. I wish instead that I could hold the fire in the way it seems the indigenous people of California had, with respect and gratitude and expectancy for the role it played reviving and cleansing the landscape from dead growth and renewing the soil--fertility and new life in the same paradoxical moment as death.
I am grateful we did not suffer the casualties so many did, losing homes, crops, animals, possessions, but more so a sense of stability and safety. This fire, though a tragedy in many ways, is also an awakening for us to remember to hold to what really matters. The community we live in rose up during the panic and fear, helping one another in the midst of loss and great difficulty. Individuals helped neighbors sift through the ashes of their homes. Brave men and women fought off flames that threatened even greater destruction. Rescuers trailered animals of every kind to safety, risking even their own lives during the chaos of evacuations. We are sometimes at our best in the most trying circumstances; we have an opportunity, like the buried seeds, to suddenly remember who we really are.
Climbing the sheer trail I was struck by the new growth already emerging--green tendrils cracked open blackened earth, stretching out in the February sunlight. The hillsides were dotted with nascent green leaves and tenuous new vines reaching out into the world anew.
While to me, the uneducated observer, the plants seemed surprisingly undaunted, they had anticipated just a moment as this to rush forward.
Over the coming months, the trail grew increasingly crowded with upstarts taking root, climbing with me up the slope of the hills. Buds began to swell and audacious flowers burst out. The peculiar appearance of black earth was becoming quickly obscured by rampant growth and new life. Similarly, the park was buzzing with activity again, as children and dogs returned with families to run in the fields. The charred remains of houses nearby were slowly removed, leaving gaping lots in the slow forward movement toward healing. Absence, too, can mean progress when beginning again.