a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Smartphone emergency alerts interrupted the poet. The reading’s audience of mostly undergraduate students from my creative writing class recited from their screens: “fire” and “Painted Cave.” They, a part of what environmental studies professor Sarah Jaquette Ray has called the “climate generation,” shrugged, nonchalant. Of course, this was Santa Barbara, California, where fires, diabolical wind, occasional shipwrecks and lurking mountain lions are indeed regular features of life on our campus by the sea.
The poet reading that day was my colleague, Robert Krut, whose most recent collection, The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire, featured poems written during the Thomas Fire, which, back in 2017, also threatened our campus. Though it sparked in neighboring Ventura County, over 50 miles away, within a week it had grown to 155,000 acres and crossed into Santa Barbara County. In the middle of final exams, the university administration finally granted the community permission to leave, and the highways clogged with 25,000 exhausted and panicked students. The Thomas Fire would swell to 281,893 acres, the largest wildfire in California history. At the time of this writing, three years later, it ranks fifth.
When students returned to take their belated exams on January 8, 2018, the winter rains returned too. Overnight, an extreme precipitation event dumped half an inch of rain in the Santa Ynez Mountains in five minutes. The mountains melted to mud. The mud poured down canyons and into creek beds. As it flowed, the mud recruited boulders, trees and scrub, gaining mass and speed. All that debris collided with the town of Montecito, destroying over 100 homes and ending 21 human lives.
Which is to say, when the Cave Fire ignited during that poetry reading in November 2019, I was afraid. That evening, I stood at Campus Point as a gust of wind sent the fire cartwheeling down the mountain. Emergency vehicle beacons pulsed from within the orange glow of the fire. I wept.
My friend, Mara, lives in the unincorporated mountain community of Painted Cave, the place that lent the Cave Fire its name. In February 2020, long after the fire had been extinguished, Mara and I lounged on her patio in Adirondack chairs nursing grapefruit mimosas, surveying Santa Barbara below like feudal ladies. Our children splashed in a pool of frigid well water. Mara’s husband loosely supervised while he dunked potted succulents in collected rainwater.
“You know, I wasn’t afraid at all,” Mara said when I asked her about the Cave Fire burning just yards from her home. She sounded surprised by her own bravery, but I wasn’t. I’d first met Mara in a postpartum support group and later we became dedicated hiking partners. In the unforgiving dry heat at Upper Oso, the drizzly, cold fog on Figueroa Mountain, or lost on Lover’s Loop with a new friend carrying their newborn baby, I’d never seen Mara be anything but brave.
One night, camping near San Luis Obispo, I woke to Mara’s husband’s voice, unusually stern saying, “Go away, bear.”
I gathered my snoring daughter closer to me. Mara peeked through the mesh of my tent’s vestibule. “You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I hesitated, “Do you need my help?”
“No. Stay where you are.”
I did, and trusted Mara to chase away the bears and clean up the remains of our friend’s birthday cake.
Over the course of 2019, Mara became my chaser of bears, literal and figurative, and her home in Painted Cave a place of sanctuary. Mara’s home was a place where brunch might stretch to dinner, or where a playdate might swell into a night of music at the nearby Cold Spring Tavern. It was a place I didn’t want to lose.
Australian environmental philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, has coined the term solastalgia to describe the pain we feel when our homeplaces, destroyed or rendered dangerous by climate change, no longer provide solace. Indeed, Albrecht’s goal is to create a language to name the feelings roused by climate disaster. His thesis is thus: currently, we have no language to name such emotions. We cannot feel what we cannot name, so we are left despairing and powerless. He hopes a new emotional lexicon for the climate age will change our thinking, and therefore change our actions.
Of course, people all over the world have been learning new vocabularies in recent years. In Miami, residents have had to train their mouths around the paradox of “dry flood.” In August 2020 in Iowa, the word “derecho”–a rare kind of inland hurricane–came barreling into the popular lexicon. But these words hardly amount to a love language. Polar vortex, microburst, rogue wave, and corn sweat sound like terms of engagement for some futuristic war, but we are the ones taking up arms, loaded with the ammunition of fossil fuels.
I keep turning over Albrecht’s term sumbiography–the narrative of one’s lived experiences, and how those create one’s attitudes and relationships to others, including humans, non-humans, and land. He offers this story-form as a starting point. A place to begin the hard work of discovering what we feel about a place.
Here’s mine: when I first moved to California five years ago, I was miserable. I had to learn a whole new language of the land. The physical geography of the place written in words I didn’t fully understand: chaparral and super bloom; microclimate and marine layer; sundowner winds and red flag warnings. I learned the names of entirely new seasons, like May Grey and June Gloom.
But during those hikes with Mara, something began to change. She pinched wild anise and the juice burst between my teeth. She snapped the bark off the manzanita to reveal the stucco orange underneath. Through her eyes, obscure flashes of blue coalesced into mischievous scrub jays. The more I could name in this place, the more I fell in love. The more aching I felt when it all went up in flames.
“Is it weird that I find it beautiful?” Mara asked. She raised a champagne flute toward the burn scar on the peak just east of her home, the blackened, stripped land where the Cave Fire had burned.
“No,” I answered, and I meant it.
Some scars are beautiful: the crescent-moon mark of a playful childhood dog bite beside my husband’s nose, the extra arch above my eyebrow from a boxing mishap, the cleft low on our bellies that Mara and I, and many childbearing individuals, share that tell the birth stories of our children.
But also, like many literary-minded undergraduates, I had once been enamored with the 18th-century Romantic poets, like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who regarded nature as a source of the sublime, a feeling of awe, terror, and yes, pleasure, that arises from an encounter with something much larger than oneself. An experience of the sublime is both aesthetic and spiritual, a source of gratification and a miniature existential crisis.
There are elements of the sublime in the burn scar. Wildfires seem like something greater than ourselves, namely, the complicated forest ecology of the American West and the chaparral that is reinvigorated by fire. Even the iconic California poppy chases the fire, gorging on the chemical compounds left in the charred landscape. Orange petals flicker like their own flames. We are awed to witness it.
The first people of this land, the Chumash, knew this well. It is the cave they painted, far atop the mountain where Mara and I sat, for which the town of Painted Cave was named, for which the Cave Fire was named. People indigineous to coastal California practiced controlled burns long before settler colonialism arrived, knowing that all would benefit from equilibrium between fire and plant life.
Human skin scars when a wound reaches maturation, that is, the point at which the injury’s deterioration and regrowth achieves equilibrium. The new skin grows in orderly, in parallel strokes, which sets it apart from the otherwise chaotic patterns of skin. Equilibrium makes scars beautiful–the balance they strike between healing and remembering. An acceptance of, but not a surrender to, the injuries sustained.
Later that day, tipsy on mimosas, Mara and I decided to go see for ourselves and took the toddlers to explore the burn scar. As my feet sank into the ashy, soft earth, I tasted smoke. Wildfire has a mouthfeel like cotton from hell, sulfuric and wrong. There’s a long, bitter finish on the tongue from the particulate matter of cherished homes and sacred trees.
The children raced ahead, Mara and I crying, “slow down!” as we noticed that shards of broken glass blanketed the burnt soil, evidence of years of empties being tossed from cars careening down Painted Cave Road. The fires unveiled the ruins of old Forest Service cabins, so among the skeletal fingers of charred manzanita lie lumps of rusted, outdated furniture–the springs of a mattress, an old ice chest, an entire motor. We covered our mouths and sought out spindly shade in that leafless place.
We climbed a gentle slope, toward the most intact of the old cabins. I walked through the thin threshold, now crumpled to knee height. My daughter ducked under a mesh of dead tree limbs toward mostly collapsed perpendicular plaster walls covered with graffiti. The burn scar was a palimpsest, a manuscript where the original text has been written over and over, accumulating layers of meaning. The fire peeled back the foliage of the chaparral, revealing past layers of language on this land. It’s up to us to write the next layer.
I wish to acknowledge the Chumash People, their Elders, past and present, and future generations, whose unceded lands are the subject of these pages. They hold the memories and customs of this place and are the traditional stewards of this land.
Kara Mae Brown is a writer and Assistant Teaching Professor in the College of Creative Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Word Riot, Summerset Review, Santa Clara Review and others have published her work. She has been awarded the Flint Hills Review Prize and the Green Briar Review Prize for nonfiction.