Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Month: September, 2015

Meeting the Empress, part 2: What I saw at the fair.

I went to the Napa County fairground two days ago in Calistoga to check in with—and on—Tim Locke, the cheerful Executive Director of Four Springs Retreat, the small center located where the oaks met the pines on September 12th and formed a flaming alliance. No one was sure if Four Springs managed to escape being burned, but—mirabile dictu!—it had. Tim’s first posting, which confirmed the survival of Four Springs, mentioned Chaz the cat’s continued material existence first. “People are asking about our cat, and he is OK,” wrote Tim. “That rascal wouldn’t get in the truck!” Chaz, the rascally cat, is extremely lucky. The fire burned right up to the vineyard that borders the property. Firefighters used the vineyard’s irrigation system as a firebreak. A much bigger firebreak in the shape of  a storm front subsequently moved in, bringing rain with it, which fell copiously on Middletown and Four Springs. Chaz the cat, inconvenienced by fire and padding around in a rain-soaked compound, is perhaps wondering in his catlike way why things have been so fucking turbulent lately.

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Forty-six miles away, the Napa County fairgrounds in Calistoga had been re-purposed as an evacuee center. It bustled with activity. “Welcome Evacuees” read a hand-painted sign. The large field next to the parking lot was packed with tents. The exhibit hall had been turned into a medical station. Inside the concrete hall, about hundred cots were lined up next to each other. People lay on them, many elderly.

“How are people doing?” I asked a volunteer nurse named Sue, rather lamely. (The supine bodies worried me.) “They’re okay,” replied Sue. “People are mostly dealing with smoke inhalation.”

Sue had a sensible haircut and luminous, kindly blue eyes. I suspected her bedside manner was reassuring. There were a lot of volunteers in the room, which was no surprise: on the Lake County Office of Emergency Facebook wall, there was offer after offer of help, like this posting from Kathleen Bisaccio: “I am a retired nurse and will volunteer where ever you need me.” Sue had clearly heard the call and come down to help. She looked like she’d never become unnerved by the demands on her time and attention; would never scatter and run. She’d stay put.

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I felt an almost desperate gratitude to Sue and the others: the people at the volunteer table, the woman sitting behind the State Farm insurance table, the volunteers who were calmly sifting through all the goods that came flooding in. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps and mounds of clothing, tents, books, pallets of water, art supplies, toys for the kids. It looked like a massive garage sale. The volunteers were picking and sorting and schlepping and dealing with all the stuff that that been donated. The only thing that was missing from the growing pile of stuff was arguably what the people in the camp needed the most. A home.

Lake County is really on the map right now. I’m not sure how the people in Lake County feel about that: the place is mysteriously mysterious. To get to Lake County from San Francisco, you exit from the 101 at Hopland  and take the 175, a dizzying (and potentially nauseating) mountain road and drop down into a long, broad lake basin. Sonoma county lies to the west and Napa county is directly below it. The county is proximate to the wine county, yet… not of it. Lake County is not a wealthy county, though there is wealth in it. The median household income is 36,000 dollars. My friend Gail wrote, “The economy has always been sluggish and a great number of the population is on some kind of assistance. Lots of meth labs and pot farms. But through it all, a core of good middle-class workers. I always liked Middletown. It was diverse with Harbin Hot Springs new-ager’s and blue-collar steam power workers, teachers, farmers, retirees and lately winery folks.” Hard to believe, living and writing from the culturally denuded landscape of San Francisco, that there are still small towns in California that possess this cast of characters; this sort of unconscious eclecticism.

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Lake County has the distinction of having California’s largest natural lake in it, called Clearlake, a startlingly huge body of water that a surprising number of Californians know nothing about. The first time I saw it, I gaped at it. I was in Lakeport for a friend’s funeral, Marla Ruzika, who was a human rights activist killed by an IED in Iraq in 2005. Years earlier, Marla told me where she was from. When I said I’d never heard of it, she told me not to feel bad about my ignorance. “No one knows about it, ’cause it isn’t off 101,” she said.

This isn’t really the time or place to go into a long tangent about the fascinating geologic and hydrologic history of Lake County, but I’m going to, because it’s wild. Did you know Lake County has a volcano, Mount Konocti? It does and it’s still a threat. The USGS says, of the volcano, that “intermittent seismic activity and the presence of heat at depth indicate that the system is still active and eruptions are likely.” (Good to know.) The next time you’re in Calistoga, stand on the main street, and lift your eyes east to perceive the basalt crowns ridging the western escarpment of the Mayacamas mountains to the north, and the Palisades range to the south. Think about Mount Konocti. Then, consider the area known as the “geysers”, the largest geothermal field in California which is spread liberally over the crest of the Mayacamas. It supplies power to Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. The earth belches steam and heats water because of a large magma chamber that sits four miles below the ground of Lake County. Harbin Hot Springs, Four Springs and probably lots of other anonymous hot springs owe their existence to the eight-mile wide magma chamber of Mount Koncocti.

Lake County averages at least 12 small earthquakes a day, because of Calpine’s practice of injecting effluent into the ground—fracking, in other words—to increase the output of steam. Since Calpine started doing this, the number of earthquake has steadily crept upward. Lake County and its residents experience the by-products of the fiery volatility underfoot each day in the form of cluster earthquakes and the healing waters of the hot springs resorts in the area. I wonder how many small hot springs, not contained in private resorts like Harbin, are known and used by the residents of Hidden Valley and Cobb and the other small settlements of the Mayacamas mountain. I bet if you asked locals, you’d get tips on places to bathe in the healing waters of Lake County; places you didn’t have to pay to access. But they’d have to like you to give that kind of information up. One gets the feeling that the people who live in Lake County like it quiet. They don’t want a bunch of people tromping in and settling down.

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The Lake Countians, though, like being settled down just fine. Arguably, this might be hard to do in a place where earthquakes shake the ground every hour or so. Throughout the Mayacamas, they’ve made places for themselves in small towns like Cobb, and sometimes not in small towns, but in ad-hoc settlements so typical of California’s foothill and mountain communities. This is a pleasant way to live when nature is cooperating. “We always felt Anderson Springs was a safe haven,” a evacuee The Sacramento Bee. When it isn’t, it can be deadly. The Valley Fire was exactly that for three people, as of this writing. There will likely be more. It displaced 17,000 people and destroyed 535 residences. The tents in the evacuees camp are place-markers for the homes that burned as the fire barreled though the hills above Middletown.

In trying to understand the disadvantage of being burnt out of your home, it might be wise to consult with recent census data, math combined with a Google drive down Highway 175 on Google maps. That’s how I found a pre-fire shot of a mobile home tucked away off McKinley Drive, a short street that runs parallel to 175 for a few yards (Lake County, according to the 2000 census, has the highest percentage of mobile homes of any California county.) I’m going to posit a fictional, but totally plausible scenario: A single mom lived in this now-destroyed mobile home, with her two children and several dogs. She works as a sales associate at Walmart. This is also plausible: Walmart is one of the top employers in Lake County. The current wage for a sales associate at Walmart is $9.32. It will rise to ten bucks after January 1st, 2016 because of AB 10, which raised the minimum wage. But as of this writing, it’s $9.32. If this fictional mom —whom I’m sure exists and is maybe even living at the Napa County fairgrounds with her two kids in a tent—works forty hours a week, at $9.34 an hour, she makes, after taxes, 433.90 a week. Annually, that’s 20,827.20 a year. The Living Wage calculator for Lake County says that an hourly living wage for an adult with two kids is twenty-five bucks an hour. Annually, that’s about forty-seven thousand (again, after taxes.) My fictional mom is obviously not making that. She’s probably on assistance, Medical, most likely.

This construct is ponderously tendentious, but you have to start somewhere. It’s hard to re-situate yourself in a dwelling with all the costs it takes (first month, last month, deposit) making 20, 827 a year, especially after losing everything. It’s hard to make ends meet on twenty thousand a year just staying put, but the day-to-day routines, scenarios and situations of life give you at least a chance to plan for the change headed your way.  (If you see it. In this right-to-work state, you may not.) Staying put within your admittedly constrained economic limits at least gives you the ability to think, perchance to dream, of stepping up one rung in the economic ladder. Displacement bursts those limits wide open.

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What is the difference between an evacuee and a refugee in Lake County, CA? Is it just a matter of closing the gap between the current minimum wage and a livable wage? Or is it a designation assigned by time and locale? The longer you sleep on a cot in a concrete room, the more likely it is that your identity, destroyed by disaster, reconstructs itself around other people’s diminished expectations for your long-term prospects. My friend Christie astutely pointed out that volunteer help was more likely to be needed in a few weeks, after the first flush of altruism wears thin, compassion fatigue sets in and people stop volunteering. Do you stop being an evacuee the morning you wake up and realize that the act of seeking refuge for too long has turned you into something troublesome and unwanted, something people build walls to keep out?

Here’s a quote from Jelani Cobb: “History, social science and common sense have made it increasingly difficult not to consider the term “natural disaster” as a linguistic diversion, one that carries a hint of absolution. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods are natural phenomena; disasters , however, are often the work of humankind.”

Which also means that the work of humankind can prevent disaster. I think of the weird mixture of gratitude and desperation I felt looking into the calm blue eyes of Sue, the volunteer nurse. Later, well-meaning friends thanked me, with the same gasping relief (thank god that someone’s doing something!) I felt fraudulent. I hadn’t performed a single act of support. I just observed.

Later I thought, we’re all so afraid we won’t do the right thing. However we define that.

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Right now, the “right thing” might be giving money to North Coast Opportunities for relief efforts for fire victims. FEMA has given a grant to assist with the huge job of fighting the fire, and providing some evacuee support. But nothing I’ve read makes it sounds like FEMA re-builds homes. How will they get rebuilt? For those with private fire insurance, this might not be a question. But for those without? A natural phenomena—exacerbated by climate change and drought—will do exactly what all the other fires, floods and famines of the past have done: metastasize into a disaster. “Crap! Looks like we’re homeless!” an evacuee wrote on the Facebook page of Lake County Office of Emergency Assistance. “It was a good little house that protected us well.” They didn’t mention anything about re-building it.

 

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Written on the night of the waxing, first-quarter moon, which is moving into Sagittarius. Let’s all be outward-bound. Here’s to Chaz the cat!

Meeting the Empress: The Valley Fire

Yesterday, September 12th, was the first day in that week that was not blanketed by oppressive heat. From Monday to Thursday, the heat hung in the air, edging towards 91 and 92 in some parts of SOMA and the Mission. Naturally I fled and spent three days hanging out at the Dolphin Club, diving into the cold bay again and again, marveling at the admixture of dry heat and perfect 59-60 degree watery cold that, to me, characterizes late summer in California: you may jump into a body of water, pop your head out and consider the ‘sere’ and golden hills even as your body is held by the sincere and lovely cold of the sea. (“Sere” is a word that pops up in frequently in late-19th century descriptions written by people from back east who had problems with California’s dry landscape. They’re usually the same people that planted eucalyptus trees.)

On September 9th, the air blew in hot gusts just like a convection oven. I sat on a dock in the bay in my bathing suit, with my face tilted toward it. I felt like a kitten being licked by the rough, but loving tongue of my mother. Unbeknownst to me, another fire had just started.

The fire was burning in California’s mid-section, in the Stanislaus National Forest. I looked at the Cal Fire map—I have it bookmarked now— and checked it out. They were calling it the Butte Fire and already it was sprawling, a sloppy out-of-control fire. Cal Fire indicates the sprawl of fire perimeters by drawing a red area around the flame icon, the center of the fire, making it look as though the forest has developed a rash, like contact dermatitis. I grabbed a screen shot of what I thought was going to be the problem fire du jour (or du mois—our fires have been burning for longer than normal this year). The fire forced the evacuation of all the little towns along Highways Forty Nine and Four: San Andreas, Murphys, and Camp Connell, which is where some my friends of mine happened to be.

They had gone up to their cabin before the fire started. One of them wrote: “We have had the official advisory to evacuate. Because of smoke/air quality. – not imminent danger. However, if the fire burned like it has for 4 more days it would be on top of our house. We’re taking some stuff with us.

I posted a picture of the Butte Fire. A friend wrote: “The Eye of Sauron?”

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I also looked at Lake County on the fire map. It had been troubled by literally a rash of fires most notably the Rocky and Jerusalem firesthroughout the spring, burning for weeks before being finally being subdued. I should explain why Lake County was holding my attention. I have been helping to plan a tarot-themed ritual retreat at a lovely site called The Four Springs retreat center for a few month. I wrote of Four Springs—a place that was founded by four female Jungian scholars (the wild ritual eclecticism of Northern California cannot be more perfectly captured than in that last sentence, I believe)—enthusiastically this week in a welcoming letter to retreat participants. “Four Springs is the perfect place to gather together to use magic, ritual, and art to provoke and support restorative reflection.” It was, I noted, situated in the foothills of Lake County amidst acres of oak- and manzanita-dominated woodlands.

A sister of mine wrote: “I love this part of California. It is where the pine meets the oak. Where the wine country peters out. Where retreat centers live next to small town America.” (I should have mentioned pine as well.) On Friday, September 11th, a day noted for its inflammatory history, there was no active fire shown on the map. I felt relief that fire had left Lake County.

My relief was short-lived. A friend messaged me last night at 9 p.m. “They have closed the Hwy between Calistoga and Middletown. I’m thinking of Four Springs…Those hills between there and Cobb are ablaze. Prayers.

 

The fire had returned to Lake County at 1:24 p.m. that day. It jumped to 40,000 acres in a couple of hours, growing effortlessly, feeding on the Ponderosa, Knob Cone and Grey pine trees which have been sucked dry by the drought and further “stressed” from the miniscule but mighty 5-spined Ips bark beetle, a native insect. As of this writing, the Valley Fire has burned roughly 50,000 acres, is not contained and has displaced more than 10,000 people from Lake County. The fire burnt down the small town of Cobb and Harbin Hot Springs and went on the destroy Middletown. Four Springs was evacuated.

During the mad dash out of Middletown, Tim, the manager of the retreat center, turned like Lot’s wife to see the devastation. He took a picture of the scene behind him. There was the fire, crowning the trees, and illuminating the Twin Pine casino. He wrote (in an understated, I-gotta-get-the-hell-outta-here way): “Forest fire Is threatening Four Springs.”

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In Southern California, where I grew up, fire would make an obligatory appearance in October: the orange flames turned the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains black. The fire would break out in the foothills, burn a few hills, freak people out for a couple days, and scent the air with the pleasant odor of burning chaparral. The fire would hang out the hill like a punky adolescent out for a good time before being vanquished by California’s firefighters, sp. Ignis Pugnator ssp. Californicus. It was like our own seasonal monster movie with a totally predictable ending. Godzilla, you know?

Now it’s Jason. Last night I wrote of the fire: “It’s like the psycho killer. You think he’s dead. BUT HE’S NOT.”

There was no reason I could think of that the fire would be anything but huge. There are currently no natural predators of fire in this state. It’s turning into an invasive; a colonizer. Which brings me to the purpose of our upcoming retreat: We were supposed to “meet” the Empress.

The Empress, the third Major Arcana in the tarot deck is depicted by the Rider-Waite deck as a crowned woman, seated on a throne and holding a scepter. She has always appeared—to me, anyway— to be alert and watchful. (Would an Empress ever be anything other than watchful?) The background color of the card is usually yellow. Sometimes the yellow around her head is emphasized, almost like a corona, while the atmosphere around her is depicted in deep glowing shades of flaming orange.

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Last night, I texted this observation to a friend: “I think we’ve met the Empress.” It wasn’t the meeting we’d been expecting, but then, in dealing with an imperatrix whose very title is based on the notion of taking, commanding and arranging, should we really be surprised?

It strikes me now that fire is an imperialist element, especially in California’s sere woodlands. Fire, like every Emperor and Empress at the head of an imperial state, only ever takes land and never yields it willingly. Fire is running amok in our state like a crazed Napoleonic despot. And people are running in panic from their homes while the imperial fire throws its firebrands after them, which serve in this obviously tortured metaphor (yeah, whatever.) almost as an elite infantry. Once this infantry lands on a bush, or a desiccated pine tree, or a blade of brown grass, it runs, too, straight through canyons and ravines and the tops of hillsides and small mountains, right on the heels of the animals and the humans. Sometimes, the imperial infantry run a lot faster.

It has been a changeable year with unquiet all around me. I don’t know where to look anymore—the bodies and health charts of my beloveds have been troubled and the landscape of California seems only to be interested in shrugging all of us off its body.

How do you cry for a land—or, really why cry for a land that is continually remaking itself in an unpredictable I’ll-do-what-I fucking-well-want ways? How many times did the Santa Ana river change course like a giant snake lashing through little settlements, inundating them before it was captured in a straitjacket and barred from entering its domain by a series of dams? (and how do we feel about its imprisonment and the impoverishment of all its tributary ecologies? ) How about our famed earthquake faults that buckle and bump in the extremely early hours of the morning (this is a highly personal observation and not supported by science). How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Or how about this musical reference: I won’t cry for you, California. You can’t help it. It’s your nature. But I will cry for the hundreds and thousands of creatures of the earth, water and air who have been flushed from their homes, humans included. (as of this writing, there are people missing and people who love them who are looking for them.)

A friend writes: “Beginning to wonder if we’ll ever smell fresh air again. If apocalyptic fires, ash, and smoke are becoming so commonplace that we no longer live in the ‘what if’, but in the ‘when is it our turn?’” Welcome to California, our flaming, flooding, friable state.

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A friend asks: “Can the fire turn around and burn what it already passed?” My prediction? We’ll find out.

At 12:15 a.m., after an hour of reading very bad news, I decided to call it quits and try to sleep. As I turned off the lights, I heard a gentle rattling sound and looked out the window. A breeze had fetched up and a light rain was falling. I went to sleep wondering when I should rain, too. I didn’t feel huge wailing clouds of grief, but I could feel some gentle pressure from my soul and I knew that I was feeling something like true sorrow. So I cried in my dreams: I expressed my sorrow like a mother expresses milk from her breasts. I squeezed tears from my eyes until rain poured out from them: water from my eyes, water on the ground. The tears flowed and overflowed and I became water and wept.

 

Written on the day of the new moon in Virgo, and the day of a partial solar eclipse. Yesterday, the taskmaster and the destroyer, Saturn and Scorpio, parted ways. Fair play, you two. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Also, check out the excellent blog,  Tales of a Sierra Madre here:http://taleasofasierramadre.com/2015/09/13/the-year-we-got-used-to-burning/