Meeting the Empress: The Valley Fire
by Elizabeth C. Creely
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?”
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 fires—throughout 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.”
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 like a punky adolescent looking 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.
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.
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/