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Wildfire
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Gardening in Mordor

Sunset with Smoke

The weeds cry out for water. In other times, the diligent gardener would not have much sympathy for weeds but other times were very different, other times there were plenty more weeds where those came from.

Now the yard is green only in the places where it is intentionally watered. Keeping the trees alive is a priority so if the rest of the place looks like a scene out of one of those apocalyptic movies I will never watch, I guess I have to live with it. Guessing is a luxury, I need to accept it as a reality.

Venturing outside right now, in August, is about as depressing as it gets. We live in a high mountain valley, one range over from the many fires on the Salmon River in Western Siskiyou County. We had a deluge of delicious rain last week that brought both heaven and hell. Heaven lasted two days, the ground soaked up every bit of water and rejoiced. But with that cooling deluge, came lightning strikes which rained fire all over the mountainous Salmon River watershed sending walls of smoke and ash to our front door. Given the “right” wrong conditions, the fire could be right here and in that event, all bets are off.

Capitalism should not be synonymous with environmental degradation, but in recent decades many lawmakers have supported short-term profits over clean air and water.

So many people in the west have “go” bags. Makes sense, grab your can’t-live-without essentials and make a run for it. Hopefully you have clear roads out of the fire line, but the fire path is unpredictable and, to quote Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get. We are lucky to count Mark and Cindy DeGroft--a couple on everybody’s most loved list in Jackson County--as good friends. Their “go bag” includes prosthetic limbs, wheelchair, guitars and fiddle and their precious dog Gracie, which complicates the already complicated. Last year during the Talent Fire, they packed as best they could and headed north to a safe house, which turned into an unsafe house so back in the car to another house. When it became clear that this house was also in the fire line, Cindy and Mark made the decision to drive back through Medford towards Ashland, where good friends had an empty house in a safe zone. The specific details of their drive through smoke, ash and fire are harrowing so when you multiply their experience by the thousands of others that day, it’s not hyperbole to say that symptoms of PTSD are a constant for most residents of that area. And here we go again.

The list of active fires grows every day. My strong and sassy daughter-in-law Malia is a Redding Hotshot crew member, working long hours alongside thousands of other firefighters throughout the west trying to hold the line. She’s been down on the Dixie Fire in the Paradise area where my cousins lost their home in 2018 and are on pins and needles wondering if what they’ve rebuilt will be ashes again. I imagine Christmas lists have gotten really bizarre for fire victims. “What do you want for Christmas? I don’t know...everything?”

Last Christmas our son, Henry, gave me a flat of succulents for the garden. His place of business, Mountain Crest Gardens, had a very busy year as gardening consumers realize water-intensive plants are a thing of the past. The great thing about succulents is they are the perfect plant for absent-minded gardeners. If you forgot to water last week, they don’t care. If your well goes dry, like so many are experiencing, succulents have a good chance of surviving the parched conditions. But you can’t eat succulents, at least not yet.

Out in my vegetable garden, ash falls on zucchini plants reminiscent of the dust on my piano. The sun is a red disc, reminding me, again, of those apocalyptic movies I won’t watch. Heavy smoke, blocking direct sunlight, actually cools things down so the tomatoes, planted in more optimistic times, just hang green and heavy on the vine. Why bother with this Sisyphean exercise? It’s not like we will starve without those garden-raised tomatoes or zucchini. I bother because doing normal activities makes me feel, for a few blessed hours, that life is normal.

It was normal thirty years ago when we moved here, when the yard was a blank slate. Years of being a rental property, our house and yard was, to put it delicately, “dated.” We think the house was designed by builders, enhanced by illegal substances, who thought a dropped kitchen ceiling would give the home a slick groovy vibe. Anybody over six-feet tall looked pained when standing in the kitchen. So that had to go.

And bit by bit, we claimed the yard. The one lone pine tree was given an orchard of apple and plum trees to look down on. The raggedy and thorny rose bushes were replaced with elderberry, walnut and, because they are great shade trees, locust. Jim hung birdhouses and feeders all over the yard, built a lovely pond and now we have a glorious habitat for all manner of semi-urban wildlife. And the bees. We jumped into beekeeping ten years ago and now we have the bee-loud glade Yeats yearned to return to in Lake Isle of Innisfree. It’s nothing compared to a Home and Garden spread, but every bit of it was created by two people who just kept at it for decades.

The thought that it could all go up in smoke is terrifying. If I allow myself to consider the possibility, I feel the stirrings of a panic so overwhelming, I just want to go back to bed. How do Mark and Cindy and my Paradise cousins and all those who have actually lost it all in some hastily named fire, get up every day and try to live “normally?”

I’m not the first to say it; fire season is the new normal. We’ve done it to ourselves in large part and what we didn’t do, Mother Nature has always done. We’ve always had drought but our childish refusal to address the human-caused component of climate change has compounded our environmental problems exponentially. Making climate change a political football did not start with recent political administrations but has been going on since before the Carter Administration. And I have no patience with those who split hairs on the science, getting sidelined on idiotic semantics thereby doing nothing but obstructing real change. When I was a kid, Los Angeles was synonymous with smog, and now--wildfire smoke notwithstanding—the city’s skies are much cleaner. Back then, courageous lawmakers actually did something about it through stringent air quality regulations. And it worked. I’m sure the heavy polluters didn’t like being reined in, but the subsequent and observable quality of life change in that area is a win for everyone. Capitalism should not be synonymous with environmental degradation, but in recent decades many lawmakers have supported short-term profits over clean air and water. Shame on them.

Truth. I don’t have a go bag. I know it’s stupid and short-sighted and I do not recommend my choice to anyone, but I can’t figure out how to stuff thirty years of a life into my Honda Civic. Hoping and praying our community will be spared is not a sensible plan so don’t do what I do. I will, for now, mask up for the smoke, head into the yard and hand water trees and maybe that sad tomato. Stay safe my friends, and I hope we all make it through this new normal.

Madeleine DeAndreis-Ayres gardens in Fort Jones, California. She and her husband are retired and have stepped over that threshold where they watch their grandson, produce melodramas and make tiresome jokes about zucchini. They haven't enrolled in OLLI classes but that is sure to come. It's inevitable.