MARILYN MOTHERBEAR SCOTT, The Ukiah Daily, July 6, 2008
Note: Marylyn Motherbear Scott, whose family home on Greenfield Ranch has been threatened by the Mendocino Lightning Complex fires, shared her family’s fire experiences with Daily Journal readers as she writes about her visit to the fire scene and more.
On July 3, 2008, the silence is palpable. Not a single phone call. Only a few days ago, the phone rang constantly, people giving the most recent news of the wildfires or wanting it. No matter how good one is at breathing, no matter how practiced one is at letting go, stress does its constrictive work, creates a single focus, a mental and emotional fixing, a window that frames all that is viewed through a single lens; in this case, the Jack Smith Fire on Greenfield. Our family home stood within a thousand feet of the fire’s edge.
During wildfire week, the threat to family members, to helpers, to land, to home, to the relics of personal history, each and all created the framework for all that we did, all that we thought, all that we felt. This is the only land I’ve ever owned, the only home I’ve ever built, the place where children and grandchildren were born, where my kids were raised and schooled, my back-to-the-land experience.
It was a relief when eyewitnesses on Radical Ridge saw helicopters dropping buckets of water. Cell phones confirmed water was being dropped on both ends of the fire, dampening both flickering tongue and lashing tail of the sleeping dragon. The water drops for which I looked, hoped, prayed all week came on Saturday. Helicopters took bucket after bucket of water out of our pond. Great falls of water streamed down out of the sky, rushing out of the bellies of those huge motorized dragonflies. This phenomenal wetting turned the course of the fire from its slow but steady crawl toward our home. The turning took only a minute compared to the agonizing hours and days of working, wondering, waiting.
I needed to see for myself so I drove from the Albion coast over Comptche-Ukiah Road. When I reached Comptche, a sign said that the road was open only to Fire Personnel and Residents. With thoughts of the Montgomery Woods fires and the Running Springs fires, it seemed prudent to go another way. The Flynn Creek Road to 128 was right there, another fire-ravaged area. I knew the evacuation had been lifted and there were no signs reading Road Closed.
Part way in, someone in a truck was stopped in the middle of the road, talking with a fireman. Between the two vehicles, one a fire engine, the road was blocked. Would I be turned around again? Just as I stopped, the truck driver drove off in the direction from which I had come. The driver and I exchanged a quick look and, then, a smile. It was Nick, the Potter; Nick, the Strong Man of the Flynn Creek Circus, a friend who lives in those parts. During the worst parts of the Flynn Creek fires and Immediate Threat Evacuation, I had asked friends about his safety but no one had heard. This moment of seeing him came serendipitously, the only individual I saw on that road, and I reflected on how we often receive our answers in these wondrous, coincidental moments.
Traveling on Flynn Creek Road, and on Route 128 in Navarro and Boonville, all of these fire-threatened hot spots in our county, the uninformed eye would not see that fire had consumed so much of this land and threatened so many homes. Except for smoke, there was nothing but beautiful California landscape, yellow grasses and green-leaved trees. In Boonville, tourists were taking in the sights and shops. I stopped at Boontberry for some lunch, talked to my dear friend, Bert, owner of Boontberry. We filled each other in on fire stories, exchanged hugs, and I went on, through Ukiah, to Greenfield.
Up the circuitous backwoods mountain road, it was the same. I expected to see charred spots, but, except for the smoke, it looked much as always for the time of year. The grassy hills were covered in summer’s gold, the wooded places leafed in green. The difference is in the mind’s eye. A whole new lexicon now forms and sorts what is seen. Golden grasses, timber, scrub and shrub, leafy beds, only a week or so ago, seen as summer’s perfection, were now viewed as Fuel. The places around homes, that once held wood-piles for the home furnace, stacks of building lumber, old cabins, now were being cleared for Defensible Space. This new lexicon became the password to fire protection.
As I approached the family land, I saw a good-sized crew encamped in a turnout. Just back from the day’s ground work, digging firebreaks and clearing fire-lines, they were cleaning off chain-saws and tools. Eager to thank these courageous, hardworking people, I stopped and jumped out of my van. “Thank you,” I said, several times, clasping my hands and bowing my head in prayerful salutation, “Namaste.” “May I take a photo?” They nodded, smiling,… seemed glad for the recognition. I took a few photos as they posed with their tools, looking proud and bright as sunshine.
“I’m the mom!,” I said, asking where they were from. One said, “We’re the Ishi Core.” I wasn’t sure I understood, so he spelled it out. I.S.H.I. I smiled in recognition, “Oh! Ishi, Last of His Tribe.” I’d spent many a day in Mill Creek and walked in Ishi’s countryside. They were delighted that I was familiar with the story and the land they knew as home. That familiarity seemed to bind us.
They were all in yellow fire suits, and then I saw, approaching, a man in orange. I walked forward to meet him, extending my hand, and introduced myself. He was one of the Captains. He grasped my hand very firmly, fixed me with his serious eyes. I thanked them all again and headed to the house where Emrys, Freyja and granddaughter Sophia awaited me. My family informed me that I had met the core of inmates. Speaking to them was not encouraged. The serious captain was also their guard. I felt glad that my innocence permitted me a few moments to let them feel my appreciation.
In the comfort of our home, where Emrys, Freyja and Sophia live, I heard more of the stories. Emrys never left the land once, but stayed to fight the fire should it make it to the break. He worked each day into the dark, making break after break with his excavator, a new-age mini-machine that lifted 30 foot logs away from the break. In the strong little Kabota, he drove crew to places that were hard to get to even on foot, in lots less time. I requested a ride up the Ridge to the fire-line.
This same dirt roadway used to be a favorite and frequent walk for me and the kids, up past a spring we named Sweetwater, to the water catch pond, through and around, up to the top of the Ridge where low growing manzanita brush crowned the top. It was one of the places where we used to dream together and play out fantasies of this great realm. We knew that dragons lived there, though we truly did not think to see them.
It was once all natural habitat. Now owned and occupied, houses are built, gardens are growing. The pond is smaller than I recall. All around, the ground is torn up by tractor’s till this is the tractor that made the breaks that saved the houses that sheltered the people that grow the gardens, that live on the land; and so the story goes on.
Smoke chimneys were still rising up, some fairly active; hot spots were still bright, embers alive in fallen timber, beds of ash wetted by water dropped from the helicopters and bomber planes. A tree trunk stood with smoke swirling out of its center. The day before the same tree trunk was aflame.
The dragon sits near the smolders, breathes smoke instead of fire, lets us know he’s there. Some call him Protector, purifying the earth for a better world, perhaps stopping the beetle of Sudden Oak Death. Some call him Destroyer, one who takes what he will in a fiery breath. He waits until called by the gods of lightning and thunder, or is beckoned by those who forget that freedom has its own limitations. A still lit cigarette butt thrown from the car window into dry grass, a campfire that burns high with sparks and hot ash or left to die out on its own, fireworks set off without regard for surroundings …. truly tinder in a hot, dry California summer.
On July 4th, I went to the Mendocino parade, a one-of-a-kind tradition for coastal folks. In this year’s parade, the volunteer fire departments were right up front – Albion-Little River, Elk and others. They received great applause, whistle, hoorahs. The air resounded with ovations for our fire fighters, for our kids who trooped their dreams through the streets, for the under-funded Mendocino Recreation Center, for same-sex marriage, and everything that said Peace not War, with signs saying Send the Troops Home, home to where we need them. Mendocino County may celebrate greatly, in mindful practice of and in gratitude for those ideals that are truly American birthrights: independence, resourcefulness, cooperation, peacefulness, living in freedom and with harm to none.