I changed my mind and instead of posting the fictionalized version of this, I am posting the real story that will appear soon my Memoir Woodfire Cookbook: The Woodfire Diaries. I realized since I’m going to self publish, I can post what I want to. I’ve used traditional publishers in the past and they don’t want anything to appear even on a website. All of this is true:
Fire cleanses, they say.
That’s what you tell yourself as you sit outside in your lawn chair and despite the fact the fire department told you to evacuate twenty minutes ago. “Take what’s in your hands and on your back and go,” they’d said. You look down at the periwinkle coffee cup in one hand and the Newberry News in the other. “Fuck you,” you answer because you know nothing less will do.
They tell you they have other people to get out and you tell them, “Then you better get moving.”
“We can’t guarantee your safety,” they say and you say, “Can you guarantee it if I leave? Will you put that in writing?”
That’s something you’d like to take to the bank.
They leave you looking at the sky to the southwest, yell out their windows that you’re a fool and to get moving. You’d been watching that black sky, thinking it was quite the storm moving your way and you look again down at what’s in your hands.
Well, ok, so you know that isn’t exactly true, not all of it, though you are a fiction writer and when you write about the fire later, you take license and do what you wish you’d done at the time. “Fuck you” would have been a better response, but since it isn’t just you to consider, you tear into the camp, grab your cell phone, your blessed computer, your purse, round up your dog and handicapped child, and hit the road for Newberry. Due to the fact that this fire will not be under control for two weeks, that it will soon be four miles wide and eighteen miles long, nothing short of a conflagration on its way north to Lake Superior, you will come to regret that decision.
You drive to Newberry watching the enormous black cloud in the rear view mirror, pulling over at times to stare at it snaking heavenward. You remember living in California and those Santa Ana winds, how they whipped up forest fires hundreds of miles north, fires that devoured hundreds of acres of land and trees, sometimes burned people out of their homes, how the soot would sit 1/4 inch thick on your car a hundred miles away. There is that same ghostly feel to the wind, the ominousness—just exactly the same.
Anything can happen, they’d said back then of those winds and you knew it was true then.
And it’s true now.
When you get cell service you call downstate and fill him in.
“They threw me out,” you tell your husband. “Take what’s in your hands and go,” you relay their words to him. Words that play over and over in your head. He is packed already to come north for Memorial Day weekend, your new solar panels loaded already on to his truck, panels you may never need.
“What are they doing about it?” he asks and that’s a good question. You will find out later that they knew the fire had been there a day or so, started they claimed by heat lightning, Mother Nature herself, near Duck Lake. It will never be clear what initial actions were taken to minimize the ensuing disaster and it will be almost three days before helicopters begin dumping water on the blaze. So you say, “well, the fire department is up here—they kicked me out. But they were in pick-up trucks. I never saw a fire truck of any kind.” Nor will you see one. “It’s late in the day,” you say, “I just don’t know anything,” and you’ll find out soon that the fire department and DNR head home every night. That is the protocol in a remote area like this with limited resources. There are Friday night fish fries the volunteers will attend—rather than stay to fight the fire–the juxtaposition of which will seem both horrifying and hilariously funny.
Most nights the wind will drop.
They count on that.
Now, though, you hang up and keep driving and the first thing you realize is that you’ve forgotten your cell phone charger. You pull into the A T & T store—amazing a tiny town like Newberry has one—and just stare at the woman for a long minute. She looks puzzled. Then you tell her. She outfits you with a new charger and when you tell her you don’t even have a toothbrush or a change of clothes, she pulls out some blue and white A T & T t-shirts that say “Your World Delivered” with a picture of the globe on them. You wish. She offers to run home for more clothes but you decline, thank her for her kindness, and head to the dollar store for toothpaste and deodorant and underwear for you both, dog food and bowls.
The fire that was headed right for you shifts, they tell you (that “god I’m so unlucky/god I’m so lucky” sentiment interchanging in your head), now blowing the fire straight north instead of northeast, headed they say for Lake Superior. A conflagration, they will call it, the word that had been floating already in your head—but there is no news if it shifted in time, no word if your place still stands, and there will be no definitive word for nearly two weeks, conflicting reports that yes, it’s gone, no it’s ok, will drag you through a roller coaster of emotions as the DNR blocks off the fire zone and nobody really knows a thing.
For what seems like forever.
They establish a charity-like spot in a building back of the senior center and they hand out essential commodities (later it will be free shovels to shovel off ashes and potential debris) and they shovel out information, supposedly, for those of you who have homes or camps in the fire zone. (Yours is a full-time home, even though you close it a couple months in January and holds most everything you own.) There’s a lady there with a radio like walkie-talkie of some kind and she’ll ask the person in charge if they know anything about your place.
But you aren’t in the mood to deal with their “help” yet so you leave almost immediately, don’t want to eat any hot dogs or chips, and head to Pickelman’s gas station which has a Subway and you round up sandwiches to take with you to the Colonial Inn where you’ll spend the next four days before heading to Elk Rapids and your father’s home where you’ll stay for the next two weeks. Amazingly your insurance will cover some of the hotel bills and food expenses, but you don’t know that then and start to wonder how much is in your bank account.
You pile the purchases of sandwiches, dog food and dishes, underwear, deodorant and toothpaste on one of the hotel beds. You hope the hotel has shampoo since you forgot that at the dollar store. You turn on the TV for your son Josh—some cartoon that never fully registers in your head. You’d been gardening, then resting in a lawn chair when the fire department had sped up about 4:30 p.m. Now you look at the dirt under your finger nails, draw a tub and listen to your son Josh (who is 28 years old) bouncing on the bed—a self-stim behavior he’s done since childhood—and you soak, watching the good earth from your camp dissolve into the bath water, wonder if the next time you visit there will be anything left of it but that good earth.
It’s all about the risk.
You know you take your chances living way the hell out here—jack pines are known for “conflagrations” and the U.P. is full of them—the second one since you’ve lived here—and a small town like Newberry is hardly equipped for disasters. You’d planned to thin the jacks from your property soon since they were nearing the end of their lifespan and had gotten plain ugly, but you haven’t done it to date and you think of those ghostly, scraggly, dry arms hanging down from the trunks—think Blair Witch Project.
How many other times, not unlike this one, you ask yourself, have you had to sit and take stock? Times you’ve seen disaster looming and rather than wait for the inferno, you’ve just moved on. And perhaps down deep, you had wanted to move on.
But this time, you don’t want to move—you’ve planted roots. And this time, the inferno has arrived without warning. And it’s every one of your physical possessions, accomplishments, and memories at stake. You think about those faces you see on TV after tornados and hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, and yes, fires, that have left people homeless. Those times when the world seems to have gone all cockeyed and there are shark and alligator and mountain lion attacks all happening in a mystifying rash. (In fact, as of this writing, as you tinker with commas and paragraphing and sentence fragments, a house has burned to a total loss just a mile down the road, overnight; California and Oregon are burning—the Columbia Gorge is on fire, your old boyfriend from Portland sends you pictures of it ablaze; Texas sits in flood waters; and Hurricane Irma will make Florida landfall by late tonight or tomorrow, headed for the Florida Keys, straight up the peninsula, they say—and if it arrives as predicted, your fifth wheel stored for your father’s winter use north of Orlando in Mount Dora will not survive the 8 inches of rain and the predicted 75 mile per hour winds. You are insured.)
But for now, it’s 2012, and you think about your own fires. You think how many years ago, driving to California where you lived as a young woman, you saw the Native Americans living in deplorable shacks through parts of New Mexico and Arizona, remember a couple drives you’d made through Tijuana. How would they have felt if their shelters and shacks had gone up in smoke? What circumstances aligned that you dare to figure you have so much more to lose?
It’s an illusion that anything really belongs to us.
You think, then, of your grandmother’s words when she found out she had cancer three times: “I never asked ‘why me,’” she said. “Why NOT me?” She was a spiritual woman but she couldn’t conceive of a God who helped people hit baseballs or score touchdowns or who found any one of us morally superior enough that he reached down and changed it for some, while children were raped and murdered every day.
No, it was not about grace.
Those random odds. One in 1,000 they’d said: the statistics for babies born with Down Syndrome.
You wash your hair and dump what’s left of the shampoo into the tub so you can watch the bubbles. You need bubbles.
Ah, ya, ya, ya, ah, ya, ya, ya,” Josh has added to the bouncing.
He always sounds like an Indian warrior chanting—after all, you have a bit of Native American in your heritage according to 23 and Me, actual Native American relatives. His bouncing has become more boisterous and you wonder if the bed will hold up. Usually you stop him but today you don’t care. Let him bounce.
You close your eyes but you still can’t get quite right in your head about it all.
“Take what’s in your hands,” plays over and over, and you think about a few things not in your hands. You wish you had your published stories, journals, books, and articles. You want a couple pieces of art, too, but none of that is really troubling. You’d like your mother’s jewelry, of course. That nags. Mostly, though, you want pictures.
One picture, really.
Your mother’s hair modeling photo, the one in the hallway headed up, when she was so movie-star beautiful, so young, and of course, so alive.
You want that picture.
It has been a relatively steady time in your life. Though you aren’t setting the world on fire, so to speak, you have published one novel at a university press, many short stories in reputable literary journals, and have interest brewing at Wayne State on a linked short story collection you’ve just finished about three generations of women living in an emotional and literal wilderness. You recently (if very belatedly) received an MFA from Northern Michigan University where you’d been funded to teach during the grad program and are now a contingent adjunct professor, teaching composition. Your other son has recently graduated from Northern, your daughter is teaching music in Green Bay, Wisconsin, engaged to be married. You have managed (with the help of your husband who lost his construction management job but was willing to drive a truck for three years over land) to weather the storm of the financial disaster of 2008.
You had dragged your husband up to live off the grid in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (though he is rarely there) where you could fly fish and hike and write in seclusion, living with solar power, batteries and a back-up generator. You’ve lived up here ten years on 35 acres of white pines, red pines, jack pines, birch, cedar, fir and spruce. The Little Two Hearted River runs through your property, empties in Lake Superior close to Hemingway’s “Big” Two Hearted. Your river (the one you can’t really own) holds brook trout and steelhead, beavers, river otters. The tag alders hide deer and you see bear scat and even a bear to go with it. You have blueberries. It’s so quiet there sometimes you can’t hear a breath of wind blow, but a coyote’s howl carries down the ravine’s tributary to sound like they are on your doorstep. You love the romantic lifestyle and you admit you romanticize it, yet you refuse to sentimentalize it. There’s a difference. If you sentimentalize, Mother Nature will pull you up short. As it is, she takes you hostage. You aren’t sure your husband is as attracted to the remoteness as you are, but he loves the energy challenges and anyway he still works downstate much of the time, tending to your rental property and running a small construction company.
But you had slogged through school, handicapped son in tow, and were just ready to take a deep breath.
You struggle to put it into perspective.
It is the third time in your life you’d been truly blind-sided. Your grandmother had died of cancer, and though it was sad, it was far from a shock. But your first child had been born with Down Syndrome, and your mother had died in 1994 of a massive stroke at the age of 64. It is easy to conclude the obvious: you must appreciate every person in your life, appreciate the good days. Never lose sight of the synchronistic nature of things—realize that Time may not exist as we perceive it.
But it seems there must be more to these life lessons. Had you known what was about to happen, had you made the most of every moment with your mother, been the perfect daughter, you would still never be sure there wasn’t some other turn in the road you’d missed, some other opportunity where you could have made things better yet. (You’d still likely have refused to pluck her eyebrows – “I can’t see any more to do it,” she’d tell you, that one haunts you, and certainly you’d yelled at her all your life, told her you hated her when you were a kid. No matter what, there’d be leftover garbage.) And how can you know what you’d be like today had you not lost your mother at a fairly early age? Perhaps you wouldn’t have finished school or written with such passion or intensity. Who would you be now if that hadn’t happened to you?
Moreover, if you hadn’t utterly failed at certain times in your life, had you been “perfect,” you would feel the same about her death as you do now: unsure what it all means, unsure what to make of your relationship with her, unsure what to think of yourself and what to do with the guilt.
This, the third shock of your life. Though surely not the last.
Would you someday soon be unsuccessfully trying to picture your “camp,”– never “cabin” or “house” or “home” – and how it looked nestled in the trees, the sounds of the wind through the pines, the smell of the woodstove as you walk in the door just as you unsuccessfully try now to recall your mother sitting on the screened porch of her farmhouse, shelling peas or snapping green beans from her garden, an apron protecting her clothes from the dirt of that garden and the refinishing furniture chemicals she used to support her antique business, the unsuccessful attempt to really visualize her over-feeding her various dogs? People food is what she fed them, warming it carefully every night in the small primitive crocks she used to prepare it (“You’re becoming your mother,” your husband will say to you one day, as you cook chicken thighs to mix in with your dog’s vita-mix food). You unsuccessfully attempt to recall how your mother’s gray head would be framed in the picture window of their retirement home in Elk Rapids, Michigan as you had pulled in their driveway for a visit. Would the memories of the camp start to fade just as memories of her had? And will you remember instead only that feeling, that emptiness, how an occurrence like this leaves you shaken to the core?
Shell-shocked is a word that comes to mind.
They start fires on purpose. The DNR. You’re not suggesting they did that here at all. Just that they do it for various reasons. Prescribed burns, they call them. Orchestrated devastation. They can be a good thing, they say, since there aren’t as many natural forest fires as there once were. Prescribed burns are used most frequently to maintain and restore native grasslands. Burning, according to the DNR, can: recycle nutrients tied up in old plant growth, control many woody plants and herbaceous weeds, improve poor quality foliage, increase plant growth, reduce the risk of large wildfires, and improve certain wildlife habitat. Brush lands can be invigorated and maintained with fire to benefit species such as bluebirds and sharp-tailed grouse. Burning old fields controls saplings and woody vegetation, and improves grasslands for use by nesting wildlife and grazing livestock. Forest openings can be manipulated with burns to benefit more than 150 wildlife species. Upland nesting cover used by pheasants (we don’t have any up here, but we have a lot of grouse), waterfowl, and songbirds will remain productive if periodically burned. Cattails and sedges are returned to vigor by an occasional burn. Lastly, if you want more oaks in a hardwood stand, a fire will kill off less tolerant species such as maple, and basswood, allowing the oak to compete more successfully. Burning is also more cost-effective than other treatments like bulldozing, cutting, or chemicals.
The most attractive reason for you: after the DNR had performed a prescribed burn in one red pine forest north of you a few years back, both the morels and blueberries had thrived.
You think about that now. Perhaps all those species of wildlife will now inhabit your camp. Perhaps you will be sitting in fields of blueberries soon listening to Kirtland Warblers, picking morels and cooking them, sitting in a grass field rather than at a camp nestled in the woods…
About three days in, the DNR escorts you in to the property which is still standing though the fire is headed south now, once again headed your way, and not contained. Though it is, they say, burning much more slowly. You and your husband drop the solar panels at the property with a sense of optimism (keeping them loaded in the truck in various motels seemed risky as well) and you round up photo albums, the art work, that picture of your mother. You stand out front and survey the damage, the trees the DNR has bulldozed, trees they have deemed too close to the house. You are grateful they’ve done all this despite the carnage and they explain to you they wouldn’t have done it if the camp hadn’t had a metal roof since it would have been a waste of their time. The property looks as if the dozers had been three-wheeling all over it, earth turned up in great tracks and hills. They had cut the satellite wires, moved parking logs. Yes, it looks you think, like that motocross track you’d once seen in California. The black flies, stirred up by extensive bulldozing, the scarified earth, and the good flow of the river, are swirling tornadoes of flies that whip around your head, up your nose, and you take one last look around, still hoping, whether you are deserving or not, they get it stopped before it reaches you…
Einstein fascinates you.
The Theory of Relativity and his ideas that the past, present and future all exist at the same time. That parallel universes are theoretically possible, universes where things exist as they do now in altered forms where you’ve picked different roads, and universes where you don’t exist at all.
And Jung. His theory of Synchronicity. Also fascinating. Those links in the chain.
You have a close friend you brought back from California with the idea she should marry your brother; she rarely speaks to you since they broke up so many years ago. Yet she stayed in Michigan and married the “love of her life.”
A week passes. The fire slowly edges south. First we are told the house is gone; then we get what we think is reliable information that it is standing. Forty-nine homes and cabins (including the Rainbow Lodge) will be destroyed plus 87 other structures (garages, outbuilding, camping vehicles) but yours will not be one of them. The fire (after racing up to Lake Superior) moves more slowly south burning the home just west across your tributary—the river, the tributary, and fire breaks save you. It’s burned right up to the very edge of your property on the west and licked the edge of it on the north. But it doesn’t burn your camp or most of your trees. You wonder why not.
Your grandmother lost her husband when he was 35 years old and she was 30, never remarried, raised her only son alone, had cancer three times in her life. Yet she spent her life caring for others, strangers sometimes. Taking care of people who were in ill-health and dying. You tell her once how well things are going, how happy you are and she replies,” Oh, that’s good, honey. Everybody should be happy once in their lives.”
Your brother, cousin, and you, several of your friends, have children born with handicaps none of which are considered hereditary. Yet, in your own case, you’ve shared your life with a gentle soul who finds joy bouncing a basketball named “Wilson” and drinking his beloved iced tea. It’s nearly impossible to imagine your life without him.
A parable: Once there was a man who won the lottery. All his friends told him how lucky he was. A month later, an unsavory acquaintance of his shot him in his home and left him for dead because he’d heard the man had large sums of money in his house, which he didn’t. His friends told him how unlucky he was. As he was recovering in the hospital, which took several weeks due to surgery from gunshot wounds he suffered during the attack, (and from which they said he should never have survived), his house exploded and burned to the ground in the middle of the night due to a gas leak. His friends all told him how lucky he was he wasn’t there. The man is discharged from the hospital, rents an apartment until his house can be rebuilt, but the insurance money falls short of what he needs to rebuild, the lottery money gone on his medical bills since he hadn’t had time to obtain insurance he could now afford. The new apartment is small and dank smelling and depressing, but outside his window, on the first day he moves in, he sees a dark-haired, feisty-looking woman with strong, white, even teeth, planting purple petunias, and when she smiles he feels a warm glow start in his throat that goes down all the way to his toes, a loving woman with relaxed optimism about her, soon to be the love of his life…how lucky he is.
It’s popular now to blame mankind for all manner of natural disaster, and this is likely at least partially true, but even this seems like hubris to you, an inordinately naïve conceit of man in the grand scheme of things.
You have no answers.
You are no longer sure what to wish for other than one more day you can hear the birds sing, feel the sun on your face, smell that first cup of coffee brewing, those ferns after a gentle rain. And perhaps none of that might be what it appears. Amidst the horrors so many people endure, horrors mostly undeserved, you can’t shake the feeling of all that is equally undeserved: the good times. You feel, despite it all that somehow the “beauty and goodness” over-ride the bad, that somehow you must hang on to that thought, and you can live with that, you think, if you can just get an inkling which is which.
Finally, the wildfire slumbers and you return. The fire has left remnants in the air of different sizes and shapes so you’re not sure if they’re horse flies or black flies or ash.
You make it into the camp, clean the soot off the walls and windows and counters, restore your possessions into their rightful places.
You rehang your mother’s modeling picture in the hallway heading up the stairs.
It’s eerily quiet here now, the animals having relocated to safer areas, the few neighbors not yet returned. The whole north smells like campfire, a smell you used to love.
You still can make little sense of things but the summer night sky is full of stars, the big dipper visible above the camp to the north. You sit for a while around your fire pit, that non-fire, juxtaposed against the remnants of the smoldering forest fire. That seems all you can do is sit.
Eventually, though, because you know you have to, you’ll make your own fire in that pit. You rustle up a huge skillet of fried eggs in a hash made of chorizo and garden potatoes (the only thing left) followed by wild blueberry cake. You’ll think of the proliferation of blueberries and morels that will arrive to the northwest. And then when you are braced for it, you’ll drive the Duck Lake fire zone, shocked to see the bright green ferns emerging under the charred sticks of trees like poppies do in a war zone.