If he's being honest, he wishes he was at home with a Bourbon and a good book. He's never been one for pageantry. But the party is to honor him. The other retiring faculty members too, of course. But ... [+]
Sometimes, when Pam had to work a double shift over the weekend, I drove out there and slung a hammock between two trees. I fell asleep breathing the cool night air, its scent a mix of pine sap and old leaves, and woke up slowly, the dense canopy shading me from the morning sun.
Our plot was only three acres, but it held the most beautiful trees I had ever seen. They towered overhead, as if every cell in every branch had spent years pulling itself closer to the sky. I knew that one day, when we had money to start construction, we would have to cut some of them down. I warned myself not to get too attached, but I couldn't help it.
I never told Pam, but in my head, I gave my favorite ones nicknames. A tall pine was "LeBron;" a weird-shaped oak was "Wembley;" and a leafy cedar, I named after my sister Anna, because when the wind blew, the whispered "Sssshhh" of the leaves reminded me of the way she'd hush me when we were kids. Up here, I was always quiet. Around the trees, I relaxed, free from the frenzied energy of the city.
When Pam and I first saw the Steinbeck fire on the news, we weren't concerned. Wildfires are a frequent occurrence in Southern California, but neither of us had ever been personally affected. The next night, the fire was only five percent contained, and it was moving toward our land. There was nothing we could do from our apartment downtown—nothing but hope for the best. In the end, our hopes could not compete with the flames. The following afternoon, we saw a map showing an outline of the affected area, and we knew our land had burned.
A news report described how the fire's size and strength had affected the local weather patterns, creating a whirling tornado of fire that had torn across the hilly terrain. If it had happened anywhere else, I would have found it fascinating from a scientific perspective. But it wasn't anywhere else. It was my land, a place to which my dreams were tied, and it left me feeling weak and dizzy. It was like the flame tornado had spun through my body, searing my heart and my lungs. I felt burned in a financial way, too. We'd spent everything we had on that land.
Pam was at the hospital, working another double, when the police finally opened the road up the mountain. I couldn't wait. I got in the Jeep and drove out there. I had to see it—to update the picture in my head to reflect what was left behind. I knew it would look bad, but the reality was worse than I had imagined.
I couldn't even pull off the road until I shoved the remains of a fallen tree out of the way. Most of the trees I had nicknamed were gone. Only LeBron was still standing. I approached for a closer look, shuffling through the black ash that littered the ground. I don't know why, but when I got to the tall tree, which was burned and bare, I pushed on its trunk as hard as I could. Maybe I was daring it to fall, to give up like so many others had, but the tree didn't budge. I hugged it then, hard. With my arms wrapped around it, I wondered if it was dead on the inside. Can a tree suffer?
I sat on the ground next to a burned trunk that might have been the one I called Anna. Looking around, there were so many empty spaces where trees used to be. On my drive up, I had thought I'd only stay a few minutes, take some pictures for Pam, and head home. Hugging LeBron had messed me up, though. I didn't understand why I'd done it.
It was dusk by then, but I wasn't ready to go back. I couldn't just drive away. I needed to be here, in this place that was supposed to be ours. It didn't feel ours anymore. It felt like the fire had stolen it.
***I've been here for hours, though I'm not sure what time it is. My phone died, and I don't feel like starting the Jeep to charge it. The air smells like a campfire, which seems unfair. I've always loved that smell, because it reminds me of summer adventures in national parks and other wild, natural places. Now it smells like emptiness, like death.
A bird calls in the distance, and that feels wrong, too. How can any creature behave normally when everything around it is such a mess? I lean back and look up—way, way up, past LeBron's tallest branches. It's dark enough to see the stars, and I remember suddenly that stars are fire, too.
Between those spots of light, the sky is darker, but not as dark as the charred ground and the stark, leafless trees. Sitting here, I am part of the darkness, too.
I try to picture the small home we will someday build on this land. In my mind, I can see the beams that outline its shape, but everything else is hazy.
In the black land around me, new trees will soon take root. Some of these old ones, like LeBron, must have survived previous fires. They will find the strength to push through their burnt bark and sprout new leaves, new branches.
I feel them around me, the spirits of these future trees. I see them out of the corners of my eyes. They are neon and translucent, as if they're made of light—the promise of what might come.
Sitting there in the dark, I feel something deep in my bones. Whatever it is, that luminous energy of the not-yet trees, it's beginning to glow in my body, too. This land is their home and my home. It's where we'll grow and change and die, but it doesn't belong to us. We belong to this dirt, these ashes, and this place, and we always will.