In Praise of Smokejumpers

Hurricane Odile hit the southern Baja peninsula last night, and here in San Diego County, we continue to feel the heat. Air conditioners are humming—the power grid is under stress. People are crankier than usual. Those in my water district have been living with Level 2 Drought Alert Conditions for roughly a month (other Californians have been on alert since last spring), and the Santa Ana winds season, which usually occurs during October, hasn’t even begun.

Last May, the county suffered under the effects of some 14 wildfires, the result of unseasonably hot temperatures, low humidity, and northeasterly winds. Fortunately, this threat became muted over the summer, though people in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest struggled with their own equally scary fires during these months.

Even as I write this, I find myself noticing a headline: “Hundreds flee 2 California wildfires; homes burn.” These two fires are currently blazing near Yosemite—and there is another east of Sacramento. And yet another in Orange County.

Sometimes it feels like all you can do is sit and sweat and hope the air will cool down.

In late October of 2007, the college I work for in East San Diego County was closed due to several wildfires, including the Witch Creek Fire and the Harris Fire, which eventually prompted more than 10 percent of the region’s population to leave their homes for awhile. A few of us at my college were asked to come in to work, anyway, to meet with the accreditation team, as it was in the process of assessing our school.

We all assembled in the student center and proceeded to answer questions for the team’s report. I remember stepping outside to take a break, and I could actually see flames on the hills just south of us. Needless to say, the campus was completely evacuated not long after that.

Now my college library hands out fridge magnets—created by the San Diego Office of Emergency Services—that also serve as evacuation checklists. Most people I know have considered just what they will pack in the event of a serious fire threat.

It does feel strange to accept wildfires as a fact of life. They were always a possibility, of course, but somehow they were “over there.” You saw them in the news and figured it was a once in awhile thing. The fires on TV were something daring people attended to while the rest of us continued living in our cozy homes. And some of the most heroic firefighters of all were the people trained to jump out of aircraft into fire zones.

I first learned about this line of work back in the late 70s. At the time, I was a Youth Conservation Corp teen participant under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service. This group of teens and our respective counselors were spending the summer building fences and digging outhouse holes in Eastern Oregon, when a wildfire erupted not far away.

Our camp was immediately put on alert, though we were not in any immediate danger. While smokejumpers were expected to battle the flames right away—for up to 48 hours at a time without additional help—other crews were already sweeping into the closest tiny town. They proceeded to take over a high school that was closed for the summer (where we also happened to be taking our showers). Their mission was to provide food, showers, and a place to sleep for the smokejumpers and other fire personnel.

As this went on, our own work group received a great deal of information about what was happening (we saw their camp materialize overnight); yet we weren’t allowed into the fire zone until all that was left were some smoky hot spots. We were then treated to a real life demonstration on how to ensure the fire was truly out. Mop up.

In the end, I came away thinking… Well, this doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, we’ve got people trained to get on it. I couldn’t have imagined the efforts it would take to stop the Witch Creek Fire, the Harris Fire, or the earlier Cedar Fire that disrupted San Diego County in 2003. And I couldn’t have imagined this more recent volatile period—one fire after the next erupting in regions I am familiar with, from U.S. border to U.S. border.

Platitudes about how things change just aren’t overly comforting right now.

Update: I encountered this video on Facebook the morning after I posted this piece. It shows scenes from a recent fire in Weed, California.

Waiting for More Time

I used to doodle too much. A Pee-Chee folder was my favorite canvas, but I drew plenty of curlicues and diamond patterns in the margins of lined notebook paper (around all of the insightful notes I was supposed to be taking). Let’s just say… when a lecture went into overtime, I found ways to trump the slowly ticking clock. Yes, I took that clock personally. In school I was known to glare at the minute hand as it made its incremental jumps around its very own face. For some reason, certain activities – class periods, swim team practice, chores – were never over fast enough. I was always thinking, if only it were over.

Time isn’t really the problem. It’s the waiting. Right now I’m waiting to hear if my work has been accepted. I’m waiting to find out if I’ve gotten into a workshop. I’m waiting to learn if I I’ll become a grant recipient. There are times when it feels like all I’m doing is waiting. Like waiting for retirement. I have a few years to go, but I’m being encouraged to attend a workshop so that I can enter a bunch of numbers into a calculator in order to figure out how much time I have.

I should know better. I’ve actually spent time trying to learn how to rest in the moment without feeling like I’m waiting for something else. Those are the moments pregnant with meaning, perhaps even joy. Those are the moments that really aren’t moments at all. The rest of the time – when time kicks in – I’m thinking about what will happen when the wait is over.

It’s easy to fight the mundane—another day of slogging through chores, work, exercise, driving to the grocery store. This is going on and on. I hate this. It’s not easy to feel fulfilled during these routine tasks.

I was once asked why I wanted to sing. The suggestion between the lines implied I wanted it for the wrong reason. Perhaps I believed singing would make me happier when there was really something else to address. Self-expression does seem more satisfying than sitting at the reference desk. It certainly feels more dramatic. But is it more really more fulfilling? It can seem that way to the person who feels joy when she sings and boredom when she is waiting for the next question.

It is said Zen masters are fulfilled in their beingness no matter what is going on. Yet most of us have strong preferences. Most of us are drawn to certain activities—repelled by others. And sometimes we have to stick with an undertaking we don’t like, because it is the only way to keep things together. During those times, we may not have the luxury of enjoying what we truly love to do.

On the flip side, it might be important to think about the best use of one’s time. From a Zen point of view it is impossible to waste time (there’s no time to waste); yet most of us are better at some things than others. Most of us have specific gifts to share—unique to our talents and personalities. When we are thwarted from sharing them, then indeed something valuable is wasted.

If we do try to pursue “the best use of our time,” there’s bound to be a wait. Doodling in the margins might get us through the stagnant periods when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. Or there’s my current habit: obsessively checking my cell phone, particularly for rejections. Learning how to live fully in the “not so interesting” becomes a different sort of challenge.

Summer Rain

Shasta daisy start

Shasta daisy start

It started falling last night – rain – more rain – moistening parched places everywhere. It is still coming down, those familiar tings against the roof, the skylight, that have disrupted a few morning plans tied to the sun. The rain is a welcome excuse to read or write or do nothing but listen.

Plans change.

Recently, I was driving up I-5 in Southern California under the usual long-term-drive bubble. Everything was as it should be—a few vehicles in front of me, a few behind. The morning air in the dry and golden valley was promising another sweltering day, though I sat cool and comfortable in my air-conditioned vehicle. Then 70-mph time swung into slow motion surrealism as the semi ahead of me began to derail, snaking into the left lane, ultimately pushing a car off the road while the cars behind it shifted from side to side. I was sure the truck was going to follow along the same trajectory, ending up in the divider zone. The next thing I knew – in slow motion – the long vehicle tipped and landed on its side in the middle of the freeway. I found out later it blocked traffic for over an hour, though I never managed to uncover any mention of injuries or death.

The Buddhist idea that “everything changes except change itself” (also attributed to Heraclitus and John F. Kennedy) has certainly been rebranded to capture the modern imagination. People are constantly coming up with ways to express it in writing these days. And I have sat through a number of earnest conversations that swerved into this sentiment, only to find myself batting about its various nuances.

It feels satisfying to talk about this stuff—in theory. We can all nod along, “Yeah, I know that one.” And we sit there figuring this brilliant conclusion should make life’s surprises just a little bit easier. Yet there still comes a time when we have to ride inside a car that is shifting from side to side, only to wonder if it is going to hit an overturned semi. And no matter what happens, we have to go on from there.

I was lucky. I was able to pull over to the shoulder, hit my flashers, and safely dial 911, even as a line of cars began to file in front of me and around the wreck. Meanwhile, a number of men climbed onto the side of the truck to check on the driver. I told the dispatcher what I had seen, and she eventually released me with an assurance help was on the way. Once I ascertained there was nothing more for me to do, I got into the line of cars crawling along the shoulder and continued traveling.

As I drove, I was surprised to note how calm I felt. A few hours later, though, I experienced a round of nerves that called for a lunch stop. In the end, I was able to make it to my family gathering on time.

The rain is still coming down. It is bringing back my newly planted Shasta daisy. Last week the lone plant endured a two-day drive up highway 101. Before I left, my brother and I took my mother over to the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa, so that she could buy the start. Apparently, Luther Burbank – the world-renowned horticulturist – spent 17 years developing what to his mind was the ideal daisy. This variety “would have very large pure-white flowers, a long blooming period, and do well as both a cut flower and garden plant.”1. He worked with four different daisies before he finally introduced his own beauty in 1901. Burbank named the flower after Mount Shasta.

My mother wanted me to plant my daisy start in Oregon, because she thought it would thrive up here. What she likes about Shasta daisies is the fact that a single daisy can quickly propagate into a whole bucketful in a short amount of time. They don’t need much attention, especially in places where it rains regularly.

When I first arrived, I was afraid I was going to have to dash her hopes for a satisfying daisy herd. The already scraggly plant – sans bloom – quickly and dramatically wilted in the new climate that was shifting between glaring sunshine and cool nights. It looked almost dead. I rushed to baby it, wondering if I should even bother getting to the garden store. I grabbed the watering can and gave it a soak. I took it off the deck and placed it on the lawn, away from anything that reflected light. I was worried the lawnmower guy would drive over it before I could buy a shiny blue pot and a bit of earth.

Now the start is looking perky in the summer rain. A lone bloom appears to be on the way.

  1. Shasta Daisy. Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, 2013. Web. 24 Jul. 2014.


Living in Two Places

I once overheard one of my colleagues talking about the pros and cons of working in academia. She pretty much implied that while she knew she would always bring home “the medium bucks,” her teaching job was a deeply satisfying labor of love. Of course, good college positions often come with regular academic breaks—an altogether different sort of compensation.

For me this arrangement has meant living in two places. While I occasionally feel too divided between two lives, I enjoy the sense of renewal that comes from returning to a beloved refuge every six months or so.

When the semester ends, I’m eager to head out of San Diego County and drive to the Oregon Coast so that I can pick up where I left off with my small space and my extended family. I do occasionally wonder about how much more traveling I might have done if I didn’t live in two areas—yet I’ve found it sustaining to invest most of my free time in one vacation location.                                                                                 IMG_1247

I have owned my cabin here longer than any other home—and longer than any other life I’ve lived in any other place. As the seasons have passed, so have the tales. I’ve watched mudslides close roads, serious logs pile up on the beach (only to be carried away again), a lighthouse covered over for repairs, and a family of tenacious eagles dive for fish at the mouth of the river. Yes, regular storms invariably work with nature’s muse to deliver plenty of stories for the telling when there’s nothing better to do. I did happen to be holed up here the weekend the bow of the New Carissa made its visit to Waldport (Seattle was my other home then).

When I do finally roll in, turn on the water and electricity, and open the windows, previous years press through my screens. Some things we still talk about have vanished—homes, stores, and restaurants. People have left. People have died. New people have moved in. We don’t have a gas station this summer (we used to have two). And technology sets down its wires slowly. Some people want it, but not as much as folks in the city—and not as often. There’s enough technology.


There’s also time to pick a bucket of blueberries at the u-pick place. For the ambitious baker, other berries abound: marionberries and raspberries. There’s time to buy a whole tuna right off the dock. People like to get together and talk. Whales hover near the shore during the summer. Rumor has it this pod never makes it all the way to Alaska. They’re happy to stop right here and feed till it is time to head south. I feel a kinship with this pod.

It can be challenging to maintain a dwelling from a distance, particularly during the winter. Winds once blew one of my trees into a neighbor’s yard, my pipes broke during a deep freeze, someone insisted there was a bear on my property, and another called to fret over my roof repair job, which she felt was in danger of being blown clear off. But then, my neighbors here have gotten to me faster than any of my urban neighbors ever have. I’ve never felt better looked after by my neighbors.

I suppose I’ve been developing two voices in recent years. One is influenced by gales, whales, water, gales, green growing greener, IMG_1232more water, purple foxglove, Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow, salal, salmonberries, salmon, and a moon that peeks over the hill to watch the sun sink into the horizon. The other is born of dryness, lizards, whales (the same ones), cactus, ocotillo, yucca, palm trees, snakes, coyotes, and fire. Pasts seated in both Washington and Northern California occasionally surface. I’ve got a whole coastline to ponder (perhaps a few mountain ranges, too), which is more than I really wanted—but life has moved me where it wanted. So this is what I have to write about.