Smoke and Ancestors

There are ashes on my keyboard. They sifted in through the windows when I opened them to let out the smoke from a too-hot cooking pan a couple days ago. They came in when I opened the door to let my beloved in after a trip to the grocery store. They collect at the edges of anything that has an edge to collect at. Puffs of white and gray sail out from the car door as I opened it to take my daughter to school, back before the schools closed because we have the worst air quality in the country. Worse than the industrial stench bequeathed by unregulated industrial profit-seeking to the mega-cities in places where there is even less concern for environmental quality than there is here.

Every night my dreams are full of unremembered dead, flames and the heartache of those who are losing everything only a few miles to the north. Where I am, I still have a place to sit, a place to eat, and a few walls to keep out the air that makes me choke and cough if I spend too much time outside letting it into my lungs as I search for the life that is in a breath. What I have is a blessing, and I am grateful for it each day that I continue to be here and not running from the flames.

Families from other nearby towns sit dejectedly in the parking lot of a mall. Firefighting personnel are working days on end with only a few hours rest. Wealthy owners of vacation properties are starting crowdfunding campaigns to remedy the damage done by the fire to their 2nd and 3rd homes. A cousin from my chosen family is dead. Her father is in a coma from the smoke he breathed trying to save her.

There is a mountain behind me that rises up into the dingy yellow smoke that has turned the sky’s blue to the color of a sweaty T-shirt. It is named for a Miwok lady who, one story says, was rejected by her lover. She climbed to the top of the mountain and cried herself to death from heartbreak. The mountain was so moved by her grief that it changed its shape to be hers and carried her likeness into the future forever. A little excavation into this legend unearths the Victorian origins of this story that has nothing to do with the tribes who supposedly originated it. It is like the fictional country of Graustark that allowed George Barr McCutcheon and his readers to escape into fictions that would have been unacceptable (or at least much less exciting) if they were set in an actual place and time.

Access to the mountain that is now closed because everyone here is afraid it might burst into flames and consume the town recently rated as “best place to live for a couple working on their first million.” Further exploration of the name reveals that the explanations for it are as varied as the confusion that results from too many guesses based on too little information. Some want the name to be Asian, some want it to be Spanish, some want it to be Miwok and some want it to be unexplained so they can more easily interpret it however they like. But underneath all of this right now there is the brooding, potentially incendiary presence of the dry grass on the mountains shoulders and the enormous crop of dead twigs in the underbrush. Both exploded with life last winter under an unusually wet sky that filled the reservoirs for the first time in years. I was not alone in celebrating the bounty the rain brought after years of drought. Now I look at the mountain and sing songs of safety as tens of thousands of minds wonder along with me if she will continue to be free of flames.

Some of these people know that the dry annual grasses on her shoulders did not always grow there. Most do not. The grasses were brought here by the ranchers whose descendants argue about the source of the name Tamalpais. They did not wait for a decision on the name’s origin. They proceeded immediately to out-compete the indigenous perennial bunch grasses and establish their dominion over the mountain and over most of California. The people who knew how to live with the fires or carefully burn the undergrowth to keep it from exploding were chased off or killed. The colonists took their place. At the same time, the annual grasses took over and created an ecosystem that produces acres of perfectly prepared tender every time a wet winter is followed by a dry summer. I am now living the future created by that double conquest that began more than 300 years ago. SO is everyone else in this area.

I do my best to mourn the forests, homes, hopes and lives of all that has been and is being lost. The weight is heavy, but what is lost must be mourned or it will cause too much imbalance. Things in this world are already careening out of control, and letting the results of this destruction go unacknowledged into the next world creates a feedback loop that I do not want to be part of. So I give my mornings to the land of shadows and sorrows where the ancestors from last night, last year, the last century and all the time before that wait for someone living to remember them. At Equinox I made a promise that I would do this healing work with them every day until Samhain. There was an urgency then that I fully understand now. The wheel of change is turning faster right now than it has in some time. The dead can’t help the living if the living aren’t listening. But we need their help because they lived through, or died during other times where the way things were supposed to be suddenly wasn’t true any more. They know things that can help us navigate this time of terrible changes.

I awake in the afternoon from a dream of carefully decorating bones with gold leaf. It was a methodical, delicate dream full of gentle caring and precision. I was learning how to do something very old and very important. Not the painting of gold leaf, because that was only the vehicle. Something both I and the others in the dream could understand and share. More like a translator than anything else. What really mattered were the things that are bigger than single actions and single times.

In the dream, many people are sitting close together in a cave with only a little light and a little time. They focus on the most important things that really need to be done. Things that will bring life if done right and death if done wrong. Things that matter on a grand scale. Things that don’t make any sense outside the context in which they are born because they can’t be expressed in words. They can’t be translated or taken to another context because they are too connected to this one to be moved. They are things that are outside of time and can be used to keep the delicate web of life together in all its shinning magnificence. They are also things that most of the living have forgotten, just as they have forgotten the dead I am lighting candles for every day.

In the dream I am applying delicate strokes with a brush that is made from a twig with a small knob that scrapes against my fingers and the dark hair of an animal that has been extinct for thousands of years. Suddenly, I see the eyes I am painting gold come to life. They do not open, but they do start to shine. The man behind me wearing the skin of a wolf turns his head quickly to look over his shoulder. The gray hair of the predator’s pelt blends with his own hair and forms a composite that is more powerful than what either collection of strands could create on their own. My time here is nearly done. I feel the tension and concern in the cave around me. Will he finish before he must go? I lay down the last stroke and the glow from the eyes starts to reach out into the cave. It shoots ribbons of light in all directions. The tension lifts a little. I want badly to see what happens next and to know why what I have just done is important. 21St Century needs are so out of place here they become absurd. I do not get to satisfy either desire. The man wearing a wolf looks back into my eyes and I wake up with a head full of questions.

There is a gray plastic bin on the floor. We are putting food into it that will not spoil until 2019 according to its label. Containers of water sit in rows next to it. The N-95 masks that can actually keep some of the smoke out as we breath are all sold out for miles around. Today the fires are not heading towards us and we will not be leaving right now. I look at the food in the bin and calculate how little I could get by on if need be. Questions from my dream floats up towards me. When in history has it ever been a bad idea to have some extra food on hand? When has it not been a good thing to take charge of feeding yourself and your family? When was it that we started to feel that doing this was somehow wrong? I hear them and stare at the food in thin bin, letting what it means soak in.

This feeling of uncertainty and looming danger is not new. It is the norm, and has been since all of my ancestors’ people walked when they needed to be somewhere else because that was the only way to move around. Some of us may have forgotten this in the frenzy of consumer culture and the unusually consistent weather that marked the 20th Century. But this fact did not forget us. It is also part of the way life itself is kept in balance and in tune. Terrible things happen. They bring an end to old ways of being and force new ways to arise. It is not comfortable and removed. People die and the change is close-up and visceral in a way we are now taught to be afraid of. Intensity like this is inherently bad, the story goes. We should try to act like it is not there. Just talk about happy things and smile.

But none of that makes the changes go away or stop being real. It is a lot like the child with his hands in his ears singing nonsense to himself because his parents are fighting and he doesn’t want to hear it. He lacks the tools to understand what is happening, so he tries to put it out of his consciousness. Many of us living today are doing the same for the same reasons. The tools for understanding what the major forces in our lives are doing are lacking. So we try to act like everything is just fine. This is normal for a kid, but for an adult it is a different matter.

While some of us act like scared children, others try to learn the tools for understanding and interpreting what is happening. What we now call disasters used to be called messages from the spirit world. They were seen in this light throughout most of human existence and still are in some places by some people. If they are communications, what sort of things are they saying? Fires, plagues, drought, famines, wars, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods all kill huge numbers of people. The Natural Disasters, the ones that are so big and so beyond the control of humans also bring out the best in us.

All around me there are stories of heroic acts being performed by human beings. I celebrate Peter Lang who let his own home burn to save the lives of the animals at Safari West because they were in his care. I praise the people who donated so much in the first few hours of the evacuations that the rescue centers near me reached their full compliment of supplies and volunteers almost immediately. All of the people worked together at Isis Oasis through the night to save humans and animals. The brave healers offer free assistance in Santa Rosa for those suffering from the shock of loss. The firefighters and emergency personnel who face the flames so that others don’t have to. Messages full of capital letters pop up on social media that list which places concerned people have made available for those in need to sleep at. Offers of shelter go back and forth between hearts and mouths.

And it is not just here and now. There are stories of Sikhs showing up to serve fresh-cooked meals to the hungry before the official response came for Hurricane Sandy. There is Cornelius Washington and others like him in New Orleans after Katrina who worked to clean up the mess after the waters went down. There are stories from many places and many times of human beings helping each other through what happens when the world catches fire, is washed away by water, falls apart because the ground shakes or gets lost in an ash cloud from a volcano. All of these are to be honored and remembered because they are the best of what we are.

The forgotten dead knew this. Everyone knew this, if you go back a little in time before the idea that we are all just heaps of meat acting for the purpose of our own gratification took hold. We are so much bigger and more powerful than that. Something like a wildfire reminds us that if we do not act in our full capacity, and get together with others acting in theirs, we are likely to die. Fortunately fires like this are not here every day. But the fact of the danger in ignoring the responsibility of our existence is always with us.

I finish storing the food in the bin in case the future needs it. I write poems for the dead, and I renew my commitment to get better and better at eating what grows in my yard. There are ashes on my keyboard. It is a minor inconvenience, easily remedied with a small broom. I do not forget to be alive. I am grateful for the fact that this is till the case in this season of flames and death. I wish Christina Hanson and all the others who have just crossed over a safe passage and a pleasant arrival to wherever they are bound. For those who are still on this side of the veil, I wish support and love and will give what I have to share of both.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience of the fires in California. These are such frightening times and those of us who haven’t yet been hit by natural disasters can only fear and imagine them. Yet your communications with the dead and carving of a small dark extinct animal with golden eyes contains a hint of hope…

    1. Thanks! I am glad you found it hopeful. That was my intent, but when I put these things out there, I often wonder how they will be received by the reader.

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