I cannot tell if today or the first time I saw the rubble of my house was the saddest. The first time was wrapped in shock and a feeling of stunned silence making everything feel muffled. Today everything was sharp and clear and I was fully aware.
It rained hard today. We went to our land during a break in the rain to see how it was surviving in the torrent. I got out of the car and made my way around the edges of what was our driveway. One of the silt fences has collapsed and leaned on the ground as if exhausted. It began to rain again. I found an unused silt and took a rock six times the size of my hand and pounded the stakes into the ground. I tucked the bottom edge under and secured it with a few smaller rocks so that it could trap anything that rolled off of the mountain before it could roll into the road. I was muddy and wet. Each time I picked up a rock to place it more safely in the mud I remembered it. Each rock had found its home along my driveway. I had arranged them in a decorative and functional path working with the vegetation to keep the erosion in check. Now there were no plants to help with that plan even though the rocks kept their vigil over what had been my driveway.
It is unusual to have all-day drenching rains in our part of the Rocky Mountains. After the fire, I saw a report on a weather station that warned of the risks of monsoons that could follow our fires. At the time I could not quite understand how to think about a monsoon in the high-mountain desert where we live.
I understand a lot of things that I did not understand before. Many things I would have thought unlikely or at least improbable have become reality in my life. I would not have thought in May that I would have no home in June. I would not have thought in 2010 when I was working so hard to remodel my house that it would be burned within two years. I would not have thought that monsoons would come in October in the desert. I was wrong on all counts.
Life has a way of instructing us that is sometimes cruel. I feel sorrow for the loss of my house and the things that belonged to as many as four generations of my family. I have missed the pleasure of rubbing my hand across the smoothness of a chair arm that has had a century of hands resting on it.
I can still feel in my fingers the course softness of the wool used to make our overshot quilt that had aged with grace during the past 150 years. In my mind, I can still her the shuttle driving true across the loom as the pattern was woven into the cloth.
I have missed the smell of the American Indian and Alaska Native baskets we collected. One was a Yup’ik beach grass basket that was from the late 1800s or early 1900s. When you took the lid off of it you could press your face into the rim and still smell the beach grass 100 years after the basket was made. It never ceased to amaze me that you could smell it. I did not know about it until a Yup’ik friend who was an elder first pressed her face into the interior of the basket after I had found it, unused, in someone’s back room. I heard her sigh with contentment. In the years since I sometimes went and pressed my face into the basket and let its faint aroma wash over me. It was a sweet smell, not as much as sweet grass but more like oats when they are damp mingled with the smell of salt in the air.
I miss tromping in and out of my laundry room all covered in mud and dust from gardening. About a year before the fire I put a large Shaker peg rack in the laundry room and kept soft sweat pants and shirts there. I would come in from the garden, strip off my muddy, wet clothes and slip into my soft cotton sweats. The laundry room adjoined the half bath in our old house. I would wash the mud off of my arms and face watching it swirl around the white sink and down the drain. I wondered then, as I do now, what happened to that dirt.
Today I watched the dirt swirl down the hills from behind my house and across the road. With nothing left to hold the soil it ran in rivulets down the sides of the mountain following the preordained troughs cut into the hillside from years of erosion. I wondered when I looked at the them today if the original paths that were being made bigger were there when my cloth was woven. I wondered if they were there when the Yup’ik basket was woven. I watched pieces of wood that had broken off of the burned vegetation get stuck in the mud as it made its slow way down the mountain. I wondered if it was kin to the wood in my chair that was so smooth. This wood was bare and looked raw with no finish but fire and rain.
I stood out on the land and took photographs to send to the people who are working on our erosion control plan. I was photographing with an eye to conducting a task that should be done. It could have been anyone’s home. I stepped forward from the shreds of the old driveway toward the center of the hole where the foundation had been and found a river of black winding through the loose dirt. It ended in a small foreboding pond of black water.
I leaned forward and put my finger in the water, stirring the mud with it. I could not quite fathom what the pool was. I smelled it, hoping for a clue. It was odorless which did not help me know it more. I pressed my finger that was covered with the goo against the top of the muck boots my sister brought me after the fire from her barn half way across the country. The goo did not go away. When I came home and washed in the laundry room in this temporary house, I recognized what it was. It was ash. Yet again my life was measured by ash.
I am not sure when the ashes of my life will settle but the stains on my hands, the bitter acrid smell and the rough feel in my lungs will remain with me always.