The Whittier Fire, Thursday

Here’s the latest from KEYT. Some remarkably beautiful photos here.

Whittier Fire map 071317_1499983405116_7458798_ver1.0

No dramatic changes, but I know the drama is all on the ground, in that tedious and dangerous slog towards containment. The Whittier Fire has slowed way down, but some burning occurred on the south side, our side, you might say, of the fire in the past twelve hours. There’s some good in that, because it reduces future fire risk by decreasing available fuel, but it makes us all nervous.

There’s a sundowner in the forecast for tomorrow that has us concerned, because that might bring winds rushing down from the ridge into the populated coastal area.

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Whittier Fire Continues

Santa Barbara fire map with recent fires_1499724149968_7424712_ver1.0

The day has a color to it and a faint taste.  The Whittier Fire has burned over 10,800 acres so far, and the sky is hazed by a strange warm hue. From the detail map it seems that a fierce defense of the two peaks which carry most of our communications may have been successful, but as I noted before if any of you find it difficult to reach family or friends in this area of Southern California, don’t panic– communications may be challenged.

I can only salute the extraordinary fire respondents in all roles, who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us who go about our daily lives with little more than a feeling of anxiety, refreshed every so often by a look at the alien sky. I think this will be a long fight.

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The Whittier Fire

whittier map_1499580725716_7400393_ver1.0This fire started yesterday on the other side of the great spine of mountains that runs West to East North of Santa Barbara. It sounds confusing to say we live in an area of California North of the Pacific Ocean, but that is true. Geological forces thrust our part of the state out like a bent knee.

The fire has been fast and destructive, causing many folk we know to evacuate. Pyrocumulus above the ridge of mountains has risen and dissipated repeatedly. The Whittier Fire quieted overnight, as wildfires usually do when night temperatures subside, but as this day warms we will see a lot of smoke and ash. I hope no fire responders meet any harm. The fire broached the ridge line once later yesterday– we really want to see it remain on the far side of the mountains if possible. But it’s some of the oldest chaparral around in rough ridged terrain, so time will tell. In an ecological sense it must burn, it’s supposed to burn, and that is the bottom line. However with our possible winds it might cause trouble this side of the peaks. On a nicer note we were woken a little after six by a rain shower– so unexpected it felt like a gift in this dry season of our year. Not enough to matter, except to our spirits!

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The photo above, taken from a friend’s front yard, misleads. The sun in the smoke was the color of ripest strawberries.

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Post SBWC 2017

2017-06-24 17.24.50

The above photo represents what I came home to, and with, after the writers conference.

After six days of intense interaction, and staying up late after rising early, I’m back at home feeling rather odd. What happens when you put a collection of mainly introverted writers in small rooms and invite them to help each other? Wonders, that’s what.

Yes, I went through strangely lonely and dark periods during the writers conference. I panicked I’d lost my touch, that I couldn’t see well enough to put one word after another in a worthy fashion. I heard marvelous, apparently perfect works by my fellow writers, and I doubted. I felt out of step, not so much with others, although that happened sometimes, but with my self. I was afraid I’d mislaid or damaged my writing voice. I felt like that person at a party who has no one to talk with, standing not quite part of any group, but trying to pretend he is, who keeps a smile on his lips because to do otherwise is to be pitiful, and to fall that low, is too far.

Terrifying the silence when you finish reading and you hear not a single response. You rearrange the sheets of your paper and all you can hear is them sliding on the polished wood of the conference table. Was I clear, did I commit cliches, or is even the action in my short story so obscure that no one dares begin a critique– oh hell, was I even speaking English? It’s two AM and what do I imagine I’m doing here? That man over there is yawning.

It’s terrifying to feel that other creators are trying to be kind–but they see you haven’t kept and nurtured the gift. It’s horrid to feel they lean over and speak the encouraging word because they are reflecting their own hearts, not any quality of yours.

I have been trying to create my whole life. That’s nice; we all know it’s a long apprenticeship. But what some part of my monkey brain forgot was this– a writer’s conference is never about you. Nor your work. It’s about the community of writers. I didn’t go in to win anything– I did at least understand that, long before the conference began,  but I did go in to regain my footing. That was my error– the wrong goal.

The goal? It’s to engage in the purpose of helping everyone regain his or her footing. I rediscovered that at last. By helping others, I began to see my own way. I started then to really hear what was said and made and shared. There is a rhythm to creation and sharing, and since creativity is meant for communication, there is a need to step deep into that shifting tide. No dabbling at the edge in the froth. For writers and artists there is an infinity ahead of making, and what that takes is humility and hard work together. This is not the time for selfish doubts, for in-turning.

Introverts or not, now, we break barriers. We swim, far out of our depth.

I am swamped with sensations of loneliness and encouragement, with a gratitude to all my fellow travelers that thickens my voice, with a sense of loss, because I now sit alone. But that may be the biggest mistake. I don’t sit alone.

Now to work, while the remembered voices of friends sound in my brain, while their kindness and engagement glow in my mind. Enough light at last, to let me see my way.

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2017 Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference

I’m going. It’s been eleven years since I last had the free time to attend the conference in full, because when your husband is the dean of a little college inside a university, you have a lot of responsibilities that come due at the end of the year, and the indulgence of immersing yourself in a seethe of writers just isn’t possible.

 

Well this is 2017. I am looking forward to this. I want to meet writers full of that wild joy of wanting to share their creations, wanting to hone their craft, wanting to spend time in critique and experiencing new adventures in other creators’ writings. I will probably never forget the late night pirate session I attended at my first writers’ conference when an older gentleman rose from his seat with his musical to give us roles. Anne Boleyn was one character, stepping forth with her head tucked under one elbow…that didn’t impair her singing, you may be sure.

Those late night sessions hold some of my best memories of writing. I laughed so hard tears came down inside my nose when one woman read us her story of a skunk with its head trapped in  Peach Yoplait container, and how at the end of a sequence of risible but heart-twisting efforts, she succeeded in freeing it to live a peach-free life. After it sprayed her from purple bathrobe to fluffy pink slippers, that is.

Oh yes, Sunday night imagine me among these wonderful people, drawing a deep breath in anticipation at the table of the first pirate session. Starts at nine, goes to whenever. (Some years I’be managed to stay at it until four AM. I kid you not.) See you there?

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A Painting Liar

black eucalyptus

“You must have so much fun, painting,” someone in the crowd at the gallery reception says.

How many times have I heard that? Too many to count, that’s for sure. How do I answer? Reflex takes over and I lie. I nod, I smile appreciatively, I give assent.

I lie because, no, it is not fun. It’s not following my bliss. It is what I do, it is a bred-in powerful sequence of systems kicking into action that mean when I am painting, I am possessed. It is the kind of prayer that wrings out the center and leaves it void.

I’m not in control, not guiding my brush, if anything the brush is taking me. For my part, I wreak revenge, I’ve been known to snap brush handles and break bristles when I paint, I hit the board or canvas with intemperate force and I cannot possibly paint fast enough. This possession is riding me, I am riding this possession, afraid to get off because like a tiger it might vanish into the grasses out there and I shall never find that particular tiger again.

Sunburst ii

You look at my paintings hung orderly in the gallery and they seem pastoral, the smooth curves of the persistent land, a sweep of one hill merging into another, transforming over the sequence from surge to fall. You look at the colors, balanced; even in my dissonances, there is a sense of one section or one extreme taking part with others so that each work pulls into a whole no matter how loud the tangerine of sun-soaked rise or cobalt-steeped dip.

Evening Flows Down

You tell me my paintings are pretty or even beautiful and I look humbly surprised and pleased. It isn’t humility, it is surprise, because I don’t really have a memory of making my work. When I say I am possessed when I paint, I mean I am no longer the self who sits here today and types out this attempt at an explanation for you. I have little memory of the acts of painting, only scraps at best. I do not choose what color comes next, I instinctively reach out, take what I need, squeeze my tubes in the middle to make them splurt out the colors my inarticulate need dictates. My hands fumble for the next sacrificial brush, trying to catch up to the idea that drives my hands. My hands, not my brain.

Funny because I have spent so much of my life acquiring techniques and honing skills. Adding everything I can to the toolbox, so that I have mastery over the options. But in the act of working, there is nothing temperate about the effort. Nothing civil or studied, nothing calculated by some cunning plan.

Unnamed Hills cropped

You know what I look like, a small dumpling of an older woman with silver-streaked black hair and thick glasses. Usually wearing a home-sewn jumper with thrift store blouses rolled up to conceal the frayed and splashed cuffs. Someone’s grandmother, decent, well-mannered, surely a gardener in her spare hours. But I am another thing when doing this work. I am the tiger, the tiger is me. I am predator after my prey, driven to take hold of it and rend it with all ferocious hunger, to remake as I feel it must be.

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The land I paint is complicit– it tells me how it wants to become onto the canvas and I channel that surge. Pastoral, what a word full of deception. Those mountains and hills, those waves ranging upon the sands are all savages with their own agendas, survivors, but never safe, they speak in terrible tongues of a drive to go on, to keep being, even though they will never be the same for more than an instant, that instant passing. All impermanent all doomed, all full of a fury at their dying moment. That is what they speak to me and when you praise the peaceful measures of my sloping hills, I smile, and I lie.

Yes, it was fun, I say, as you expect me to say.

Eucalyptus Glow

I wrote this because I just had a marvelous lunch with new friends who somehow prompted this rant out of me, and said I should, after all, tell the truth!

Looking down into Surprise Valley

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Off again!

We seethed about the Geology loading dock for a while, counting heads, listing names. Last call for the restrooms, then faculty, students and tag-along (count me) piled into the university vans. Our April 2017 Paleogeology field trip to Death Valley was off at last.

4 of crew good

How many years since I went on one of these trips? Too many. I went on one to the Goler Formation when our kid was in elementary school but she’s in graduate school now. Sure, we’d done summer trips to various sites but none had been quite like this, where you set off with a batch of strangers and after three days know each other well enough to be friends, or not….

We found a cottonwood camp site by a dried out arroyo, not a problem since each vehicle had several great jerrycans (bottles these days) of potable water–in fact we carried so much that we dumped several before we set off for home again. I’m sure the cottonwoods enjoyed that. Students had each brought their own tents and sleeping bags, or borrowed from the faculty before we set off. You can see that our own drawtight, a relic from a British arctic expedition, fit right into the landscape. Yes, we do possess something lighter weight and more modern, but in April in the Death Valley desert it can get pretty cold at night and this little friend of ours is a cozy construct.

our tent

My husband and I volunteered as camp guards. Outside of the national parks or official national campgrounds, there are of course no stations, no officialdom to protect your possessions, so we pledged to watch over the kit while the students and other faculty went off on site visits. The main purpose of the trip was to give these students a treat– let them camp in the desert and see pre-Cambrian and Cambrian trace fossils and real fossils. Think of burrow traces in mud, and stromatolites, with perhaps occasionally a trilobite in the younger strata.

on a spring evening copy

Wonderful group of students, all obsessed with mysteries of past life and ecosystems, all willing to recite at the drop of a pen, a list of favorite taxa. I have some familiarity with past life forms, but these kids could describe in passionate detail, creatures I’d never even read about. They were true fans. However I must say that later that night around the little propane ‘firepit’, (the safest source of a bit of warmth and cheer we could manage on a windy night,) the students veered off into realms of the internet, and left the faculty far behind. I noted it with a certain regret, for the other trips I’d been on with department students long years back had students so hungry for more science that they spent the night begging stories and illuminations from the faculty, because they realized that they had a unique opportunity to tap those older brains to their content. Nowhere for the faculty to run away while out camping!

For the first time I cheated over the dinners, and I’d recommend this to any of you going out for a very short trip like this with a sizeable and impatiently hungry group. I pre-cooked. For the first night I had a beef stew, long-simmered well–spiced beef until it was fall-apart tender, plus a load of yesterday’s soft-baked yeast rolls. That with salad, made for fast prep. For the next day I’d made and frozen a load of chicken curry, which with the swift boiling of a load of macaroni made for a good stomach-filler on the brisk second evening.

moon at eve copy

I’m not sure anyone, however tired, slept well that first night. The wind was a noisy companion, gusting and rising and falling almost all the night until dawn. There also came a mouse to our tent, scrabbling hopefully at one corner, so that we gave in and zipped the tent up. We came out of our tents at six thirty and everyone fed on good foods from bagels and muffins to instant oatmeal. Cups of coffee and tea, a scramble to make lunch sandwiches, and then the cry went out for a last visit to the bushes before take-off.

Again, my husband and I had set ourselves as camp guards, so all the kit could be left safely. Besides, husband had a lecture to write for the day after our projected return, and it was a gnarly one. I had paintings to paint, sketches to make, lizards and birds and insects to find, draw and identify.

For us it was an idyllic day. After the lecture was under control, we scrambled about the general area looking over the old mine sites with caution, eyes open for rattlers (I am surprised but we never saw even one, though I did spot some snake tracks in the soft sands of the arroyo.) Old settling ponds, deserted collapsed mine shafts and old slag, what had been the site of a town, and remarkable long views across desert and mountains. Phainopeplas whistled incessantly, and the soft wheep wheep of quail erupted with concern every time they came across us and realized we were alive.

The students and other faculty returned and we warmed up food for the team. Another evening around the propane firepit, less wind this time, then all fell into bed and had that good sleep that one often does the second or third night out.

Morning saw us packing out, but on our way headed out of the region we had a morning site visit to some outcrops that gave us all good views of some trace fossils, and an overview of a Tesla commercial being filmed. I noted that the photographer stopped at one point and took a few frames of us time travellers clambering about the slopes of rock. Maybe he or she was envious.

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Long drive home, all arrived safe and weary, but full of conversation. I know our vehicle’s talk covered everything from the ethics of diet and alternative medicine to the depiction of science in film.

I hope to work up a few paintings out of my notebook, and if I do, I shall hope to share them here.

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