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Serendipity: Sustainable Relationships Survive Disaster

In the aftermath of the Jesusita Fire, it works wonders to focus on what we have, not on what we don't

On the way to finding out whether our house had survived the Jesusita Fire, my husband and I were not optimistic. We had seen our neighbor’s house across the street burn on the evening news. Consequently, it wasn’t irrational to be discussing, perhaps a bit tensely, how we would rearrange our lives if the worst happened.

Karen Telleen-Lawton
Karen Telleen-Lawton

I was determining whether or how to balance planning and building a house with writing, volunteer work and a certification program I had started. “I evacuated the materials for my current course, but not the rest,” I told Dave.

“You mean to tell me you didn’t take all your textbooks?” he burst out, incredulous. I was caught off-guard: he’s usually pretty calm.

“Wait a minute,” I responded. “If we’ve lost our house, there’s a lot we’ll wish we evacuated. We need to agree right now not to play the blame game. This will be really stressful, so we have to be on the same side.”

Dave let out a deep breath, and agreed. “Let’s go for grateful,” he said, “whatever the outcome.”

Fortunately, our house was spared. Retired Battalion Chief John Ahlman (a contributor to Canyon Voices) called later to say our “luck” was absolutely thanks to our previous year’s defensible space work, overseen by the fire department. It kept the fire intensity low enough for the firefighting crew to do its work. (For a house to escape the path of a wildfire, it must have at least two of these:  defensible space, firefighters at the property or favorable wind. Dumb luck helps, too.)

Regardless of our good fortune, our no-blame pact was still vitally important. Property destruction and incidental issues have called for patience in dealing with each other and graciousness in dealing with utility, insurance, cleaning, landscape and other high-demand service providers. It’s wrenching to try to comfort friends and neighbors’ whose losses are much greater.

We’re finding that gratefulness works pretty well even outside our desperate pact. When we returned, we were greeted by ants and rats: critters taking refuge from the fire in our house. Rabbits and deer brazenly munched on garden remains. “We have a house,” we remind ourselves.

Two weeks after the fire, I realized that even with an intact house, it was hard to return to normalcy. It wasn’t just that we still had no phone, cable or Internet, although that was a contributing factor. Something else was agitating me.

On my third trip to the home improvement center, I purchased hoses to string together in hopes of resuscitating our great oaks, dwarf citrus and a small blue grama meadow. Then I noticed shoppers on the veggie pony-pack aisle.

I didn’t really need another task, but I grabbed a couple of six-packs of tomatoes and some basil. I went home and planted them among the ashes in redwood boxes unscathed by the fire. The boxes sit under a singed oak, beside a hearty rosy-pink cymbidium my friend Judy gave me to brighten the desolate view outside my kitchen window.

In the process of working in the ash and soil, I began to feel the stress of the past couple of weeks peel away like dry skin. The dirtier I got — the blacker my toenails and fingernails — the better I felt. Another relationship was healing: my relationship with the soil.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations supporting sustainability. Graze her writing and excerpts from Canyon Voices: The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon at www.CanyonVoices.com.

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» on 05.27.09 @ 10:50 AM

beautiful story. thanks.

» on 05.27.09 @ 03:04 PM

Your prose poems illuminate the rich subtexts of life in this community. Thank you.

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