Wood smoke, historically, has evoked for me a sense of peace and quiet, safety, even… a snug cabin in the snowy woods, a pile of leaves after we’ve had our fill of jumping, the sweet sparks and embers soft and reassuring.
This smoke is different. It clogs the city sky, and assaults the lungs. There is no welcome crackle, no reassuring glimpse of modest flame contained. The city reeks. The sun is veiled, shadows gone. This is not our smoke, it is not our fire, but we feel its killing impact all the same, as overhead, wretched residue from forests, homes and vineyards tries to make it from the valley to the sea.
Meandering through the Sonoma hills only weeks ago, it was with a tourist’s eye that I admired the abundant grapes still on the vine, small towns with wooden clapboards, horses on the hills. I felt a guest on some one else’s land and history, a lucky stranger in a sunny haven that did not yet feel anything like home. This week, I watch on television the speed with which that charming landscape has been leveled and I feel for the first time a real Californian, worried about my neighbors to the north. I turn on the local news now, and scan interactive maps to revisit the gentle hills and valleys whose names I have only just learned, whose landscape felt so foreign only weeks ago. I talk to near-strangers in my Tai Chi class about the smoke in our collective city lungs and the friends who have lost houses. Here, everybody knows somebody affected by the fire - even me - and we don’t know what to do.
How does tragedy transform us from strangers into neighbors? Why does such danger make one feel more vested in a place? How long would I have dangled on the outskirts of this landscape looking in, but for this yellow, choking sky? I don't know, but today, I am on my way to becoming Californian, attuned to the dangers in the wind, and worried about my new compatriots, caught in the fires just beyond these hills.