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Beyond the Farm: #fire

forest scene

The chickens are disappearing. There is always a slow attrition of our feathered egg machines, but this is different. Even though the fire didn’t top the ridge to the west, and was never closer than about 2 miles away (close enough to see orange flames licking trees every night for a week), the hundreds of thousands of acres of burned out forest pushed out foxes and weasels and bobcats. Displaced, but still needing to eat, they become desperate and venture closer to houses, looking for food. 

Patsy, the Great Pyrenees, is in charge of keeping predators at bay. She caught a grey fox in the coop two nights ago and killed it. She got into it with a bobcat yesterday, treed him too, but not before he killed two chickens.  She is tired, and hot. Her white fur is streaked grey and black with ash. Her foot pads are dry and cracked.  I wonder, with all this smoke, how bad it must be for her, with that acute sense of smell. I lay down with her on the hard-packed red dirt and give her a snuggle, scratch her belly. Sensing a moment of rest, she immediately falls asleep and starts to snore. She has dried blood on her ear.  Good girl, Patsy. Thank you for all of your hard work.  

When the sheriff comes and pounds on your door, telling you it’s time to evacuate, you have to go. So, in preparation for that moment, we evacuate the animals first. If you haven’t ever hauled a horse trailer full or horses, or cows, or pigs, you wouldn’t know that when you stop and the animals shift, it rocks your entire pickup. Every stop sign, every slow down at a traffic check point, they take a moment to shift positions and the swaying of the truck reminds you of the life that is back there.  Interestingly, animals, similar to people, seem to understand that something bad is happening, and that you are there to help them. Buttercup is a great horse, and my friend’s 12-year-old daughter rides her in the rodeo, but she is trailer shy and will generally give a big fuss when asked to load up.  When we came to evacuate her she just stepped on in and never looked back.  

Ash.  Every morning, before climbing into my dented old Ford Ranger, I had to use a broom to brush the coating of ash that has settled overnight. It is unrelenting, like a late December snow. It changes too, depending on the day. When the fires were further away, the pieces are small and white, delicate and wispy. As the fires march ever closer, the pieces of ash get bigger, heavier, more substantial. Some of the pieces are still warm, and almost al dente. The colors are greyer, darker. As I broom them off, some stick to the windshield and leave grey streaks. Along with the sickly yellow light, which is sun filtered through smoke, these streaks are a constant reminder of the devastation taking place around me. I am going to need to change the air filter in the next few weeks. 

Blackberries. I am not sure where you are from, but in our neck of the woods, high summer brings this one delicacy above all others. By late July they are heavy with ripeness, a reward to the forager willing to brave the thorns and mosquitos to pick a bucket full. But now the ash covered them as well. Big berries, the size of a man’s thumb, so purple that they are almost black, streaked with the ghostly scraps of burned trees and forest vegetation. I pick one as gently as I can, but the ash still grinds into the fruit, mixing with the juice to form a purple paste. This summer, there will be no cobblers. There will be no pies. 

It was easy to know when the power came back on- the smoke detectors started going off. They all run on electrical power with battery backups, which means each smoke detector is hard-wired into the house. Power is off for 5 days? The batteries are dead for sure, which means when they come back online, they start beeping aggressively to remind you to replace them. The first one started beeping at about 2 am. The next one about 230. Each of those I was able to twist off the ceiling and replace the battery, which caused the beeping to stop. Just as I fell back asleep, a third, then a fourth started in. Guess who was out of 9-volt batteries? Our local convenience store opens at 6am, so I only had to power through about 3 hours of incessant beeping from 3 different rooms before I could get new batteries to shut those fucking smoke detectors up. 

What even is normal? Now the power is back on, and my parents are home from the trip they had been on when the fires started. Take out some steaks, says dad. We can BBQ tonight. 5 pm, it’s time to cook, but nobody wants to start the grill. I stop in the living room with a plate full of raw steaks, staring through the sliding glass door at the gas BBQ sitting on the wooden deck. I can hear the wind blowing. Things are different now. Where there never was before, now there is something unsettling about starting a fire in the backyard. We fry those steaks up in a cast iron skillet instead.

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