Emberlight Through Fog
by Sarah Guilbault
Inverness, California, USA
An orange glow flares against the white wall pulling my eye from my book. The sun is almost setting over river. If I dare step onto the fire escape of my sixth-floor walkup, I can catch the glow tipping behind the hills and buildings in New Jersey and spreading across the Hudson. In here, for twelve seconds, the light filters through my dying windowsill plants, painting them in relief in bright ochre on the wall. Before I can frame the picture with my phone, click just the right spot to capture just how rusty the light is, it has already shifted and by the time I give up, the wall is once again muted, grey, with foot smudges. Those few breaths are the remnant of long summer light. This time of year much further west, the sky is sometimes orange. Not from the setting sun, but from the fires that blaze through dry October fields. An environment that thrives on pyrodiversity. Burns at various temperatures help the plants thrive, their seeds disseminating on the hot clouds, and giants were made to survive burns.
The year I was born a wildfire spawned by an illegal campfire burnt 12,354 acres on the peninsula. It blazed for thirteen days, consuming forty-five homes. Charred trees mark the burn and over my lifetime fresh greenery and saplings filled in. Marking time with life grown out of the ashes of the fire. Twenty-five years after that devastating fire, a bolt of lightning started another blaze. It was one of many that week, small in comparison to the ones further north. I watched as the Canadian fire planes scooped barrels of bay water to dump. Neighbors evacuated dogs, goats, horses, alpacas, and the emu farm I bolted past as a kid because I couldn’t stand their size. I tried then too to capture the color of the sky, the billowing fog replaced by smoke clouds over the town saloon, but I couldn’t capture this absence of light, or the quiet mutterings between neighbors far enough away that leaving was not urgent especially with nowhere else to go for who knows how long. Fire season. Since I left, I have not seen the worst of it, only pictures of glowing skies, day turned to night, passing by the aftermath on a closed trail. This fire was contained in forty-four days, but the hot core of the fire fed by old growth trees smoldering still smoked until early the next year.
Fire resistant coast redwoods feed streams at their roots where four species of salmon spawn. Above, they are home to miniature ecologies with more than a hundred of species of plants, lichen, and moss in a single tree’s canopy. They stretch up through dense fog and play host to gardens of bonsai-like smaller species, even bushes of huckleberries grow beyond sight in the mist. Climbing scientists have only just begun to explore what life exists at the tips of these rainforest giants.
Hanging in the foyer of British Museum is a round from a giant sequoia felled in California in 1891. The tree was thirteen hundred years old by ring count when it was cut down and shipped to England as a logging trophy. The museum describes the careful preservation of this segment in hopeful terms, that this remnant may last another thirteen hundred years. I wonder what fires the tree saw and what grew on its uppermost branches in the fog, shaken loose when it thunked to the floor. In the one hundred and thirty-one years since that giant was felled the rainforests of Northern California have been devastated by various settler projects of logging, ranching, and agriculture. More fire. Less resistance. Embers hiss as they spark through the fog.
The summer is marked by thick fog cooling the coast, keeping the rainforest damp and the creeks full without rain. They cannot quantify the fog, but it seems year on year there is less. A 1980 film about a mysterious and vengeful fog was shot in the area, at the lighthouse and on the beach that is closed half the year for sea lion mating and too cold for most tourists the other half. A Northern California beach day means layers of fleece, hot chocolate, and a necessary and thrilling madness going into the frigid water. Some days we dig a beach sauna into the sand, placing a tarp over top a driftwood structure with hot stones in the middle of the wet sand. Other days the fog rolls right over the cliffs, tipping like foamed milk onto the beach. And then, wet and cold, a slow drive back home cocooned in the thickening fog, the lights illuminating only a few feet in front of the car, passing shadows of cows and elk and a tunnel of swirling cypress.
I’ve tried to find paintings that evoke the sense of that fog, like all my senses are shrouded, muted, but they do not make sense outside of the house I grew up in. Of those my grandparents collected, I turn back to one hung above the tattered floral couch by the fire. I would look up at it when I stoked the flame or flung a too wet log to hiss and crackle or when I sat across from my grandfather sharing a cup of tea as the evening rose and the osprey in that tall dead tree cried.