Fire Lands

In notes for a Chaparral blog piece I wrote the following bullet points:
  • Lacking apparent order or hierarchy 
  • Adapted to fire, much of the bio mass exists underground 
  • Hard shell leaves, dwarfish forms 
  • Chaparral is inimical to human habitation 
  • Fire is the great regenerative force 
  • The vestibule of Hell 
  • A sensual ecology 
One afternoon last summer the wind changed and the smoke from the Guiberson fire along South Mountain darkened the sky. The charred smudging of the sky, the warmth of the air and the smell of the smoke were, for a moment, enough to suggest that here was no paradise but instead the vestibule of hell.

It can be a fretful experience moving through hard chaparral. There is almost always something tugging at you. As Rick Halsey suggests (verbal communication, 2010), If you emerge without scratches and blood then it must have been coastal sage brush or soft chaparral!

This is no ordinary landscape. It is at once a sea of gasoline and intricate habitat to a thousand things that flutter, crawl, shimmy, slither and sidle their way through the almost impenetrable skein.

Learning to love chaparral involves giving up the half a millennium of post Renaissance landscape appreciation classes to which we in the west are heirs. There is no orderly foreground middle ground and back ground; no objecthood - just a frantic gestalt of schlerophytic plant material.

In areas of riparian habitat there appears to be greater order yet this too quickly dissolves into an entanglement of oaks or elsewhere, as now, a leafy blizzard of alders, cottonwoods and sycamores. Just north of the park gate on Sisar there is a stretch of oaks by the Creek that sets up a kind of treed cage in which Great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus) swoop and jink. One afternoon Lorrie and I saw a blue heron (Ardea herodias) glide through the area. Another morning I startled a pair of grey foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus): one ran west up the bank, the other darted towards the creek but stopped 10 or 15 yards into the undergrowth, as I passed we locked eyes. I continued, the fox stood its ground. These are rare moments of objecthood inserted into the field theory painting where the matrix of greys, browns and almost greens mess with our minds. This why most people stick to the trail.The yellow strip of sandy track organizes the chaos. it also vitiates the experience of plunging into chaparral that sings to our lizard brain.

There is a mesa that sits between Bear and Sisar canyons which is buttressed to the east of the creek by a steep escarpment. As you scramble down it towards the creek and once within ear shot of the roiling water there is a shelf of head high California sagebrush (Artemesia californica). Passing through it is to inhale air heavy with the scent of the plant and have your face gently lashed by the feathery leaves: this is sage surfing - like being tossed in the ozone-rich foam of a broken ocean wave. Such moments of extreme sensuality may not be experienced by those who stick to the trail!

At some point in the very recent past the mesa above fell victim to a strategy of fuel reduction. It is now mostly low chamise amidst rocks that have been displaced and scarred by heavy equipment. Last year I watched the cutting of a swathe of chaparral along the Foothill trail just east of Stewart Canyon in a futile, but State funded attempt to reduce the flammability of the wildlands as they encroach on suburban settlement.

Rick Halsey, Fire, Chaparral and Survival in Southern California, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, 2008, points out that the bush ecology is not fire dependent, but fire adapted. Yes, it can be a regenerative force but not one on which the survival of the chaparral is dependent. He points out that, on the contrary, the frequency of mostly anthropogenic fires threatens the survival of the ecosystem. He also argues that the evisceration of the wildlands to which I was witness early in 2009 along the Foothill trail is not the answer. It is self evident that a reduction in the flammability of structures that impinge on wild areas makes more sense than any attempt to reduce the flammability of the wildlands.

In five days last September, the Guiberson fire scorched 17,500 acres along the ridge of South Mountain and down its flanks to the edges of the irrigated farmlands below. One out-building was destroyed. Driving along the 126 last week I looked across at the fresh mantle of green that now covers the old burn areas. I was encapsulated in 4000 lb. of speeding steel, plastic, glass, rubber and cow hide and at a distance of perhaps two miles from the ridge, nevertheless I felt a faint frisson of connectedness to the regenerative powers of the natural world.

It's not all sage-surfing but neither do most of us wildland/urban interfacers spend long in the vestibule of hell although I heard tell, over the weekend, of a Montecito family that lost, amongst its members, five houses in the fires of 2008. Bullet point number four: Chaparral is inimical to human habitation.