Writing amid calamity



Redwoods in the Muir Woods, Marin County, California.

California is a land of extreme beauty and extreme horrors. From the contrived glamour of Hollywood and Los Angeles to the awe-inspiring majesty of the redwood forests. From the unique personality of San Francisco to the wind-blasted isolation of the northern coast.

It’s also home to disastrous extremes. For the past three days, I’ve been at the Lei Crime World Authors Retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet between the devastated Santa Rosa and the rocky coast of Bodega Bay. From day to day, the skies can be high and blue or a low, gray-brown haze as wildfires tear through the Napa Valley and leap over mountains into Sonoma. As I write this, more than 25,000 people have had to abandon their homes and flee the fires, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, more than 200 people are missing and 31 people killed.

For the past three days, I have been participating in the first Lei Crime World authors’ retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet halfway between the devastated city of Santa Rosa and the coast at Bodega Bay. It’s safe, for the moment, anyway, although the first thing we all do when we get up in the morning is look to see whether the sky is blue or hazy, and sniff for the odour of smoke. From time to time, ash drizzles down, coating surfaces with gray. As another participant, Erin Finigan said, “That could have been someone’s home falling on us.”

A terrible juxtaposition

It’s not guilt that I feel, but there is relief mixed with helplessness. We gather in the the hotel bar to watch the news on the big TV. In night scenes, the fires dance bright orange among the trees. Day scenes show destroyed towns and weeping, shell-shocked residents. Stories people who left everything to the flames, grateful for having their family alive. Others crying because they cannot find a mother, child or sibling.

The situation, only a half-hour’s drive away, comes even closer when an evacuated family arrives at the hotel: wife, husband, daughter, son, dog and cat. They had minutes to gather family, photos and pets ahead of the fire when the power went out. In the dark, they found the cat, jumped into their car and fled before the fire consumed their home. They had to leave their computer behind, which held more precious family photos and memories, because it was in another structure which housed their family business, and which was already burning. They arrived at the hotel, shaken, pale, their faces drawn, their eyes wide but dull.

We writers, nine of us, pool what cash we can to help console them. It’s a moving moment, and one that underlines how small each of us is in the face of an elemental force like fire.

We are safe. For now. But we keep our suitcases packed, ready to go.

The most compelling stories

Today, I look out over my hotel balcony. The leaves on the trees that I cannot identify are turning red. Above, orange-tinted gray clouds accent the blue sky. Is that smoke? Or just a cloud? The news reports that the situation has become worse. The fires continue to grow. Long-time residents recall fires in 2007 and 2008 that were extensive, but not as bad nor as deadly.

We prepare to leave, to head south to Santa Cruz and Monterey. We will escape the fire zone easily, and in a few more days, will fly home to Ottawa. We may face other dangers there, but from everything I can gather, no existential threats.

We are all writers here at the Russian River town of Monte Rio. We tell stories for a living. We strive to make our books engaging and immersive, entertaining and evocative. We have come to reinforce our ability to write new stories.

But there is nothing that we could write to rival what evacuees are living now, whether they’re from Napa and Sonoma, or Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, the Congo, Libya, Syria and many many more are living now.

They have lost everything. The rest of us are unscathed purely through luck, or the grace of whatever god you believe in.

Let’s remember that.

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Comments

  1. As always, Scott, well said and definitely puts another perspective for those of us who live far away from the site of this catastrophe. I feel both lucky and blessed. It’s an important thing to remind myself of all the good things in my life.

  2. Quote from your blog: The rest of us are unscathed purely through luck, or the grace of whatever god you believe in.

    Here we. I often wonder why I’m so lucky.

  3. Erin Finigan says:

    Scott, you captured what we all felt- the beauty, the tragedy and the raw emotion of both.