Jul 27, 2009

Faith, Hope…

    The Jesusita Fire raged for days through Santa Barbara, California and continued to burn until the Santa Barbara County Fire Department declared the fire to be officially under control on May 22, 2009. In its wake, the fire burned over 8,700 acres of land and destroyed 80 homes. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

On my recent vacation we passed through Santa Barbara and stopped by the fabulous SBBG, which had taken a big hit from the Jesusita Fire. Just up the road, a pile of twisted metal and black and gray rubble bore witness to the fire's devastation. On May 5, that was someone's home. On May 7, it wasn't.

Over on the other side of Mission Canyon, beautiful homes stood untouched, a testament to the latest heroism of thousands of firefighters. A couple of years ago, a Cal Fire captain in San Mateo told me that crews will focus their efforts on homes they know they can save, rather than spend precious time and resources on potentially losing battles. It was a harsh wake-up call: if your home isn't accessible or easily defensible, it's as good as gone.

Our mood was somber as we surveyed the scene. But then I noticed something odd: These charred sticks that used to be trees, they were sprouting. Growing. Regrowing. They were alive, and nothing as petty as an 8700-acre inferno was going to change that.

I was filled with hope. This is why we garden: to witness the unpredictable, play some part in the impossible. We plant a Salvia and hummingbirds materialize out of thin air. We plant the smallest of seeds and watch tiny leaves emerge after the coldest winters. We plant a tree, knowing we won't get to relax in its shade but that our children's children might. I'm sure I'm not the first to say it, but landscaping is an act of faith, a confidence that things will be all right — even if we can't know when or how.

A few weeks before our trip, the contractor remodeling the home next to ours had invited me to redesign its front yard. We both were delighted with my combinations of Phormium 'Dusky Chief', Euphorbia 'Helena's Blush', Nandina 'Gulf Stream', Festuca ovina glauca, Lavandula 'Provence' and Heuchera x 'Caramel'.

During our time away the weather had been hot, very hot, and as we rolled up to our driveway I wasn't surprised to see a few of my container plants had died. But the real shock was the house next door. My beautiful, drought-tolerant creation was… gone. All gone. Replaced by no less than the gratuitous lawn I despise. Explanation? The homeowner got cold feet, wanted "ordinary." Apparently extraordinary was too good.

I was devastated. I'm still upset. But I think of the people who lived in the house that is no more, and I realize that there are worse things than a garden gone wrong. And I think of those blackened twigs sending up their bright green leaves, and I realize that Nature has a way of righting herself.

All we have to do is keep the faith.


Laura Livengood Schaub said...

John, thank you for this message of hope. There is something about going out into the world and seeing the good, the bad, and the reality that reminds us just how much faith we need to simply get through the day.

Times are indeed strange. I'm feeling it myself, today in particular, as several rapid-fire reminders of real-world suffering bombarded me before I even had a chance to make a cup of tea.

'What then must we do?'

(Billy Kwan [quoting Tolstoy] in 'The Year of Living Dangerously')

What indeed. That's my mantra for today.

Carri Stokes said...

My husband and I had a trip to Hawaii a couple of years ago, and made the difficult hike all the way to the lava. Hiking along in hills of blackness, you would occasionally see a little bright green fern peeking through a crack. It was interesting to see life recreate itself in the black hardened rock. My husband laughed at me for taking a picture of every little one we came across, but I was fascinated by them. Basically just as soon as they reach a mature size, another lava flow will come through and wipe them out again. Yet those little seeds keep trying.

I'm really sorry to hear about your neighbors yard. Your work is amazing! Eventually I am sure they will regret it!

John said...

Laura, today my answer to Billy/Leo/you is that we must simply (or not so simply) show up, again and again and again.

Carri, I've seen exactly the same thing, often with ferns (does that make them weeds?), always with the same fascination and awe.

Plants procreate, often weedily, because they must — to stay one step ahead of the lava. Isn't our own motivation for creating, whether gardens or art or love, essentially the same?

Carri Stokes said...

Whether it's a weed or not, the fern can represent you in a way (although I don't think you're a weed!). You go around making beautiful scenery- knowing that at any moment neglect could wipe it out (or in this case a neighbor with the jitters), yet you keep pushing forward. You keep pushing because there are people out there (with cameras!) who will stop and enjoy what you've done, and that essentially makes it all worth while. Maybe if we're lucky some of those plants that your neighbor removed will slowly start reappearing again :)

Chookie said...

I'm so sorry to hear about the garden getting the chop! I'd be heartbroken too. Recently, I saw some "typical American gardens" (courtesy of Monty Don's Around the World in 80 Gardens TV show -- rest assured he focussed on really lovely US gardens the rest of the time), and they were worryingly like the suburbia in Over the Hedge. If Monty was accurate, US garden designers really are pushing, um, manure uphill!

Susan aka Miss R said...

Years ago when I was a daily train commuter to NYC I saw the Hackensack River Meadowlands burn. A unique and protected ecosystem, I kept my faith day after day as the train rattled through them. After a bit the scorched earth starting turning bright green, and then slightly darker as the natural system rejuvenated itself. I didn't even mind the phragmites...

I for one have to have faith that the restorative power of nature is ultimately stronger than man's ability to totally and completely screw it up.

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

I think my heart would have been in my throat if I drove up and saw a lawn replacing a beautiful new landscape that I had just planted.

You are handling it very well and have a contagious positive attitude.

In appreciation,

John said...

Oh, my broken heart definitely was in my throat. (Not so much that the boys didn't learn a few new, unrepeatable, words that day.) But whaddyagonnado? If it were possible to hire a squadron of raccoons to roll up the sod, I would have done it. I'm still not above wishing for the gophers' return (I had put all my plants in wire baskets). But really, my best revenge will be using that plant palette at a different property, one that deserves it and will appreciate it.