Nearly a year ago today, I received a phone call from Robin, one of my lifelong childhood friends. There was a sound of panic in her voice as she told me “The Island is on fire” and that the flames were moving quickly out of the hills and toward our homes in the small town of Avalon. The island my friend was referring to is Santa Catalina located twenty-two miles off the coast of Southern California. It is also the place where I was raised and have spent a bulk of my adult life. To hear that the island was being consumed by flames brought me a great deal of distress as many of the island’s natural landmarks served as an anchor to my sense of belonging in this world. The old oak that cradled our childhood fort is now gone. The Manzanita that marked my favorite trailhead is gone. The canyon, which was once secreted in a canopy of scrub oak, is now exposed like an old naked woman. It was nearly impossible to witness this fire without the sense that I too was on fire and that a hot force was moving within me, burning through the landscape of my memories.
This last weekend, I visited the island to hike my childhood landscape and to see how spring was treating the 4000 plus acres that burned up last year. My friend, Donna, and I also went in search for the rare Fire Poppy (Papaver californicum), a brilliant dark orange flower which grows in habitats which have recently burned. The directions we had for finding the poppies were a bit obtuse: hike behind Haypress, go up the hill behind Hidden Lake, walk past the pig trap to Inspiration Point, turn around and then walk over the hillside to our left. The land was charred and the Island Scrub Oaks were black and skeletal.
We found ourselves sliding down a steep hillside of ashen dirt, which blackened our clothing and skin. And then we saw them – the delicate, tissue-like, yellow-orange blossoms. Immediately, I thought about the words of the alchemists, “No new life can arise without the death of the old.” No doubt, these wise philosophers learned this ancient truth from nature herself. To see such vibrant color rising out of the dark soil gave me a sense of hope that goes beyond words.
Later on that day, we accidentally came upon the most outrageous field of Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) that I have ever seen in all my life growing up on this island! It felt miraculous. How could it be that with so much damage and slaughter, not to mention all the pain and suffering in the world today that nature continues to revive itself with such glory? All I can say is that, like the alchemists, I too must observe and learn the secrets of nature. To burn up in the fires of life is truly a loss, but the rewards are great if one is willing to make the long, hard trek to discover them.