Sonoma County’s Poet Laureate Maya Khosla sees hope in the ashes
Maya Khosla - biologist, poet and filmmaker - believes that the natural environment, if left undisturbed, can recover even from fires as devastating as those that have roared through Northern California in recent times.
Human beings, however, need emotional release and support. Poetry can help, and poetry read aloud in a group setting can help even more, and the aforementioned, when captured on film, can reach and help even more. Those relatively simple ideas drive Khosla’s current crusade of bringing passionate poetry to the people, particularly those ravaged by loss. It’s an endeavor that should keep her very busy throughout her two-year tenure as Sonoma County Poet Laureate, and possibly longer.
“I can take a body of fire footage and record all manner of responses from people to the 2017 Sonoma County fires,” she said. “I’m having a series of events. Not all of them will be recorded. Some of them will be informal workshops and presentations with a lot of exchange. Then I’ll start with a reading series that I’ll be recording and filming.”
Titled “The Natural Legacy Project,” her endeavor will have three parts:
(1) ‘Local Legacy,” the film poetry reading series will include work by emerging and established local poets.
(2) “Global Legacy,” an exchange program linking local poets with students and farmers from Nagaland in India, where Khosla taught poetry for several seasons, encouraging both groups to share stories.
(3) Finally the ideas and work from the first two parts would be combined. The ultimate result will be a film running roughly 90 minutes long, with both interviews and poetry interspersed, she said.
“It’s a wide spectrum of people talking about their responses. I have started a few interviews, especially with Pepperwood Preserve managers and firefighters. I find firefighters to be incredibly articulate. I’m talking to people who experienced the fires. They may be the same people who are writing the poetry and they may not,” Khosla said.
“This project in particular, and poetry in general, can instill a sense of hope and also can serve as a catharsis, and perhaps it can encourage discovery.”
Khosla, 55, who lives in Rohnert Park, settled in Sonoma County about 15 years ago. Her family is from India and she was born in London, England. She came to the United States in 1984 and holds master’s degrees in chemistry and ecotoxicology from Virginia Tech.
As a professional biologist, she works with Californian Environmental Studies in Watsonville and Surf to Snow Environmental Resource Management in Danville.
As a writer she is the author of one nonfiction work and two books of poetry, including “Keel Bone,” published by Bear Star Press in Cohasset, California, in 2003, winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. Her fourth book, “All the Fires of Wind and Light,” is due out next year from Sixteen Rivers Press in San Francisco.
Last year, Khosla wrote and directed the 30-minute documentary film “Searching for the Gold Spot: The Wild After the Wildfire.”
“It tracks years of research in forests that are recovering or rejuvenating after a wildfire,” she said. “It goes all over California. The film documents the really surprising recovery in areas like forests that are pretty much left to themselves. They tend to bounce back.”
Her findings hold true for Northern California, but not Southern California, which has a longer history of frequent fires, and has not experienced the same kind of natural recovery, she said.
“There’s this incredible recovery in undisturbed forests,” she said. “This is accompanied by phenomenal biodiversity. You’re looking at intense regrowth of all the conifers, the oaks, the chaparral habitats, and of course the return of every single species of wildlife you can imagine and more.”
The film traces the most serious fires of recent years, including the massive Rim Fire of 2013 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, widely considered an early turning point in Northern California’s trend toward bigger and more severe wildfires. Her research took her to national forests all over the region.
“It was the same story over and over again,” she said. “All the undisturbed areas bounced back to life with more than half of the trees. The first year they look dead and then next thing you know, they’re actually alive and leafing out,” she said. “That’s only in the areas that are undisturbed, and replanted, then the diversity is far less and you do need to take a lot more.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.
once we have looked away
once we have mourned
and banished all smoldering thoughts
about the tribe of blackened trees
replacing the known world
for now and another season
and the last long fingers of smoke
have been ushered out by wind
a ticking begins
no one has seen them arrive in such numbers
the birds are neither lost nor passing through
they are simply linked tight
to the lingering scents
the promise of white fruits
protein concealed by bark?
so were the ways of ancestors
who began their journeys
as specks in the distance
some fifty thousand years ago
riding miles of smoky gold
along a known line of hunger
growing closer and closer
the black beat of instinct
working a migration upstream
against the flow of smoke
into the source and its multiple riches
one preens its dusk-and-opal plumage
others tap like a knock on the door
whose answer is advice provided
by the ages
long as genetic fibers coiled
in every cell
beak and bone
muscle and shiny eye
the birds are awake to the growth
and abundance soon to follow
with the diligence
of all known colors unfurling
from the soil’s chocolatey darkness
from the trees re-greening come spring
from the blackness