Gaye LeBaron: Stories we need to tell after the fires
Natural disasters are great levelers - no pity for those who have no resources, no respect for wealth or importance.
Having been chosen by the vagaries of wind and weather to suffer the worst wildfire in California history, we are trying to catch our breath. That itself is a feat, trying not to leap off precipices until we have a pretty good idea of the landing situation. Some, I fear, are ready to jump, hinting at building on land being considered for open space, threatening the county’s “green” image. We have to keep in mind what kind of a place this was before the fire and not jump back 40 years. Those who would consider expanding our urban boundaries will have to prepare for a pushback from the environmentalists.
Santa Rosans, the lucky and the unlucky, are still in the phase where we are pondering whose voices to listen to and thus far we aren’t sure of anything - except it’s definitely not the ones who holler “bulls-t” at town meetings.
End of sermon.
It’s extremely important, particularly for the kids, to tell our stories now - what happened to us on that night, on the day we went back to see our house, on the time we had three other families, four cats and two dogs sleeping in our safe space.
Professionals are telling us, via media, that we absolutely need to tell our stories and to listen to others. There are counselors ready to talk with children and teens as the schools reconvene. They will tell them that what happened is too important not to be told.
Let’s talk it up until we’ve heard it all, from everyone - the horrific, the heroic and the uplifting. Some are so positive you can hardly believe it.
If holding good thoughts can get us through the standing ruins and acres of ashes that are the grim reminders of what has happened here, we need to collect those thoughts, treasure them and come back to them when challenged.
So, with a bow toward both Pollyanna and Norman Vincent Peale, I offer just a couple of many examples of positive thinking in times of great stress.
At the head of the list, at least thus far, I would put the comment made by Martha McCullough soon after she and husband, John, learned that their Mark West Springs ranch home was gone.
I met Martha a week ago, on her way to lunch at Wild Oak Saddle Club. “We’re homeless,” she said - not sadly at all, more like she was announcing a forthcoming trip to Paris.
“They say it’s good to experience new things as we grow older,” she said, leaning on her cane. “And I’ve never been homeless before.”
Another “homeless” friend put it like this: “I wept for two days at the thought of rebuilding. And then I said to myself, ‘No, we’re not going to REbuild. We are going to build.’ And I haven’t cried since.”
It’s the simple difference between trying to recapture the past and doing something new and exciting.
Still another, a widow, had been preparing to downsize before the firestorm took her family home.
“It certainly saved me some tough decisions about what to let go of and what to keep,” she says.
There are messages that life does go on beyond tragedy. Janet and Paul Balatti found one on the inside of a segment of the foundation for their burned Fountaingrove home.
In letters more than a foot high, someone, when the house was being built, had etched the words: “God Bless America.”
The Balattis are not the original owners of the house and were puzzling over the placement of the message when a neighbor - who was original in the tract - explained it all.
The foundations, he recalled vividly, were poured in early September 2001.
I drove north on Monday to take my good old dog, Gus, to the vet in Larkfield. I knew the devastation of familiar places was going to be dramatic, but I had not figured on all the memories that rushed back as I drove along - past where there once was a round barn, a precious reminder of an important part of our history, and some busy hotels. (I haven’t seen Larry Simons, who designed the handsome Fountaingrove Inn and Equus restaurant, but I know how proud Larry is of his work and how sad he must be.)
Of Cricklewood (the old Marico’s with its blue glass windows), where we went on Symphony Mondays when the orchestra still called the Burbank Center home.
Of Girl Scout overnights at Cloverleaf Ranch in the ’70s.
Of the pre-Stark days when Cardinal Newman was still a gleam in a bishop’s eye and Willi’s Wine Bar (remembered as the Orchard Inn when prune trees blossomed where wine grows) marked the spot where Mark West Springs Road met the Redwood Highway.
Another direction, Sonoma Highway.
A memory of early ’90s evening with David Bouverie and an after-dinner walk down to the barn where we sat on hay bales while he talked about his plans to convert it to a classroom and nature museum to be used by the children welcomed to the Audubon Canyon Ranch preserve he created. The conversion of the hall he said was made possible by a gift from his longtime friends, the Gilman family.
Hence it became Gilman Hall and everything that David hoped it would be and more. It was one of eight buildings lost this month at the Glen Ellen preserve, with everything that had made it wonderful - the taxidermied wildlife used in classrooms to explain the scope of the animal kingdom; an amazingly extensive nature library, and the gathering place at the beginning and end of thousands of nature walks up the canyon along Stuart Creek, some sturdy kids (and agile docents) going all the way to the waterfall.
I saw a video last week, taken from Sonoma Highway. There were only two structures left - David’s House and the Last House, which he built for his friend M.F.K. Fisher.
It was too much to take in. It’s all “too much.” But we will deal with it.
Just so long as we keep telling our stories.