Kate Frey: Sonoma County fires create traumatic change during a beautiful season

A vineyard off Eastside Road near Windsor shows the changing of the season, but also new grass growth from the recent rains, Friday Oct 21, 2016. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2016


The fall is usually an atmospheric time, with the shortening days and the angle of the sun shifted noticeably lower so that the whole landscape seems tinged with nostalgia. Life seems quiet, and introspective. Flowers are fading, and their bright colors no longer seem as pertinent to our gardens. Our actions turn to trimming plants back and tidying up — a simplification of the landscape, rather then creating floral compositions everywhere. Around us leaves are turning into autumnal tints — liquid ambers, Raywood ash, crape myrtles, and Chinese pistachios become fleeting beacons of color in a landscape going gradually to sleep. Fall is a time when we begin to consider the eventful year behind us and remember being overrun by succulent tomatoes or zucchini, and resolve to find more time to do something with the treasures that come from our efforts. Now that the daily demands of the garden have slowed we begin to think about what we may do in the upcoming year to further the ideal of our home landscape.

In our wild landscapes the golden grasses are fading and declining to a rough tan with a texture like a scruffy worn velvet. The oaks are showing various personalities — with live oaks the most noticeable as dark green rounded forms that sit staunchly on the hills, unmoved by time or weather, each a world unto itself. Many of the valley oaks are still a deep green.

The older ones, with grand weeping branches, seem to echo the mood of the fall, and appear burdened by the weight of the world. The leaves of blue oaks are brown and tattered and dropping with each hint of wind, revealing the striking gray furrowed and cracked bark to all.

The bird population has changed, and gold-crowned sparrows are here for the winter, as well as the dainty ruby-crowned kinglets.

Hummingbirds are still migrating, and feeders and hummingbird flowers are fiercely guarded.

In the vineyards that are so much a part of our landscape, there are stripes and patterns of deep red, creating fields that resemble richly colored carpets stretching into the distance. In others, the leaves yellow and appear old, worn out after the season’s efforts of producing next year’s wines. Wines the world will savor, and that reflect the soil and sun and hands that tended them.

As the fires ravage our beloved landscape, both domestic and wild, many of us are just left with the memories of our homes, the gardens that enfolded them, and the vivid natural environment around us. Even those that retained their homes or business will be affected forever by the burning of the landscape so familiar and dear to us, and the strange and disorienting landscape appearing in its place. We all live here in this beloved land that embraces the emblematic Golden Gate Bridge to the south, the shimmering ocean to the west, and the hills and valleys covered in golden grasses, stalwart trees, and vineyards that stretch into the distance. It is our collective home, one and all. We have physical and emotional attachments to every part of it. Mountains, hills, roads, parks, houses, trees, stores, a café, coffee roasting, frying onions, the smells of fermenting grapes wafting from a winery, a view, the rounded contour of a hill, the late afternoon breeze, the dueling hummingbirds, freshly mown grass, our friends and neighbors, the people we have not yet met, all make up our living environment. We know these places, and can imagine them with our eyes closed. Their shapes, smells and sensations form and fill our memories. This is our place and it will stay with us wherever we go.

These fires will change our landscape. Fires destroy, but the land will reawaken, and with it many of our homes. Our valleys and hillsides will recover much more quickly than we will, and will take on a character different than what we knew. Our cities, towns and rural areas will be new places. We will need to work at creating home for ourselves and for everyone. Our landscapes are shared by all. The richness of our memories will help guide us. Our thoughts and our heart are with everyone.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:,, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool.