There are days when the air feels like warm flannel, comforting against the skin. It strokes the fine hairs of your arms and face and it smells like summer, cut grass, gardenia, a faint touch of sweat. It loves you, seduces you, it takes you to sex, to sleep. Your teeth unclench and smiles come easily. Your arms reach out and you stand straighter.
But sometimes it is cold. The air feels alive and malevolent, picking at your clothing with sharp little fingers, chilling the spot where your jacket and pants don’t quite meet, or the bare wrists above the glove and below the sleeve. Your ankles. Your face. Sometimes air is bitter and its freezing fingers jam past your exposed places and rip at your heat, pummel your edges and work into your core where they clutch at your heart and lungs, gripping them tight and tighter until breathing itself hurts and there isn’t enough air to breathe.
Inside your body, air is life. Our last breath is an exhale. The death rattle is the completely relaxed throat allowing the last bit of air to escape the lungs.
Fire is the release of stored sunlight. The burning tree is sending light back into the sky. You cannot touch it, that stored sunlight. It is the energy inside us. Flame is when it is out of control. It wants to get back to the sun, it roars in its freedom. It runs the engine and destroys the building the engine runs in.
We were on Highway 50 in 1959. My grandmother pointed out some tree skeletons on a bare hillside and said, “Those must be left from the fire of ’29.” I didn’t really know what she was talking about. I was 7. I had questions about how could a fire be big enough to take dozens of tall pine trees and reduce them to blackened and silvered shafts. Their branches had fallen off and most of the blackened char had worn off so they were more silver than black. How could THAT be a tree? How could fire change something that big so profoundly that it was unrecognizable?
And then there is the patch of heat on the floor with a black cat in it. What could be further from the devastation of a forest fire? But the same energy applies. The sunlight, existing as a cat’s purr, is the same sunlight stored in a tree.
It’s control. That is the difference. Not human control. Just controlled release of the sun.
Sometimes I can feel the line that runs from the top of my head through my feet into the center of the earth. I imagine the layers of stone and the boiling lava and the heated core of our planet.
But no matter how much I try to convince myself of my place on Earth, I am not the center, I am a speck on an infinite and infinitesimal line between there and there. Now and the next now. Right now I am here but here is only a moment in time where I am glued by gravity to the surface of this planet. I haven’t been here because now is already over. We are in the next here and now the next. Somehow this is earth, but it lacks permanence and solidity.
You all know my relationship to water, or to rivers and wilderness. But think about water. Just water without complications, without its messy relationship to the container it happens to be in at the moment. How do we know water when it is independent of the container? Our planet is the container.
Rain, river, ocean, breath, blood, cloud, storm, aquarium, meat, leaf, cell, spit.
Thanks. Enjoyed this. Especially the fire section, which seems relevant now. Also just finished a book by a woman whose family home was lost in Oakland Fire. Hope you’re well.
I hope all is well in Santa Rosa, now.