Like a turret spider
A late winter walk in Sonoma Valley Regional Park
Turret spiders do have their ways.
Walking through the Sonoma Valley Regional Park in the first weeks after the Nuns Fire blew through, it was hard to imagine any critter survived. But even in those dark days there were signs of life. The canopies of some of the oaks were still green, and if you looked hard you could find sprigs of grass popping through the char. A few birds carved Vs on the still water of the reservoir. Amazingly, a handful of deer found something to forage for amid the downed trees and crispy brush.
Now, after a handful of rainy winter days, a healthy verdant lawn sprawls across the park and the open spaces of the Sonoma Developmental Center. Rosettes of new growth spin around the bases of burned manzanita. The oaks are budding, a low-key and slightly mysterious shot of greenery where it shouldn’t be, tucked in cups of fire-chapped leaves.
And the turret spiders! Their lairs poke from the exposed cuts alongside the circuit around Lake Suttonfield; once you see one, it’s easy to spy more. Nary a spider in sight, but where there’s a lair, there’s likely an arachnid. They, like many woodland creatures, don’t announce themselves.
The milkmaids do, however. A lone white flower literally stopped traffic on the trail in late December, hailed by the Sonoma Ecology Center’s Caitlin Cornwall on a fire recovery walk as perhaps the first wildflower of the season. There were a handful of others; they will grow more profuse as the rains continue and the days grow longer. The lupines and poppies will declare their return even more loudly, erupting purple and orange when the time is right.
My walks in the park over the past weeks, with friends, colleagues, and solo, have become a balm. It’s a time when I can almost embrace fire. But somehow the new grass and the flowers feel like a veneer. I’ve reached a point where, for long moments each morning, I can forget my town burned. That ends when I walk out my back door and don’t see the house across the street. To get to work I drive Dunbar Road. To get to the bank I drive Warm Springs Road. Demolition is underway and that’s a good thing, but it’s still hard to watch trucks cart off my neighbors’ homes. I encounter friends, and we muse at our odd emotional state: not depression, but depressed. Enough said.
In the park, it’s different. It’s where wildfire has benefits. Walking with Cornwall and some of her colleagues from the Ecology Center, including Glen Ellenites Mark Newhouser, Joan McDonald, and Ellie Insley, the positives become clear, move front and center. I won’t go into detail because the SEC folks tell the story best, their expertise a guide for laypeople seeking to understand what happened before, during, and after the blaze. But a few things stood out. The turret spider lairs. The milkmaids. The budding oaks…
And the questions. What’s with the big black circles under the oaks, where the grass hasn’t grown back? And these oaks, throwing out buds in December in response to the burn – what will happen to those buds come spring? The SEC experts pointed out mounds of disturbed soil, where small ground-dwelling critters like moles and gophers have punched holes to the surface. Cornwall considered their unlikely roommates as they waited out the inferno, sheltering with snakes and mice in cool subterranean abodes. Meantime the bigger animals, the deer, bobcat, coyote, and puma, were able to outrun the blaze, especially after the wind died down. But how did the middle-size animals – raccoons, opossums – fare? How did they escape?
A week later I’m on the other side of valley in the SDC, up by the old orchard and Camp Via, helping McDonald and Newhouser with the thirteenth annual Glen Ellen Christmas Bird Count. There aren’t a whole lot of birds to count, however – at least not by comparison. Some are here: Scrub jays hollering to each other, golden-crowned sparrows poking about in the blackberry brambles, eventually a few turkey vultures circling lazily on high. It’s a cold clear day, and as we head down to rendezvous with other bird counters at the market, my eye is drawn past the greening regional park to the gray, mostly barren lower slopes of the Mayacamas. Studded with charred chaparral, I muse aloud that they look like hairy naked butts.
What’s this? My sense of humor, blooming from my mental char like a milkmaid? Thank God, and with the promise of more to come. This sometimes feels like a veneer as well, but I know it runs deeper.
Here in the northern reaches of the Valley of the Moon, what happens to the land is integral to the people. We are a rural bunch. Even as we lean on our phones for connection and zip around in our fancy automobiles, we lean, too, on the landscape that surrounds us, on the turning of the seasons, the birdcalls, the blooms, and even the spiders. Some of us have lost everything: Our homes are shadows on the ground, ghosts. Many of us are like oaks that have been badly burned: we’re wounded and always will be, and it will be years before a protective bark wraps over our raw spots. But now I think all of us are doing what the oaks and the manzanita and the wildflowers are doing: sending out new growth, albeit tentatively, renewing our beauty. We’ve exhaled the smoke, we freshen the air, we buttress our more damaged neighbors. Like the turret spiders, we have our ways.