December 9, 2017

backyard tree
Backyard Tree, La Crescenta, November 2017 (watercolor test of New Gamboge)

Hadn’t planned to post this picture, as I am not sure it’s worthy of anyone’s attention—save my “color” scrutiny. I thought this tree in my backyard had fall leaves that were the perfect shade of yellow—my new obsession. So, I rolled out a thin sheet of bubble wrap onto the cold concrete slab walkway beside the garage and sat down to paint. (I should replace that bubble wrap as it has gone quite flat in places where my butt has unceremoniously popped the bubbles.) The light was fading and I had a new tube of New Gamboge to try out. I thought this strange “SoCal-specific” color would be perfect for the gorgeous fall leaves as the Southern California light faded into evening. So, here’s what my backyard tree (don’t know what kind of tree it is actually) looked like that day and in that light.

Fast forward to one week later. All, and I mean all, of the colorful yellow blotches you see here (plus a huge number of green leaves and branches) were blown to the ground Monday night (12/4). We have something here in Southern California called the Santa Ana winds. They tend to come in the fall and blow like crazy for a couple days. Sometimes the winds gust to 40, 50, on up to 80 miles per hour. And then just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone again. (Of course I’m glossing over the meteorological event going on here…)

So, back to why I posted this picture. I think I did it because as corny as it may sound, you need to stop and notice things around you. Because random events, like crazy-strong gusts of wind, can change everything overnight. Of course this didn’t happen in an instant. The tree took hours of battering winds to completely drop its “New Gambogeness.” And now, that color is somewhere in the dried up leaves and branches all over my backyard. So, what’s the big deal? Why all the drama and whining? I think some of it stems from the fact that I just finished lingering over a book (Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren). In that book she describes, in great detail, the perils that trees constantly face here on Earth. And I could almost feel the tree’s pain as the rather poetic changing and dropping of fall leaves could be instantly changed as they were ripped from it’s branches and thrown about like so many other bits of inconsequential detritus. (OK, way over the top drama and I will stop with the metaphors.) But I will have something more to say about my beloved trees…later.

But the real story that comes from this kind of wind in our dry inland landscape is the potential for fires. And that is the real story here because that is exactly what happened Monday night, just a few miles away from my windswept backyard tree and me. A random ember, from who knows where, started a fire. Then the churning wind fanned those flames and picked up floating embers and blew them around, setting alight more and more things that burn. And just like that, you are in danger and everything you care about can go up in smoke, including you. But of course you can move and hopefully have time to get in a car and drive away. Not so, for your pets and/or livestock, your house and surrounding trees or shrubs. So, now your beautiful home (and all your beautiful possessions inside), trees and shrubs can become your death trap. Some think they can stay behind, use garden hoses to wet down the roof and somehow ride it out. Maybe. Then you see photos of the hillside next to the 405 completely ablaze, as cars move slowly past the spectacle. Oh, and on the west side of this particular stretch of the freeway is the Getty Museum, something else that you can’t pack up and take to safety. So, if you ran the Getty and a helicopter could whisk away something inside the museum at a moment’s notice, what might you stuff inside before you jumped aboard and flew away? Or, what if the police or fire department told you to evacuate your house right now? What would you take?

I got one of those emergency messages (Wednesday night) on my phone telling me that crazy high winds may bring the blaze to my front door and that I might need to be evacuated in the middle of night. Thank goodness the Santa Anas in my area that night/morning weren’t as fierce as predicted. But I woke up several times during the night/early morning and looked out my window just to see if there were gusts of smoke I should be worried about. In case I had to leave in a hurry I had placed a couple large paintings and my laptops by the front door. I had also left my car out that night because I didn’t want to worry about the winds while trying to open the garage door in a hurry. (I had had great difficulty getting my car out Tuesday morning as the wind kept blowing the door shut. I finally put the car in reverse and just backed out as quickly as possible, hoping the wind would not slam down onto my new car.) Tuesday night I put a few items inside my car, like my checkbook and pending bills, an old address book with many friends listed inside, a full backpack of assorted painting supplies with things like watercolors/paper and brushes, a box of supplies for my son’s insulin pump, recharger cords for my phone and laptops, and my mother’s ashes. I had spoken to my son earlier in the evening and he reminded me of a couple valuable comic books. And he asked me to put those in the car as well. Not that anything I wanted to save would be as precious as what you might find at the Getty, and I don’t have any pets right now. But the items I just listed are important to me. What would you put in your car if you had to leave in a hurry? What is precious to you?

My note to you about trees: So, now I come back to the trees. I can’t put them in my car and I can’t stand to look at an area that’s burned—with so many ash gray shrouded trees where my beautiful green color should be. Sometimes my heart just feels like it will break at that sight. And I can’t watch them burn when the news shows the devastation of the flames on a hillside of trees. The other night they showed a couple palm trees burning like large candles against the night sky. I turned it off, I couldn’t watch, it just made my heart sick with grief.

It can’t be an accident that Friday, 12/8/17 was the birthday of Jan Ingenhousz. He was the 18th century Dutch scientist who is credited for discovering photosynthesis. And it can’t be an accident that I finally finished Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. (I savored every delicious chapter of this one…) Her final thoughts in the book are to tell us to plant trees whenever and wherever possible. She tells us to plant them as though your life depended on it. Because actually, it does.

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