One More Chance — Nicole Sallak Anderson

“Pressure, pushing down on me. Pressing down on you, no man ask for.”*

My most recent permaculture class was about disaster preparedness and I know that other than earthquake, wildfire is the number one disaster our community faces on a regular basis. I understand this more than most. So, I thought I was prepared to attend the class with a clear mind, or at least, I was ready to feel the various emotions that would undoubtedly appear during the discussion.

Turns out, just like the night of the evacuation, when I was unable to pull off any of my emergency plans and instead drove away under a sky filled with smoke and flaming leaves with just my dogs and son, I was completely unprepared for my emotional reactions to the opening segment of this class.

The teacher began by reading Terry Tempest Williams’s “Obituary for the Land,” a heart wrenching piece she wrote for the New York Times to honor the wildfires raging across her state in September of 2020, only a month after my home had turned to ash, and around the time that I’d first returned home to witness the destruction-not just from the fire, but from man himself.

I listened to our instructor read the obituary, and it was clear that her words weren’t really for the land, but for humanity and the type of living we’ve become accustomed to. A way of living that is destroying ecosystems, watersheds, insects, animals, and our very homes. A way of living that has separated us from our true home, nature herself, and our destiny as caretakers of this world. After he was finished, the instructor asked us to break up into pairs and share our feelings and thoughts about the essay. One person was to talk for five minutes while the other witnessed and then we’d switch.

I turned to Emily, the young woman next to me, and asked if she’d like to be my partner. She said yes and then told me to go first.

“Are you sure?” She knew I’d lost everything to fire.

“Yes,” she replied, looking me in the eyes.

I began to speak, just letting the words come forth without filtering them first. I began with how I lost my home, my possessions, my goats, my cat-pain growing within my chest with each loss. Yet still, I felt in control, at peace in some strange way. Then I recalled the tree friends I’d lost, first D’ougal, Burl, and the Twin, huge firs who didn’t survive their battle wounds. Now my lip was quivering. Then I recalled the ones slaughtered-not by the fire, but by the men hired by PG&E to clear cut the land as they repaired the precious electrical lines-working at breakneck speed and removing trees that weren’t even burnt, claiming that for safety reasons they had to cut every tree down within 200 ft of their power lines so that they could quickly return power to the mountain.

Every tree.

I can’t recall everything I said to Emily, but I do remember the grief pouring out of me in waves. I sobbed so loudly, everyone in my class heard. It came from an otherworldly place, as if I were there on the scene in September 2020: my land an ashen landscape, still smoldering, trees dry, thirsty, and exhausted having just endured the wildfire, as men one by one cut them down. I could hear a scream in my head, as if D’ougal, the great fir tree of the land, barely alive himself, was yowling at the injustice, while one of the largest, unburnt madrones in my garden fell to the ground with a huge moan.

Once the wail began to release itself, I couldn’t stop it. The fire was terrifying, yet the betrayal by my fellow man was something entirely different. Like the undersea volcano near Tonga that had exploded that very morning, the agony I’d stored inside of me poured out, and Emily, goddess bless her soul, sat in front of me, witnessing and holding me with her gentle attention, creating a space for me to release the pressure of that shocking moment when I first stepped on my property after the fire, looking for my home and not seeing it, yet bothered by something greater. Where were all my trees?

In a daze, dreamlike state, I saw them, 40 inches in diameter and 20+ feet long, scattered all over my yard, like fallen soldiers on the killing fields.

As my grief crested, I noticed out my eye that the teacher was also crying. I don’t know him very well, he’s not even our normal instructor, yet in that moment, I knew he too could feel this pain-a pain that is not mine, but ours. For anyone who loves nature hears her cry, you just can’t help it.

“It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about”

A few days later, as I was up at the property writing, I heard my dog Otis barking at the gate. I went up the driveway and met a man named Cameron, who’d been hired by PG&E to remove the mountain of tree trunks they’d left on the property. PG&E had originally left the trunks littered about on our land, stating that per California law, the trees were considered the landowner’s assets, and therefore had to remain. In order to use the upper half of my land this past 18 months since the fire, I’d hired someone at the cost of $9,000 to pile the trees off to the side and take about ¼ of the wood. Since then, I’ve been wondering what to do with the rest.

The mountain of carcasses contained a stagnant energy, one of death but also of resentment. Not just from the trees, but from my husband and I as well. Every time I drove onto my land, I felt a sense of anxiety, knowing that the only way they’d ever go away was to pay someone to haul them away. I was getting estimates of another $20K to do so, and I wasn’t happy about it. I had no idea what to do, but I knew that the land and my own spirit needed the energy removed to move forward. So, when PG&E finally agreed to clean up their mess and Cameron arrived, I was extremely excited. Moreover, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for Cameron and his crews, something that surprised me. No anger, just love and appreciation that he would be the one to finish this chapter of my fire story.

I chatted him up as I showed him the piles that PG&E had left; some in my garden area, a mountain right on the site where we want to build the garage, and another pile on the previous site of my goat barn. The men on PG&E’s slaughtering crew had dropped huge branches on my goats’ remains just after the fire. My husband had to dig around them to find our little ones and give them a proper burial. This blatant lack of regard for those of us who had lost everything also meant that the barn debris is still there. We can now finally clean that up as well.

When I told Cameron this, he turned a little pale. I realized that even though I stood before him in loving appreciation, that didn’t mean I shouldn’t speak the truth of what happened. Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting, nor is it about refraining from making the other feel uncomfortable when the truth is horrific. Truth must be spoken so that others may learn. Cameron might not have been the one who held the chainsaw to my trees, but he works in the industry. Maybe someday he will help a crew be more considerate and careful when walking amongst the dead. The land after a disaster is a mass grave and many non-human lives are lost.

Just after Cameron left, I climbed the mountain of tree bodies and sang them a goodbye song. Then I walked the garden, searching out the dozens of stumps where there had once been a forest. As I met each stump, I discovered the most amazing thing-they were alive! Branches in the oaks and madrones are sprouting everywhere. Most beautiful was the Mary tree, named after our first and only tenant in our cabin. She is now eight feet tall and has several branches. I reached out to touch her and felt her kiss.

I swallowed back my tears and understood-the 200 ft tall body I once knew her as lay in the pile of death by my driveway, but she remains. Her new body is just getting started, and she needs a bit of help trimming back some of the other branches.

“Let go of the past and tend to the living,” she seemed to say.

I continued my stroll in the garden and saw it was true-there were new trees everywhere and the time had come to move on, forgive PG&E, and tend to the future.

“Why can’t we give love that one more chance?”

Over the course of the next few days, Cameron’s crew removed the dead from my land. I was inside my tiny home on wheels when the first tree was dropped into the back of the huge truck-the boom was like an underwater explosion. My eyes teared up and my throat stung. The trees were saying goodbye. My hands trembled as I finished the dishes and went up to the garden to witness the removal.

It would take two days and 10 ½ truck loads to remove all the wood PG&E cut down on my land alone. I can’t image how much there will be total. I’d heard somewhere that they’d clear cut enough wood to build five cities. When the crew finished, I thanked them for their work, blessing each of them silently within my heart. The sole woman on the crew smiled at me and said she appreciated how easy I’d been to work with. Not everyone has been so kind.

After they left, I stood on a huge 30-inch diameter tree stump, about three feet high, that had been hidden by the pile of dead for the past 18 months. I can’t recall this tree from the past. Already, the memories of the land as it once was are fading.

I faced the powerlines and told them that I forgave them for the pain they have caused me. Then I turned to face the lower part of my land, where the fire had raced up from the canyon and burned everything its path. With a big inhale, I forgave the fire for taking so much from me.

As I did so, a breeze swept up from the forest below, blowing the hair out of my face. I rested in its embrace.

“And love dares you to change our ways of caring about ourselves…”

I turned one last time to face the substation itself. The reason for the slaughter. I’d lived on this land fourteen years and never saw the monstrosity. As a matter of fact, there used to be so many oaks along the road that I didn’t see it for the first year I lived here, because I never went that direction down the road. Now, it is the dominant feature of the landscape. I recall the crew’s comments about how kind I’d been and how others hadn’t been as open. I understand the hate and anger. But I wonder, are Cameron and his crew any more guilty than I am when I turn on the lights? We know that to make the electric age possible, other people and the land must suffer. The powerlines are not hidden. There are substations everywhere. Yet most of us don’t live next door to them. We ignore the fact that someone must suffer such a fate, and many have suffered much worse (ahem, remember Erin Brockovich?), just so we can live our electric lives. It’s all good, so long as it’s not us who has to give up something so that the modern world might exist.

As I stare at the substation. I allow my eyes to relax, and approach it as I would a beautiful being in nature, like a tree or river. I speak to it:

“I, Nicole Sallak Anderson, forgive you, PG&E power substation, for all the wrongs you have done to me. For your sound, for your unattractive design, for the many tree lives lost so that you can do your job.”

Taking a deep breath, I continue, “And I, Nicole Sallak Anderson, ask you, PG&E power substation, for your forgiveness. Your wires and machinery pulse with fire, the greatest and most powerful of the elementals, which we have trapped for our convenience. We are now paying the price of such entrapment, and for the various steps that are needed to harness and control such a power. Ecosystems are collapsing and yet we continue in ignorance. Forgive us, for we know not what we do.”

“This is our last dance, this is ourselves…under pressure.”

Today, I walk this land in peace. It is different now that the carcasses of the past have been removed. The energy is flowing in a new way. The garden is clear and spacious, ready for music and guests. When I pull into our driveway, my heart sings with the possibilities of the future. The reason I’m enrolled in a permaculture course is to create a sustainable landscape design for this land. I finished a first drawing of our dreams and it is hanging in our house as a promise of the future. Now, when I stand on the stump at the top of my land, I can imagine the apiary, vineyard, orchard, outdoor dining room, and garden party area. I see the wall of flowers we’re building to block the view of the substation when we’re on the patio and in the hot tub. I envision the Mary tree in a few years, twenty feet tall and flowering while the bees partake in the spring madrone blossom feast. These things are in the future, but I know they will come to pass.

What’s less clear is where we’re going as a species We know that the use of fossil fuels to illuminate our lives is a ticking time bomb. There are better ways. This may be the most important thing we do in our age-figure out how to live with electricity without destroying the very planet that makes it possible-and have the willpower to make the changes necessary. It’s nothing more than a shift of consciousness when it comes to the planet itself. Do we see it as something to exploit, only coveting its economic value? Or do we see it as a place of beauty, restoration, the only home of humanity, and a world we love?

Can we give ourselves, and our planet, one more chance? The decision remains to be seen.

*all lyrics from Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen

Originally published at https://nicolesallakanderson.com on January 27, 2022.

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Novelist, California wildfire survivor, essayist. Find my latest novel, It Takes Two, a romance with a reincarnation twist @Amazon. www.nicolesallakanderson.com

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