Today, after a morning rain, we went up just past the Malaspina Substation to pick blackberries. Last week there was a fire on the other side, beyond; the B.C. Wildfire site had it listed as the Sakinaw Lake fire but in fact it seemed to be over by Meadow Creek which drains into Oyster Bay. A month ago there was a small fire, started by lightning, beyond the little bay of Sakinaw Lake that is just below our house. In my bedroom one evening I saw the smoke and called the Wildfire number to report it. A man kept asking me about location and he had a map in front of him. I helped him as best I could and when he asked if the hill I was describing had a name, I started to say Grass Lake Mountain and then I remembered that this was our family name for the rise between Sakinaw Lake and Agamemnon Channel. Beyond that is Nelson Island. No, I said, I’m not aware that it has a name but due west of the top end of Ruggles Bay. An hour or so later, I could hear a helicopter over the area.
As far as we knew, the fire was completely out up past the Substation. And the patch where we were going to pick was one we’d noticed on our way back from picking more than a week ago. Our buckets were full that day and we passed a beautiful dense thicket with many ripe and ripening berries and today was the first day we had time to return. Guests arriving tomorrow for rehearsals for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival will have blackberry and apple (Merton Beauty) pie for dessert. I hope I’ll have time to make jam on Tuesday. We parked by the patch, just across from two buckets used by helicopters to fight the fire last week, one full of water (with a stamp saying Bad Water Do Not Drink), and the other empty.
Fire and blackberries. The nature of fire in our lives has changed. Many years there was a fire up the mountain. A few years ago we smelled the smoke from the Pemberton fires hazing the air over the lakes and giving the sun an eerie fluorescent glow. But we haven’t had two fires — or four, actually, because there was one at Klein Lake the same week that I called in the fire on Grass Lake Mountain and there was a difficult one on Cecil Hill, overlooking the little community where we shop and where our credit union is and our health centre. Anyway, we haven’t had fires so close to us that what we did and planned had to take them into consideration. To take a nearby fire into consideration is a new thing for me and I can’t say I’m easy with it.
In Back on the Fire (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007), Gary Snyder contemplates his own changing relationship with the proximity of fire. It’s about balance, how we treat the land, what we leave, what we are careful to protect and maintain. It’s about communities taking responsibility for clean-up and firebreaks and the right caution. In the essay “Lifetimes with Fire”, Snyder describes finishing the work of creating a firebreak. There are piles of brush to burn, carefully. We’ve always had these piles too. Prunings and scrap wood and stuff John regularly cuts away from the bank below the house where a fire could race up and take our home easily (it’s wood-framed, wood-clad). There’s a difference between the smell of a forest burning and the smell of a brush-pile burning, a hose nearby, a shovel and other tools in case of an emergency.
One late November day, standing by a twelve-foot-high burning brush pile, well-dressed for it, gloves and goggles, face hot, sprinkles of rain starting to play on my helmet, old boots I could risk to singe a bit on the embers. A thermos of coffee on a stump. Clouds darkening up from the west, a breeze, a Pacific storm headed this way. Let the flames finish their work—a few more limb-ends and stubs around the edge to clean up, a few more dumb thoughts and failed ideas to discard—I think—this has gone for many lives!
How many times
have I thrown you
back on the fire
When our grandchildren were here a week or so ago, we had a small fire in a ring of stones by the garden, roasting hotdogs wrapped in bannock, followed by marshmallows. The older grandchildren remembered autumn bonfires down the bank where the old orchard was, helping their grandfather add branches and sticks, roasting marshmallows for s’mores in light rain. There’d be thermos of coffee nearby, and maybe one of hot chocolate too. I remember the smoky smell of the children when I read to them later and I remember the smoke of those fires in my hair when I woke in the night to make an inventory of who was asleep in my house. Who’d returned, for how long, and how many more years we would stand by fires and talk.
Note: Thinking ahead to how busy I’ll be this week with the Chamber Festival, I got out my jam pan and made 12 jars of blackberry jam, flavoured with lavender I dried in late June. Our house smells of jam. Is there anything nicer?