Thomas Doty – Storyteller


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Rolling in the Ashes

It is fall in Northern California along the Klamath River at Somes Bar, but the smoke is so thick you cannot see the sky. Forest fires have burned in the area for over a month, and these fires have had a lasting effect on people who consider the mountains and the forests and the river their home.

According to native myths, Coyote brought fire to the people. Depending who is telling the story, he managed to do this in a variety of ways, most of them self-serving. However, in many versions, Coyote warns the people to beware of the power of fire. "Fire will be stored in the willows and the cedars and the redwoods," he says. "Draw out only what you need and leave the rest inside the trees." Ask anybody around here and they'll tell you that somebody has let the fires loose, and the trick has gone far enough.

Early morning up Ti Creek near Somes Bar, I wake from a night of little sleep. The dogs barked all night, driving bears and deer and other animals out of the yard. A few weeks ago this house stood empty, evacuated and in the path of what is called a firestorm. But less than a mile from the house, the fire changed direction and is now burning up the hill and into the Marble Mountain Wilderness. What animals didn't die in the flames came down the hill and into the woods, and all night the dogs have been barking. And all night the water trucks have roared down the road, and all night the stars have hid behind a fog of smoke.

The people who live here talk freely of their fears: how the smoke has kept the garden from ripening and they'll be short of food this winter, what to pack if the fire comes back. They talk of cutting down trees that hang over their houses, and of bulldozing firebreaks wider than highways through their yards. And they talk of neighbors who have lost their homes. They had no warning. The fire swooped down like a storm.

People look tired. They cough as they talk. They've been living in a world of smoke and flames far too long.

Down the river at Junction Elementary School, there is a bulletin board in the cafeteria covered with drawings made by students. In the pictures, flames are crayoned bright yellow and red and orange. They are burning trees and cars, and in burning houses people call for help. One caption reads: "The fires Go Crazy." Also on the board is a piece written jointly by students. They wrote:

"The fire is hatred. It burns up houses. It burns up the woods and the animals. It's burning up all the beautiful colors. The fire burns cars and trucks. It's turning beautiful things into ashes. It's killing itself. The fire makes me feel sick. It makes me feel dizzy. The fire scares me. The fire makes me feel angry."

A second grade student asked me if the Indians had a way of bringing things back to life. I told her the story of how Elder Coyote brought his younger brother back to life by rolling him in the ashes left by a fire. She looked at me and said, "Maybe that will happen here. We've got lots of ashes. Maybe we can start with the trees."

As I left the school and drove up the river, the sun burned red through the smoke. Ash fell like dirty snow. I passed a smoldering snag with an eagle's nest on top. The fire had burned partway up the snag, but it hadn't reached the nest. Over the river, life for the eagle went on as he dipped to the water, grabbing the first of the fall salmon run.

And life for the people along the Klamath River goes on as they wait for the fall rain to douse the fires and clear the air.

The people talk of replanting the hills. They talk of taking care of their homeless neighbors. The people will survive. They'll roll their world in the ashes and bring it back to life.

They hope that next year, the dead leaves on the trees will not be a symbol of the devastation of fire, but rather the beautiful beginning of fall.