Friday, February 16, 2018

Finding Community Through Tragedy

A deer that perished in the Thomas Fire, seen while doing trail restoration work near the Topa Topas

One of my favorite authors, Charles Bukowski, titled one of his books - "What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire". The last couple months have certainly had many of us finding this out... The stories of so many locals in Ventura and Santa Barbara County, including myself - are about the things that cannot be replaced. I lost 10 years of original slides, some 98 percent had never been backed up anywhere. Some lost vintage guitar collections and classic cars. Many stories of fire crews suddenly being called elsewhere and leaving homeowners and friends left alone to save a house... But through the fire and ash one thing became clear. So much is just stuff.  Attachments to items that ultimately mean little.

More than a couple times I was brought to tears by a very simple gesture of generosity that caught me off guard when was in need during the thick of it all. I had escaped to Joshua Tree from the smoke and had cancelled my lost credit card and was out of cash for a day until the bank would open the following day. Crossroads Cafe refused to take an IOU for my breakfast and the manager went further and invited me to spend Christmas day with the family if I had no where to go. Later I went to Joshua Tree Outfitters, needing to rent a warmer sleeping bag but did not know for how many days. When I explained why I did not know how many days exactly I would need it for the owner found a bag and just insisted that I keep it without paying anything.

What began to surface in many ways was a resurgence of a more human side of things. A reaching out to connect directly, share stories and commiserate. An offer for clothing or tools to someone in need... Some volunteered for clean up, gave time or expertise in a needed area. There was also a grassroots, from the bottom up kind of revitalization in the community to share information and resources. Events organized and realized to help many that suffered serious losses - especially in Montecito where many perished from mud flows following the slopes that were now devoid of any vegetation. Ojai was somewhat isolated from crazy debris flows, at least so far... My sincere hope is that this engagement continues and that folks see that it doesn't require great tragedy to have this. It should be the norm to give without expectation to someone in need. To pull the focus to others.

One of my favorite things about the local Ojai region is the ability to explore the front and backcountry so easily on the trails. Run, ride, climb, sunshine, views. This is something that nourishes my soul and helps keep me sane. It is difficult now that many of the trails are closed, specifically the Los Padres Forest Service ones. I was grateful that I got to engage in helping keep them somewhat happy post fire and rains these last few weeks building waterbars and clearing burned brush and trying to help sustain this gift for others. It is encouraging to see that through such devastation that the local landscape repairs itself... Wild cucumber is exploding on the blackened soils, chamise and sumac are sprouting from tiny stumps. Lily is pushing through the moon-scaped soil...

I know many have done similar restoration work these last couple months on the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy trails volunteering with them. I am grateful that this has happened and that more people are stepping up.

There will be more mudslides, more fires... We will all suffer losses of one kind or another and hopefully through the strength and resillence of a connected human community we can continue to endure them.

all images ©Bennett Barthelemy 2018

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