the fires and the black river of loss

“Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

From Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver

On October 15th, Sunday, we got the call from our neighbours, letting us know they were evacuating. Their voices wobbly, rattled. It was clear this was no normal fire. An ominous feeling descended into the pit of my stomach, and stayed. In the bright damp of a civilsed English Sunday, over the clink of cutlery, roast beef on fine china, I felt my breath catch and tighten. Tried to rally my scattered mind to answer questions: What did we want to be done with the dogs? With the Landrover?

And to ask them, too, once the call was over: Who was going to stay and attempt to fight the blaze, who was evacuating, and where to?

What would happen?

And then the strange, surreal time of waiting, began. Phone lines went down; the valley lost internet. We watched helpless as the red dots indicating blazes proliferated on the online fire map, the one we’d consulted a thousand times over the summer, every time we smelled smoke or saw a grey plume rising over a distant hill.

Each time we’d thanked our stars it wasn’t closer. Watched the fire fighting planes and helicopters join forces with the firemen on the ground to return us to safety. Only this time, there were no planes, no helicopters. There were up to 600 fires listed on that interactive map, that day. Fighting them, an impossible task.

We waited, for the longest twenty four hours of my life. With occasional messages from a lone satellite internet connection, rumours and reports and terrifying in-the-moment reports.

“We just watched our farm burn, terrace by terrace.”

“Someone heard gas bottle exploding at your guys’ place.”

“It looks like nothing is left”

“The flames just reached the village above us.”

Rain had been due from the day we’d left, the Thursday before, and rain was what we prayed for. It came on Tuesday morning, by which time hundreds of acres had been torched in out of control firestorms that raged, unchecked and unhinged, across our beloved adopted country.

Our valley, our home of the past three years, our house and most of our possessions were among the casualties.

Moving on, when all is gone

We are now in an in-between stage. Staying with dear and generous friends, coming to terms with the fact that there is no going home.

That the house whose earthbag walls had sheltered us so safely; the moss-coloured olive tree I’d passed each day; the possessions hiked across a continet, woodpile carefully stacked for the coming winter, all of it… gone.

Ash.

In this season of letting go, then… we let go.

In this season of grief, we mourn.

In this season of thanksgiving, we give so much thanks. For those who have donated so generously to the fundraising page created by our brave neighbours. For our lives, and the fact that our dogs, chickens, cats and baby, our neighbours, and the river, and the village… all are safe.

Still, the rains are not here in earnest, but the cool and the cloud and the damp are here, like a cool hand on a forehead. The land we love is so charred, so black, and yet green shoots are appearing. Grass is growing where forests once stood, and yet that’s a start, surely?

In secret havens, by waterholes and in trees, the birds and wildlife sheltered, and their songs ring out once more with every dawn. The burned smell is fading, the light is here.