Burn Lands

At dawn, and again at sundown, the cloud scudded winter skies over the foothills of Southern California’s Sant Ynez mountains have been flushed recently with pinks and violets, shadowed with undertones of browns and grays. In the early mornings, the charred skeletons of laurel sumac, chamise, and ceanothus are silhouetted against the blazing firmament above these burn lands. The flame and drought plagued mountains are a grey-brown, newly studded with pale sandstone, exposed by the Thomas Fire. The foothills look as though they are covered with the mottled skin of some bottom-dwelling sea-creature.

The flesh of the chaparral, that biotic fuzz that drapes itself over so much of California, is fire-changed. Beneath its erstwhile canopy the matrix of sandstone and thin soil is now revealed as though a new volcanic age is upon us, the mantle still writhing from some recent uplift of magma. It’s not new of course, this growing medium has been weathering down for many eons, derived from sediment laid down in the Eocene, perhaps fifty million years ago. The plants of the chaparral emerged more recently, just twenty million years ago, and organized themselves into chaparralian assemblages just as soon as some semblance of a Mediterranean climate (wet winters, long, dry summers) emerged mid-Miocene, about ten million years ago. The florid, crepuscular skies that glow on the horizon at either end of winter days are a characteristic of that climate, of moisture laden skies that…

Read more