Afternoon on Wednesday, September 4th, 2018, a fire burst in the woods surrounding the I-5 freeway in Shasta county. In a matter of minutes, the unforgiving flames spread its power across hundreds of acres. Men driving big rig trucks, hauling American capital from the north to the south, were forced to abandon their machines and flee for their lives. One man ran down a hill as his truck, carrying bundles of hay, turned into a ball of fire. Another car stopped and picked him up, carrying him to safety. As they drove away they saw in their rear view mirror a violent burst of light moving quickly across the dirt floor like a comet. It was a deer running out of the woods, its entire body in flames.
This is the third fire in two months that has left us in Siskiyou county (just north of Shasta county) covered in smoke, unable to breathe, trapped in our homes looking out of our windows, watching the tree lines soon suffocate beneath an orange haze of ash and dust. Fires are one part of the dualistic relationship between life and death. They destroy what stands so that in its place new life may emerge. Indigenous peoples have always incorporated controlled burning into their daily lives in order to yield greater harvests, heal sick plants and soil, as well as to prevent wildfires from spreading so quickly, posing a greater risk to human occupied structures and dwellings. Today much of what was once indigenous land is now in the hands of either government or private capitalists, both entities guided by interests of profit and privatization. Because controlled burning is not a practice of the present, there is an overgrowth of trees that provide massive fuel for wildfires. This in connection with years of drought and human population expanding itself into rural territories with little regard or knowledge on fire ecology and prevention is what has created the monster wildfires that we see today.
My family and I moved to Dunsmuir, California just three months ago, searching for stability and a healthy environment to call our home. We had been on an avid search since the birth of our sun in 2016. I stayed home to care for him as my mother raised me. But living on our own off one income in California is nearly impossible and we couldn’t imagine where we would go. Dunsmuir, where my partner was raised, represented to us liberation, a small town in far northern California, where housing was affordable, where children walked safely alone at night and all you needed— a small market, community garden, library, cafe and park— was within a mile radius.
With my two-year-old sun in my arms, we walked alongside the Sacramento river, giving thanks to our ancestors for lighting our path and guiding us to this sacred land. We sang songs to the waters upon our arrival, inhaled with intention, climbed steep slopes of flower-covered meadows, feeling our hearts become stronger.
We are reflections of the land that we stand on. This fact is fairly easy to accept when the land is peaceful. We all yearn to recognize the beauty of our spirits, see ourselves in the vibrant colors of the hummingbird’s feathers, feel our bodies’ movements free like the rushing waters of the rivers.
Now California is burning and the reflection is unclear. Trees that stood for hundreds of years are being razed to the ground in seconds. Animals who have stood on these lands for generations and generations are losing the only world they know and/or being set aflame, their life lost rarely recognized or considered by the human who caused it.
I see myself in the smoke, my body reflected, not standing alone, but with my entire species standing behind me, we are all sick, burning in imbalance like the old tree falling, like the deer running out of the woods on fire.
Motherhood will make you empathetic if nothing else. Once you have carried another spirit in your body, you have a difficult time disengaging from both the beautiful and horrific things happening in the world. We may try to disengage, believing this to be a protective factor for oneself and our families and maybe initially we feel as though it’s working. We couple the head turned away with other readily distractions and we live our lives disconnected in an illusion of happiness.
But illusions don’t last forever. They will be disrupted quickly by nature’s elements, which do not have the privilege to ignore and internalize its abuse. The fire burns without intent and we all hurt in its destruction.
This is where we stand today. I shake my head in confusion wondering if anyone else in this town of 2,000 people is calling these fires a natural disaster, a catastrophic event, a result of climate change? Is anyone making the connection between these fires and the hurricanes in the East, the extraction of fossil fuels, the removal of mountain tops for coal? Does anyone see how we, humans, people of the earth, are at the center of it all?
The questions blaze in my mind when the smoke descends, but when I awake and the sky is blue, they fade away, leaving me to believe that everything is alright.
But our bodies, elements of nature, can surpass the illusions of the mind.
My moon came two days after we evacuated our home for the second time. My blood fell in clumps, leaving me weak, in tears, in emotional distress. My child asks me, “what happened, mama?” as I sit on the cold tile floor in someone else's home, my body holding itself in pain.
I wanted to tell them, “Baby, our world is burning and so am I. I fear for your future and the future of your children and your children’s children. Will your world be covered in ash? Will the waters be running freely without contamination? Will your earth yield fruit?”
But instead I said, “Nothing, baby” and forced a smile.
“From the ashes we will rise.” These are the words I see throughout Santa Rosa, California where the Tubbs fire last year killed at least 22 people and destroyed close to 6,000 structures, marking it the most destructive fire in state history.
We will rise from the ashes, this I cannot doubt. But as what and how will we rise? The answer to this question is key in determining the future of the next generations.
There are alliances being built throughout the world, led by indigenous peoples, taking lead in implementing policies that halt further destruction of the earth.
For more than a decade, the Yurok tribe has been leading the fight in removing four dams along the Klamath River, which block 300 miles of salmon spawning habitat and create toxic environments for both the water life and people. Currently the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement are being implemented to not only remove the dams, but restore the hurt that has been done to the environment.
We Advocate Through Environmental Review (WATER) is an organization of water protectors in Mount Shasta made up of local residents who, in alliance with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, have successfully shutdown the extraction of the mountains water source by Crystal Geyser for the last five years. Crystal Geyser purchased the plant from Coca-Cola and Dannon after they were forced by residents to shut down their facilities in 2010. WATER and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe have demanded an environmental impact review be done before facilities function. Their goal however is to keep the water in the ground and out of the pockets of corporations.
It is crucial that we join in the efforts of environmental justice, such as these, so that we may live a life worth living, full of memories of star gazing, listening to birds’ melodies, picking ripe fruit off the vines in the wild and baptism in the rivers cool water.
When the smoke clears, we must see ourselves no longer ill, but thriving, living every day with intention to heal what hurts.
bell hooks said, “It is because we remember the joy that we call each other to accountability in reclaiming that space of agency where we know we are more than our pain, where we experience our interdependency, our oneness with all life”.
May we remember the joy.
May we rise in love with the earth that birthed us. May we rise taking less and giving more. May we rise unafraid to look into each other’s eyes. May we rise as seedlings in the forest, moving towards the sun, our roots pushing down into the center of the earth, the center of ourselves.
 bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009), 48.
Brenda Montaño is a Xicana Califas native, mother, birth worker, educator and media creator. Zines with Sol is a mezcla of her two ongoing projects and passions: Zines Rasquache and Sol y Luna Birth Work. Her work is grounded in Xicanisma, environmentalism, Reproductive Justice and grassroots organizing. Outside of media making and birth work, Brenda loves spending time with her plantitas and ancestor trees, laughing with her community, and learning new, necessary, self sustaining skills in preparation for the revolution.