Kage Baker was quite frightened of hurricanes and tornadoes. The annual weather reports from the Midwest and the East quite unnerved her, especially since they got better and more detailed all through her life.
When we travelled one summer week through Missouri, in the car of some friendly fans, she kept asking nervously “Is that a funnel cloud on the horizon?” And, as Fate would have it, naturally, at some point it really was a nascent tornado about 20 miles away. Our hosts drove on calm as cucumbers, listening to the storm reports and assuring us it would break up before it got near us … which it did. By that time, though, Kage was white as a lily, and the bones in my hand that she was clutching were beginning to creak.
To calm us down, our friends took us to see the Convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, outside St. Louis. It’s an amazing sight, those two great streams melding and pouring together; also impressive is the very tall pole on the banks there, showing how high various floods and inundations have gotten in record years. I thought Kage’s eyes would pop right out of her head and float away on the legendary flood …
The rest of the country seems to believe that in LA, we don’t have seasons. An alternate joke is that our seasons are heat, floods, fires and riots. This is the sheerest calumny – except for the fires. Those are real. There really is a fire season, with all the inevitability and ponderous weight of the snow in North Dakota. And it is now.
September is, traditionally, when the heat gets worst. The heat rises, the crepe myrtles bloom, and the schools re-open. Kage used to go into agonies of despair when the red, pink and white crepe myrtles began to replace the red, pink and white bee balm, which we’d been using for wands, arrows, wreaths and confetti all summer – it meant that soon we’d be all be shopping for saddle shoes and have to don our school uniforms again. And since we were all Catholic school kids, those uniforms were usually plaid wool.
Man, nothing like plaid wool and knee socks when the temperature is 105 degrees! The “ancient dress” of Scotland would never have developed if the temperature ever got over 70 in the Isles, I assure you. Oh, it’s true that you can sweat through wool – but all that means is that you won’t mercifully die of heat prostration. You’ll just sweat and be miserable with 30 other pre-adolescents in a classroom with no air conditioning.
September was, by Kage’s standards, the very worst month of the school year.
However, it could always be enlivened with the fires in the Hills. Living as we did in the Hollywood Hills, with several of views of the immensity of Griffith Park, plumes of smoke and serpents of flame were a regular part of the landscape. We could also see right across the San Fernando Valley, where other and usually larger fires would bloom in the hills above Glendale and Burbank and Topanga. If Riverside and San Bernardino to the east also caught, then great rafts of smoke like thunderheads would come creeping round the bulwarks of the mountains.
Most people don’t realize that several National Forests share borders with urban Los Angeles – but they do. And this time of year, they burn. Pasadena, Altadena, Sierra Madre – lost of charming towns live on the edge of seasonal infernos, and sometimes the fire storms sweep right down through the Craftsman houses and swimming pools.
The Basin can fill with smoke, in fire season. The smog is almost gone, these days; the years of it hanging in stinking billows at street level are long gone – though we older folks remember it. But this place was called the Valley of the Smokes by the Gabrielanos and the Tongvas, long before cars arrived, and that still happens. When the traffic lights change colour, you know it’s one for the records books – instead of RED-YELLOW-GREEN, the lights are BROWN-ORANGE-TURQUOISE BLUE, while black snow-ash covers your car and lawn and roses.
Anyway, now it’s fire season. The Sepulveda Pass is expected to be out by tomorrow (burned all night) and Chavez Ravine behaved itself, too. No more underground explosions, but a refinery out in San Pedro is apparently on fire. There’s a brush fire in (dry) Hansen Dam; another, larger one in the camping territories in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Yawn. All normal, for us. Someday we’re gonna lose Pasadena or San Diego, but we haven’t yet. And at least, though the crepe myrtles are indeed in glorious bloom, I don’t have to go back to school.
Kage would count it a win.
Kage was right to fear tornadoes…
Your description of the changing colors reminded me of the year (must have been 1969 or 1971, because I was in junior high) when Simi Valley, where I grew up, was completely surrounded by fire one weekend. The sky was completely filled with smoke and the sun could onlybe seen as a dim orange ball through the clouds of smoke. By that time, we lived in the center of the valley and were in no danger from the fires, but that was the only time the fires really frightened me. It looked and smelled as if the whole world was on fire, and for one twenty-four hour period or so there was no way in or out of the valley because all the roads were closed by the fires.
Oops…that should have been “1969 or 1970”.
I remember that year, Elaine – I was in high school, too, and I remember the helicopter shots of the flames, and the smoke in the sky. There was another very bad season about 5 years later, which was the first I remember the traffic lights changing colour because of the smoke in the air. So very strange!
You probably know this, being a native of L.A., but, “Smoke from fires set by Indians hunting game on the hillsides overlooking San Pedro Bay inspired Portuguese explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, to name this natural harbor Bahia de los Fumos or “Bay of Smokes” in 1542. ” So, there’s centuries of fire history up there…Of course, those COULD have been Company fires…..
Yep, as I said, Brad – The LA Basin has been The Valley of Smokes for a loooong time. We just accumulate particulate matter here. Of course, at one point that meant that the Company could burn any old fuel it wanted and no one noticed … or at least didn’t remark on it much. Which I am absolutely sure was what happened.
There are stories of entire towns, well into the Spanish occupation, that grew up in the hills, burned one summer then were washed away completely in the winter rains. And not just in the Basin. There is a narrow pass North of Santa Barbara, near Jalama Beach, where you can see the lines of the cactus “fences’ originally planted to protect houses – now both burned and and flooded away – from bears.
Mom and Dad’s house is still on the edge of town, back up against the hills. Growing up, we watched a couple of fires wind up and around them, using binoculars in the neighbors’ bedrooms that faced the right way. I don’t remember being old enough to be scared – but I’m sure all the moms were calculating what to grab and when to go.
Neassa – yeah, it was that way with us and the hills in Griffith Park. I don’t remember being worried when I was little – more sort of fascinated. I had this idea fire couldn’t cross the freeway. I’m a bit more concerned nowadays …
Another great post. You really know how to evoke a time and place, even for somebody who has never been anywhere near to LA. I look forward to reading what you’ve written every day! I started reading your posts because I’m a huge fan of Kage Baker’s writing and spirit, but now I’m a huge fan of yours as well. Thanks for making me aware (again) that somewhere in the world it is not raining.
Thanks, Jan. Los Angeles really is a place of wonder and great beauty – regardless of its reputation as a tawdry, shallow place. Those accusations are mostly made by people who don’t actually live here. The land itself is alive and lovely, and has the natural gravitas of a sacred place. Most of the inhabitants don’t realize consciously that they live in such a strange and wonderful local; but it permeates everything that everyone does. No where else are dreams and the unseen the industry they are here.
I must admit, even with the terrors of fire season – I love living here. There’s a vibrating aliveness to California that I truely love. Sure, sometimes it vibrates so fast it catches fire, but hey – everywhere you go, *something* happens, right? I just fervently hope that our rains do come back to us in the appropriate time! Even if we get mudslides. Again.
I also couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Yeah, visiting other places for long stretches, but always coming back here. You capture the aliveness, the underlying sacredness of the landscape so well, the things about this area that superficial views often miss. There’s a reason that noir fiction and film works best in Los Angeles: the infinite layers of sacred and profane, wild and urban. I once wrote about L.A. somewhere else that it is demented, cynical, and heartbreaking, but also a place where individuality flourishes; it is hallucinatory and real; erotic and kinky, but with a deep and struggling romanticism.