Just months ago, I clamored through thickets of willow and blackberry with the usual lack of grace when off-trail, but today I walk through the La Sierra Preserve with ease. The variegated range of chaparral and sage scrub have burned down to a monotonous scene of black sooty hills, diversified here and there by the skeletons of scrub oak and ceanothus that remain. The scene has an eerie beauty, and my senses are ablaze, so to speak, with every subtlety that tells me more of the land’s traumatic experience.
The roads around me are still closed, and the resulting silence accentuates every sound in the valley. With each step a unique noise is produced. At first I hear the muted shifting of ash beneath my feet, the next is sharper and crunchier, where the blaze was less severe and organic matter remains. As I tiptoe closer to the streambed my nose flares from the smoldering remains of a sycamore, but I’ve reached my destination. La Sierra Creek lies dry, naked, and exposed before me, its banks which were once adorned with vines and flowers are blanketed in white ash. My eyes take in every detail, but my instruments will tell the full story.
I shake myself from the ashy daze and get to work measuring the channel. Its slope, width, and texture all feed into the story of this valley. Like pieces of a puzzle, each measurement I take contributes to a larger picture of the land’s recovery. With the coming rains these channels will fill with sediment washed down from the canyons, and these cobbles that I measure will disappear beneath silt once held by the vegetated slopes. With our extended fire season I’ve become rather accustomed to this type of work – and the process now fascinates me. In a year this channel with be flat and planar, more prone to flooding while it remains choked by the sediments, but as vegetation regrows and storms flush through the system, my cobbles will return.
I walk silently out of the valley, content for now with what information I’ve gathered. Along the way I see persistence. Deer tracks, gopher mounds, ants, and beetles flank my own footprints impressed upon the ash – more puzzle pieces that contribute to this gorgeous, heartbreaking cycle. Growing up in combustible California I’ve learned to love these jarring landscapes of ash and rock. Someday the carpet of chaparral will return, and the process, oftentimes, can be as beautiful as the result.