The Fires This Time

A mutual aid fair at Lents Park commemorated the 100th (or 101st) day of protest for Black lives and against police brutality. | Portland, Oregon, September 5th

| UNDER THE SHELTERING SKY

This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at admin@vomb.org.

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign

No more water, the fire next time”

—Mary Don’t You Weep, Traditional

By Mara Reynolds

Hot, hot days, even in Oregon, recall for me the icy-hot tingling scent of bay leaves baking in high sun. I’m transported back to childhood summers: spiriting between bright pockets of sunshine tucked within the deep, dark woods of the Santa Cruz mountains. The thick musk of redwood closely follows the spicy bay, then cold heavy wisps of damp undersoil. Home. 

Watching the fires burn this summer from my work-at-home desk in my stuffynow smokyapartment in Portland (so close and yet a world away), I sense instead the imbalanced faintness of that moisture, and smell California’s ashes even through my computer: the acrid and oily bay, the charcoaled manzanita and madrone, the smoldering, smoky redwood duff, mingling now with the last old growth douglas firs and oak.

This summer has clipped along outside almost unnoticed, as my collection of screens have been a consistent buzz of group texts and Signal threads, a metronome of hollow clicks reloading updates on any number of apps and websites, monitoring an increasing number of crises.

Live-streams, across the nation and up and down the coast; checking in with loved ones in various hotspots while screening for the latest updates from strangers on the ground on social media. Reviewing countless horrific videos, to bear witness; feeling shamefully spared and safe (knock on wood) even as I wonder what to put in my go-bag. Relentless calls to action; donation requests to supply. Fundraiser after fundraiser after fundraiser. Memes to break the tension. Fire, fire everywhere.

I’ll be honest, I regularly forget about the pandemic these days.

(Until another elder passes, or someone in someone’s pod spikes a fever and yet another gear of daily life grinds to a halt, shuddering, waiting, hoping it’s just a pause. Knowing it will be different again if and when things do resume. I carry on to the extent I can, meanwhile, and knock on wood again.)

In addition to the ongoing crisis of the fires, there’s the increasingly bright spotlight on the nightly protests in Portland, my home-away-from-hometown for half my life. In recent weeks, a strange and perhaps very regionally-specific sort of double-think has emerged in my mind:

BLM — is that Black Lives Matter or Bureau of Land Management? 

Seaside — California or Oregon? 

PPE — N95 and hand sanitizer or gas masks and bullet-proof vests? 

The first name brought to my attention was Kendra James, who was killed by Portland police months before I moved here in 2003 for college. It of course wasn’t until after I graduated years later—moved into the city and became an active member of various communities—that I learned about Kendra and in time, many others; about Oregon’s white exclusionist origins and my neighbors’ ongoing complaints about Portland police violence, which consistently targets the intersections of Black communities, the homeless, and those in mental health crisis.

Despite a parade of so-called reforms and progressive leaders, the increasing violence of local police and the various agencies with which they work has only been rewarded with inflated budgets, a sham oversight process and a seemingly bottomless cache of military equipment and chemical weapons forbidden by international law in war.

So, it is not at all surprising to me that Portland has persisted in its nightly protests against police brutality and systemic racism following the pivotal murder of George Floyd.

For more than a hundred nights, I’ve found myself closely tracking these protests, mostly from afar but present enough to be glad I invested in a decent gas mask. My now-useless press pass has been swapped out for a field first-aid kit, and I even have a dedicated pair of protest shoes: sneakers I keep in a plastic bag because the tear gas (a catch-all term for any number of powdered chemical agents) just won’t come off — or rather, comes off in the worst way. Its stinging scent mingles with the smell of burning trees in my mind, newly definitive of summer.

In recent months I’ve watched my so-called “antifa” community respond to repeated attacks and escalation with liquid grace and creativity. Groups and individuals have spontaneously organized to crowdsource everything from herbal self-care packages for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community organizers to cash for bail and Stop the Bleed training.

Loosely affiliated networks of bakers, mechanics, gardeners, moms, dads, lawyers, chemists, shield-makers, therapists, medical providers, opticians, artists, journalists and more have popped up like mushrooms to support the message that Black lives matter, rally around one another’s work, and provide direct services for our communities.

Mornings, a group meets to pick up trash; another provides curbside comfort and resources for protesters as they’re released from police custody; others bring fresh coffee and pastries to the Native American group praying at sunrise by the river.

Anguished calls in the street to “burn it down” translate in reality to strangers working together to build trust, safety and security within their communities. At heart, this is a budget issue, and our efforts reflect the investments we’d like to see — except for the need to invest in defensive gear against police and heavily armed white supremacists, not that part.

Across state lines and through the internet, I watch my Santa Cruz community mobilize to support those impacted by the pandemic and fires there, with new and heightened attention to the systemic imbalances that long preceded these disasters. A growing clarity of possibility and purpose emerges as the smoke clears. And with it, a deep exhaustion at the relentlessness of it all.

While many of these efforts began long ago, the protests, much like the fires and the pandemic, have laid bare both the need for and the achievability of this work: we need and can provide for one another. Why would we ever not?

But also, how do we keep this up?

Drink Water, Be Water, Stick Together, a protest flyer reminds me–a nod to a Bruce Lee quote adopted as a key strategy and motto by protesters in Hong Kong. Drink water, be water, stick together, I remind myself. Water is life. 

Screens or not, I can’t escape the obvious connection: the fires, the pandemic, the protests—all of them are (at least in part) a result of having ignored and dehumanized people of color, and all are resulting in disproportionately harmful impacts to these very same communities.

These conflagrations will continue, joining forces and spreading, as long as our daily lives provide the fuel.

In Portland, the counter-protesters are back again; they come back every summer, every weekend now. It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys anymore. I return, compulsively, to find screens vomiting updates about a shooting unfolding downtown. Days later, it’s the cops shooting the shooter. Soon, the tear gas is so pervasive it reaches pregnant women and babies in their own homes; a man is concussed by police on his own front yard when he asks them to stop.

Smoke and cinders lumber in with the windstorm. The mall parking lot which a week ago filled with flag-bearing trucks is now home to evacuees from the fires.

Rumors spark about who did what, to whom, exactly where and under what circumstances. The vague details upon which passions pivot on all sides reveal the frankly absurd but potently dangerous fraughtness of the moment. News shifts and whips with the wind. Green leaves and brittle branches lash through the air amid ashen, dusty whirlwinds. The lights go out and a wall of smoke descends.

I feel in my gut the prolonged sharpness of the point upon which we tip. As loved ones return to their homes—some in ashes—in California, the lights flicker back on and evacuation notices go out across my entire county in Oregon. I charge my screens in case the power goes again and start finally to pack the go-bag. No word of an action yet tonight.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The smoke will show you. 

The smell of bay leaves, tear gas and ashes burn my eyes and the back of my throat.

Be Water. Be water. Be water.

Stick together.

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Mara Reynolds

About Mara Reynolds

Mara Reynolds is a fourth-generation Santa Cruzan and a third-generation journalist currently living in Portland, Oregon, where she also works as an editor, artist, educator and herbalist.