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Al Martinez

Ashes in the Rain

March 20, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

I stood at this very place last October on a trail that looked toward the ocean, when the trees were black and the earth still smoking.

Fire of awful intensity had burned through the Santa Monica Mountains, and one could not avoid the impression that the whole world had died in flames, and nothing would ever grow again where the soil itself still smoldered.

But I had forgotten the strengths of life that lie in the land.

When I returned last weekend to the once-smoking slopes of Charmlee Park, I was therefore amazed to see what rain and time and the wondrous nature of revival had accomplished in the hills above Malibu.

Isolated patches of green grass gleamed like emeralds in the rain, wet with the storm that had just passed through, isolated by diagonals of sunlight streaking through the dark and heavy clouds.

Wildflowers glowed with hues of lavender, pink and gold, ribbons of almost luminescent brilliance that wound among the dips and curves of Encinal Canyon, too bold and breathtaking to seem real.

But there is a wonder here even beyond beauty, a perfect natural mechanism to assure an abundance of life where the earth once seemed lifeless.

Consider the purple phacelia.

It especially glowed in a kind of mist-shimmering radiance along the south-facing slopes of the mountains, with color of such intensity that its petals seemed to vibrate in the mottled sunlight, revealing tones and depths the eye does not instantly perceive.

The phacelia is a native plant, but more than that it is a fire-follower, its seeds germinating quickly in burned-over soil, fed by nutrients from the ashes themselves, pushing up through the charred earth to dress the land with rainbows and to prove once more that life is a powerful condition.

I was told all this as I stared like a child at the awesome beauty of the wildflowers growing among the still-charred laurel sumacs, whose bare and blackened branches reached like fingers from the grave toward an iron-gray sky.

"Life will not be held back," a woman I know only as Daphne announced to those of us who had gathered on the slope to hike with the California Native Plant Society. "It will burst right through."

For me, that's the wonder of it. Life is no willow in the wind, my friends, but a great howling force that can survive the fiery holocausts, a miracle of tenacity and restoration that will not be denied, not ever.

The French playwright Jean Giraudoux was right when he said a flower is the perfect poetry of reproduction.

One saw it everywhere in Charmlee Park, from the glowing purple radiance of phacelia in the storm light to the clumps of emerald green at the crown of the

blackened oak trees.

"Have you ever seen anything like it?" Daphne asked. "Have you ever seen anything like it in your life?"

I wondered as I stood by the fire trail whether the Easter story of resurrection itself was rooted in the wonder of rebirth that lies in the clockwork of nature; a way of explaining a beauty which, almost 2000 years later, still seems unexplainable.

Did they witness a devastation beyond their ability to understand? Did they despair in a winter of pain and destruction that spring would ever come again, only to watch the ancient wildflowers push through the rain-drenched soil?

Did they translate the resurgence of new life into a tidier religious concept to embrace a miracle too large, too awesome, too beautiful and too complex to otherwise define?

I think so.

I experienced that feeling here on the hillside in the rain as a new storm whispered in from the sea and as new life touched the mountains with pastel, where once the blast-furnace firestorms had come down the Santa Anas to set the trees flaming and the soil smoldering.

This is, after all, what we are all about, the carriers of life forward past the fires to a yet undefined goal, enhanced by nutrients of the spirit to bring beauty back to the burned fields.

The hike was over. The day was too wet and cold to tramp about in, but it didn't matter. For me, the walk had begun and ended where the purple wildflowers grew, where the forces of life proved once more too much for an arsonist's madness.

Someone, I don't know who, said, "God gave us memory so we would have roses in winter."

And wildflowers to ponder the quintessential mysteries of the beauty that follows calamity.

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