The Phoenix

A part of me thinks: the Pheonix isn’t a bird. A part of me thinks: the Phoenix must surely be a plant. Maybe all plants. Maybe a tree.

On July 5th I got a call. “Could you come and assess the fire damage to our garden? We’ll be here all day tomorrow.” Of course. Yes. Look for me in the afternoon.

I needed to go to the burn. I needed to have a reason to go, but I needed to go.  I needed to be present to the charred, the changed, the aftermath, and to the spared.

As I wound up Flying W Ranch Road, sights I’d seen over and again in the media stood there for real. In the neighborhood where I had once worked and my friend, Susan, had once lived, 149 homes lay heaped into their foundations. My heart rose to my throat in a cry.

Swinging left up Chuckwagon, I faced the massive stand of blackened Ponderosa.

Along Linger Way, a cul-de-sac overlooking the city, no house obscured the view.

At the top of Wilson Road, on the west side and flanking the Flying W, three houses gone. One unscathed. I stopped and walked up to the one still standing. Towering Ponderosa, softly whistling in a breeze, but brown.

All around the house, every tree and shrub, every perennial, every annual, brown. It was like walking into a sepia toned photo.

Ten days earlier, on June 26, a firestorm swept down the rugged hills above this home. A blast of heat traveling 65 miles per hour flash-dried leaves, needles, stem tips, flowers. A rain of embers pelted the garden. I can imagine them sizzling in the damp lawn. When they fell into a Mahonia here, an errant juniper there, even the shredded tree mulch, they flared. A patch of Himalayan Border Jewel, next to the front walk blackened. The home, however, had been well-mitigated against wildfire. Firefighters were able to douse the flares.

Gathering my wits, I examined each plant, closely. As I opened smokey stems and peered under sooty leaves, I saw green. After only three douses from the hose, new leaves pushed out along stems. Rosettes flourished on the soil.

I was reminded of entering a garden some days after the first frost had paid a nipping visit. Of course, that’s why we sometimes refer to a frost or freezer burn. The desiccating effect is so similar.

What is the appropriate response to such plant trauma?

For the shrubs and trees, it’s quite simple. Wait and water. Go around every day and applaud each new leaf. Stand in awe. Once they are truly into recovery, maybe a month after the heat blast, prune away what didn’t survive. I’ll probably give them all a gentle foliar tonic of seaweed extract, too.

For perennials and annuals: I cut away the dead. The annuals got a weak fertilization. And I filled the gaps and replaced the perished with gorgeous new stuff. Out of pure gratitude, the homeowners agreed to let everything which had survived stay, even if it will be weeks before they produce another blossom.

Astonishingly, none of the hummingbird feeders, glazed ceramic containers, nor faux terracotta tubs were damaged by the heat.

Behind the upright fuchsia, a red star cordyline and magenta geranium, though somewhat skeletal, are growing like Ethyl Merman sings, full tilt: Everything’s coming up roses.

From the destruction and the ash.

The Phoenix must truly be a plant.

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14 thoughts on “The Phoenix

  1. Cheryl, beautiful post. Two things struck me as I read your words and looked at your photos. The first, I was reminded of “The Secret Garden,” how with some care and love, a walled garden was brought back to life — and the contrast between the charred land in the background and the color in life (a little like Dorothy taking her first steps into Oz). Plants and people alike are fortunate to have you.

  2. Dear Heart – I can just feel your experience and cry of the Heart for the loss of all living beings and the devastating destruction… My heart goes out to everyone there… And of course excited to know that the Heart of Life rekindles itself as well!

  3. You photos the last couple of postings sure give the scope of fire damage in your area. When I see that I am glad to be gardening here on the shores of Lake Michigan. The lake adds much to the gardens and to the photos which often contain the lake. Glad to have the water even if this Summer is hotter than usual here too, but not like what you have been having. Jack

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jack.

      I once gardened near the shore of Lake Superior. It’s always “cooler by the lake” in both a literal and figurative sense. Yes?

  4. So sorry for your loss. We endured a fire on our mountain, two miles away. All was well here, but I worry for the little creatures on the mountain.

    • Oh! It’s so true! Each time I revisit the garden I’m helping to restore, I hear birds off in the charred landscape, but I long to see the wild turkeys who roamed through so regularly.

      Thank you, so much for stopping by, for your empathy and concern.

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