Coming together ‘when tragedy strikes’: SLVers gather at Brookdale Lodge to measure the loss, face the future
From the snaky residential street that disappears into the redwoods from behind the magnificent old Brookdale Lodge, you can hear the refrains of Wolf Jett’s beautiful neo-gospel song “One Sweet Day”—One sweet day/when my life is finally over/then I don’t have to worry anymore. It’s a song about transcending suffering, about finding the joy that tragedy can’t reach.
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And the Boulder Creek band delivers it with a powerful emotional authority, having lost its recording studio and the home of one of its members in last August’s CZU fires.
The song’s jaunty vibe echoes in these woods in a way that, before last August, it would not have. If you’ve walked this street before, into the forest along Clear Creek, doing so now, post-CZU, is heartbreaking. Before, like countless similar side roads in the San Lorenzo Valley, it was a sun-dappled, cedar-scented path into a kind of redwood fairy garden.
Now, with so much of the greenery denuded, you can see much more than you used to. And what you see are several empty lots, scraped clean of the ruins of the homes destroyed by the fires, some of them with landscaping left behind — a constructed swimming hole in the creek, a footbridge to nowhere — that hints at what used to be there. The deeper you walk up the street, the more “One Sweet Day” fades and yields to the soft gurgle of Clear Creek.
Back down the hill, in the front parking lot of the Brookdale Lodge, a couple of hundred people gathered Wednesday evening to mark the first anniversary of the fires that utterly changed the lives of nearly everyone in the valley. Antonia Bradford, the chief coordinator of the event, hesitated at the word “celebration.”
“There was a sense of impending dread about the anniversary coming up,” said Bradford, who lost her Boulder Creek home to fire. “And we all knew it was going to be hard. And I just looked around and saw that there was no kind of event to —‘ celebrate’ is not the right word— but to reflect on it and come together.”
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But the vibe of the Wednesday event was celebratory, a stage with live music from local bands, each struggling to acknowledge the loss experienced by their community, grilling meats, neighbors and friends drinking wine and beer.
The perimeter was ringed with booths and tables, for the local radio station, for the campaign to rebuild the picturesque Alba Schoolhouse lost in the fire, to create art on the spot to express the feelings of the day. It was a kind of mini-festival.
“Humans are tribal pack animals,” said Bradford. “We come together when tragedy strikes. It’s imperative to our healing.”
There was nothing somber about the block-party atmosphere of the event. But, as host of the festivities, Bradford wanted to acknowledge the pain of the last year, while also pointing out what has emerged from the trauma.
“I’ve made such amazing friendships because of the fire,” she told the audience. The first person to speak to the crowd was Wendy Rose, a woman whose godfather was Tad Jones, the fires’ only human casualty, who died near his home in the Last Chance community.
Another speaker was Chris Copeland, a retired property insurance adjuster who did not lose his home, but has been helping many who did deal with their insurance companies. Copeland, fighting his emotions, stood before the microphone and read some haiku poetry he had composed in the wake of the fires. “Hope. Despair. Fear,” he recited. “Emotions as real as truth or fate or love.”
After the fires, Copeland began teaching free classes on the deck of his home in the Glenwood neighborhood of Boulder Creek. “It switched,” he told me later, “from how to present your claim to how to fight your insurance company, because the companies are doing awful things.”
The most vivid reminder of the tragedy underlying the event was the art displays presented on tables near the front entrance to the lodge. A local artist named Christina Salinas, who has since moved away, presented a table setting from her kitchenware dug out of the ashes of her destroyed home.
Mary Mortensen and her husband Kurt lost their home in Boulder Creek, and she chose to relate her experience in a cut-paper art piece in the style of Matisse, showing silhouetted figures representing the two of them fleeing their home as it caught fire.
“I have no arms because I’m helpless,” she said, pointing to her figure in the artwork. The date on the piece was a year to the day before she was showing it to me at the Brookdale Lodge.
Nearby was a collection of small items pulled from the ash of what was left from her home. “I was emotionally attached to nearly everything I owned,” she said. “I was one of those people. So this has been very, very hard for me.”
Anil Prajapati lost two homes in the fires, his family’s primary residence in Boulder Creek, and another house he owned near Last Chance. He also had gathered some of the damaged artifacts he found buried in the ash of his home, and arranged them on a table to give dimension to the loss. One broken souvenir coffee cup had on it an image of the Twin Towers lost during 9/11.
“Between these few little relics and what I was able to take with me, that’s all that’s left,” said Prajapati. “It’s been a huge emotional rollercoaster throughout. It takes you back to a journey of all the losses you’ve had in other areas, like relationships, losing a loved one, like I lost my brother six, seven years ago. So, it’s really about knowing what we lost. But it’s also, for me, it’s like my way to say goodbye.”
At his feet while he spoke was a small, ceramic likeness of the Great Sphinx, with the artist’s name carved at its feet. It wasn’t quite salvaged from the fire, since Prajapati didn’t know it was there in the first place. The sphinx was buried near a fence on his property, a bizarre and purely symbolic gain amidst so much loss. It may take Prajapati time to figure out that symbolism.
“I mean, I was driving down the driveway from my burning-down house,” he remembered. “And I saw it in the rear-view mirror. I was like, what is that head looking at me? Yep, that was unexpected.”