Fire and Rain: Community and Crisis

Posted by on Jun 13, 2019 in Blog


This is not the editorial you were supposed to read in this issue of IMCJ. The original piece was about integrative medicine personalities and marketing and loss of soul—you know, pretty much the same opinionated meanderings you have come to expect in this column.

But something happened last night at about 1 o’clock in the morning: A wake-up call from a neighbor, and a glance out of my bedroom window revealing a very large, beautiful glow in the hills to the northwest. Beautiful and deadly, for if you live in Big Sur, California, you know such luminescence means only one thing: fire. And northwest means only one thing as well: Pfeiffer Ridge, the most populated and inaccessible region of this town of 2000 inhabitants. Given that the fire season was officially declared over last week, the air tankers and helicopters that are necessary to fight a mountain blaze have been mothballed for the winter, meaning a far too long response time ahead. As I finish this last sentence, the first little California Department of Forestry copter is finally hovering outside my window, lowering its slender hose into the Packard Ranch’s pond across Highway 1, 9 hours after the blaze began. Soon the air will be filled with aircraft of all kinds, flying into unstable superheated air masses to drop a ton of water from their bellies, only to be spit out, suddenly weightless, from the top of the inferno. But 20 homes have already been lost—homes of my friends, and neighbors, and patients. And more homes are now catching fire, even as I pen these words.

Long-term readers may recall my piece from October of 2008 entitled “Nature’s Way,” where I related my own 7-week exile from my home because of what was then christened the Big Sur Basin Fire. My house was saved, courtesy of an anonymous fire crew, but 4 out of 7 neighbors lost everything they owned. I spent the first 2 weeks assuming I, too, had been wiped out before sneaking back up the ridge against sheriff department orders to see what might be left.

Think of it for a moment—how it would feel to suddenly find out that your home, your family heirlooms, your musical instruments and business files and all manner of belongings you do not even remember possessing were just gone. In such a circumstance, “things” take on a different, personal value—not just objects, but illustrations of past moments, and choices, and loves kept and broken during this unique experience we call life. I revisited the power of such a loss on the faces of my friends this morning as they arrived at the local restaurants that have now become shelters.

We have become so inexorably attached to the trappings of existence that we forget what is real in this world—so concerned with our feelings over what this research paper says or that legislative bill omits or how anything and everything affects our financial or emotional bottom line—that we have lost contact with the actual reality around us. We forget that we are slow, weak creatures with little fur and no fangs who cannot even see in the dark, and that it is only through cooperation and care for one another that we even survive. This is what is happening not a mile from me at this moment: neighbors helping each other load pickup trucks with treasures and hosing down homes despite the heat at their backs. Knowing that it is likely futile to fight, but by God they are not going down without one. This is community.

So why is it that we are not of such a mind except when confronted with crisis? Why do we not stand side by side to confront the conflagration of ills our overcrowded society faces, rather than blame each other’s ideology? It is, my dear friends, because we are incredibly spoiled. Overindulged, pampered, coddled by technology and media to the point we cannot tell the difference between marketing and actual life. Until suddenly there is a death of a loved one, or a loss of employment, or of health. Or a fire, or the flood that inevitably follows once the delinquent rains of winter arrive to wash away denuded hills. And suddenly it does not matter whether pharmaceuticals are evil or botanicals are a sham or who gets to be named keynote speaker. It just matters that our neighbor is alive and has a warm place to sleep.

So if you are safe in your home as you read this, look up at the ones busying themselves or playing in the room next to you. Just watch them for a few moments. And then, for just a second imagine they are gone.

Now what was it that was so important a moment ago?

Bill Benda, MD writes a column called “Backtalk” for the Integrative Medicine Clinician’s Journal