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Alex Free

Alex Free


When I was a child growing up in southwestern Idaho, desert Idaho, the burn cycle was a normal, annual, routine thing. an accepted occurrence. In spring would be a heavy phase of regrowth; in summer all plant life and—it felt, to my young heart—all human relationships would flourish, grow heavy and hot with abundance and life; and in fall the water would begin to run out, and as that resource became thin the hills and the northeastern mountains would catch fire.  


I was a cyclist in all but the winter months, and I saw this drama play out in vivid colors. On longer rides I would bike around the perimeter of a constructed lake and watch year-round as the inlets filled with spring life, then water and an abundance of riparian overgrowth so thick that the fishing boats could not chop through it, then the water peeled back like the skin of a fruit and the dry, caked earth cracked in plates.


And all the colors of these seasons would be elicited by the colors of the sky: in spring a pale white-blue, in summer a heavy yellow-green that was almost fragrant. In fall the smoke would move in to the valley, and the sky and every object under the sky would become copper-colored, as if a penny-filter had been applied to the sun.  

To me this was aesthetic splendor and joy. We received regular, minor air quality warnings in the fall that we by-and-large ignored. Life was to be lived outside instead of squandered indoors, and soon the air would be cleared by the winter storms that would start to roll through and actually trap us inside. In winter things were black and dead and we were all stuck waiting for spring. Everything before then was beautiful, a beauty reaching extremities that threatened the dangerous, but these dangers (like the burn season) were accepted parts of being alive. Of what being alive was all about, why it was worthwhile, even. Certainly it was what was most beautiful.

When the Malibu fires started in the late fall of 2018 and also those in the north of California, and they blossomed and consumed people’s homes, lives, ideas of stability and self, it was the first time I realized and it was also the first time in my life it had been true that, with a burn period, people are hurt. It wasn’t the desolate, unoccupied mountains to the north that were burning, whose dense undergrowth required the burning for new growth to occur, but populated regions, what contained people’s lives—things not meant to burn.

In Los Angeles, where I live now, other’s concern and sense of intense unease over the slight copper singe to the air surprised me. To me it was cyclical, it was normal. Also minor and short-lived compared with what I was used to. I spoke about this with other friends from the northwest and we discussed our disconnect from the fear mentality around us in the southwest: for us, fire was rarely or never associated with loss of human life. Fire was never associated with anything but necessary loss.       

I came to live in California for the first time in fall of 2013, for school. I’d been accepted into a university in Malibu, just off the beach, and I remember my first day running in the Malibu bluffs that overlooked the ocean and thinking to myself: ‘I’ve made it, I’ve really made it.’ And the excess of joy and the high, fierce note of optimism that sounded in my innocent, naïve heart. I’d been looking to escape the loveless winters, and I’d been successful in that, I thought.

I didn’t know and there’s no way I could have known all the joy and love and relationships and loss of and grieving of and lack of feeling that I was about to experience: what would be elicited by the upcoming seasons—what changing colors. I didn’t understand and I couldn’t have understood that part of being an adult is that you’re always leaving something behind, always missing someone. And it was a lesson I would come to learn and learn again in college and my first year after school that you could be hated on the basis of biographical data about you: hated, ridiculed, used, and scorned by others who knew nothing, really, of who you were, but would confusingly pretend intimacy with you to put you more at jeopardy when they revealed how they really felt. That this would teach you not to trust.


It was only with my return to Los Angeles in spring of 2018 and witnessing the fires during that fall that I realized: it is both. It is always and only both. With burning, people are hurt; people are hurt, and maybe what they consider their life is deadened for a long time, and there are material consequences, and the shape of their life and their history and their psyche is permanently altered.  

But there is also regrowth, and there is new growth, and something in destruction of what is necessary for survival. I have been lost, and so heavily disassociated from my own life that there was a time I felt nothing at all, could not speak slow words to myself in a room alone. I felt that I was tethered to myself only by a thin wire and from this elevation, this place of suspension, I monitored myself with a camcorder whose footage I watched later. But at the other end of this experience there was a choice for more understanding, more willingness to engage in mutual recognition and mutually loving relationships, and greater compassion for the diversity of orders and disorders that people truly live with.


Spring, 2019, I went back to Malibu for the first time after leaving it in a state of scarring, and for the first time since the fires and it, too, was scarring. I saw old friends I loved and found that, though we had been distant, they still loved me too. I walked the old beaches and trails that I would walk every other day: from the bluffs down to the wash where the beach opens out and the sands sprawl unimpeded to the highway, and a cold rivulet runs clean, neat down from the Santa Monica mountains, where yellow flowers are beginning to spread in rampant bloom across the fire-scarred ground and red manzanita blackened by char.  

For the first time in my life I am finally old enough to see my first return: things and moments and relationships I thought I’d lost permanently have come back to me. I’ve learned that there is loss, there is sometimes egregious loss and it is unfair and it is pointless, and then life compensates for it, again and again, with abundance, and over-abundance. After periods of hurt and devastation, if we choose it, if we are patient and we work and we are open and we wait, we are rewarded with freshness. A young perspective that is like you’ve never seen this view before, never felt this way before, never been here before and never been hurt here before. You love it almost as much as you did the first time, when everything was new and exactly what you had wanted, and was full of hopes and experiences and relationships and loving ones, and little unexpected moments of giddiness and joy you couldn’t even begin to imagine, when you thought to yourself that you’ve made it, you really made it.


Kristian Askelund

Kristian Askelund

Jan Eric Visser

Jan Eric Visser