Last week’s trip to California was inspiring and exhausting. The most inspiring moment personally was cheering “our” Molly (Richard’s daughter and my step-daughter) as she ran her first marathon, from Calistoga to Napa. In the rain. All 26 miles. She turned 30 years old the week before and is a thyroid cancer survivor, yet she ran strong the whole way, and finished soaking wet and still smiling. She is a beautiful example of resurrection: a life reclaimed. Here’s to you, Molly!
There were other inspiring moments: The sight of emerald green hills, so beautiful to we drought-browned southern Coloradoans, through a break in the cloud cover as our flight descended. Fog wreathing the remnants of redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains and then giving way to sunshine over the wave-flecked expanse of Monterey Bay. The hold-overs from a wintering population of 13,000 monarch butterflies clinging to the cypresses and pines at the butterfly preserve in Pacific Grove–and fluttering to the ground at our feet as they mated. Dozens of spouts and arcing backs in the ocean off the Big Sur coast: gray whales migrating north. The star-spangled heavens over our cabin perched on a cliff-edge at Lucia, where the Milky Way poured shimmering right into the ocean.
The most awesome moment though came as we rounded a bend on California Route One, south of Big Sur, and looked up at the steep mountainsides seared by the Big Sur-Basin fires last summer. Ignited by lightning in a landscape crisped by years of drought, these fires roared from the spine of the Santa Lucia Mountains down to the sea cliffs, blackening 163,000 acres, destroying 26 residences and 32 other buildings, and killing at least one endangered California condor, among many other wild creatures. For five weeks as plumes of smoke towered thousands of feet into the sky over the Big Sur Coast, it seemed as if that spectacular ocean edge with its alternation of shadowy ravines sprouting redwood forest and high ridges plunging directly into the sea would be destroyed.
We could see the effects of the fire as we drove through Big Sur in the charred redwood trunks, blackened ravines, and cliffs charcoal-gray with soot. Over every burned slope though was a haze of new green as grasses, shrubs, and trees fire re-sprouted after the recent rains.
And then when we rounded one bend where the fire had rolled down Pfeiffer Ridge so hot that the steep slopes were denuded and the underlying rocks themselves splintered in the heat, the mountainsides were not only hazed with new green, they flamed all over again with golden patches of California’s state flower, the native California poppy. The fires had cleared the soil for these symbols of the state’s coastal and inland grasslands to sprout and bloom.
At my exclamation of surprise, Richard slowed the car (our ever-so-green rented Toyota Prius hybrid) and pulled over on the side of Route One. While traffic zoomed by, we got out and stood on the road verge open-mouthed, astonished by the carpets of blooming poppies high above. As we took in the sight of those swaths of poppies springing up out of blackened ground, a huge black shape soared out over the ridge top on wide wings with wingtip outstretched like the fingers of a hand. And then another huge black bird, and another, and another, until six California condors floated the ridgetop winds. Ocean waves crashed against the cliffs across the highway. A golden eagle drifted by on a seven-foot-wide wingspan just below the soaring condors, and that eagle looked small.
Richard and I turned to each other, grinning. California poppies blooming with California condors soaring high overhead. Two of the state’s signature species have returned to the wild coast of Big Sur after the fires. That’s no small miracle. It inspires me to look for resurrection in all facets of our lives, our communities, our nation, and our fragile planet in these difficult times.