In July of 1987, an old English lady drove me around the Oxford countryside. While we curved through the greenest hills I’d ever seen, she told me stories about the region, spinning the elegant sentences that come from a lifetime of hearing Shakespeare. I was 16 and serving on a team at her thriving church in Didcot. She slowed between hedgerows and bumped across a stone bridge over a creek, interrupting her story to say, “That was the Thames.”
She enjoyed my shocked expression. She knew that the Thames in my mind was the mighty river flowing by Parliament in London, not the brook we’d just crossed.
Landscape talks to us—sometimes even making jokes.
I asked her about World War II, when she had been a child in this valley. Though London was more than fifty miles away, she said that the German bombs pounding the city at night rattled the window panes of her bedroom. Imagine falling asleep to the vibrations of bombs. Her own home would have spoken about violence ever after with each rattle of glass.
The English landscape has reminders of the war everywhere. I stood in the ruin of Coventry Cathedral later that summer, preserved in its shattered state as a memorial to the German air raids. Tall shards of stone with grass growing in their midst are all that remain of a house of worship. It is a new holy place, where a crowd of people will not make any noise. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX, where John Kennedy was shot, is another place shrouded in silence, even though life goes on around it.
Paradise, CA, devastated by the Camp Fire on November 8th, is often compared to a war zone. When my wife and I finally drove through it a month ago, the abandoned, burned out cars had been removed, the power lines repaired, and litter from the flight of 20,000 people replaced with signs saying, “Paradise Strong.” But the impact remained searing.
The buildings were carved open, their insides lying in tangled heaps. Metal pipes, awnings, and gutters were twisted like broken limbs. Surprising views across the hills had been blasted through walls and trees. Those trees had created the town’s feeling of shelter as if covering the inhabitants with hands, but the place now feels exposed. Off the streets where our friends had been trapped amid flames by traffic, there were neat rows of flattened mobile homes, looking like beds in a ward.
The very dirt speaks as it rides away from town in hundreds of trucks every day. Six inches of topsoil will be scraped off the ridge because it is contaminated by burned pollutants. There are deeper problems too. The entire town was on septic systems. I recently heard about a septic tank made of plastic that melted underground, its toxic contents seeping out. The business that owns it still stands, and might be open if it weren’t for the contamination. There are questions about reservoirs and aquifers. What do they say about this fire?
The land of America’s west has always talked about possibilities. It has never been like the land in Europe, or even the eastern U.S., which holds ruins and battlefields and graves to tell us about tragedies that overwhelmed human achievements. In our part of California, the land is teaching us a moral reality that is older than climate change, and more pertinent. All that we attain in this world is temporary.
But there is another message from the land. Grass appeared when much-needed rain came after the fire—in doses somewhat too large. Driving south only weeks after the hills were charred, I was amazed to see them green. In Paradise itself, the grass covers the burn scar, as if holding a balm on the soil, the pipes, and the blackened bricks. Life grows inside the ruin, and overflows beyond it.
The land will preach to us for many years that the world is fallen, groaning with expectation for a permanent life. And so the land will also preach hope.