I Can See Clearly Now

The party was going swell. ANC publisher Doni Chamberlain threw a soiree for the site’s online Carr Fire Scholarship auction that featured the finest in local foodstuffs and adult beverages, and my beloved and I were fortunate enough to be on the guest list two Fridays ago.

Living as we do in the tinderbox forest east of Redding, we don’t get out as much as we’d like, and it was invigorating to mix and mingle with interesting people, most of whom actually appreciate my writing.

As the wine and beer flowed, so did the conversation. Subjects discussed included basketball, the Carr and Camp Fires, the recently concluded midterm elections and the state of American journalism. Like I said, things were going swell. But I like beer, and nature made its inevitable call. I excused myself and made my way to the bathroom.

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It was an impeccably decorated lavatory and I believe there was some potpourri about. I finished my business and stooped slightly to flush the toilet. Just as it began gurgling, my glasses, which were hanging from my shirt collar, fell off and plunked into the bowl of swirling water and urine.

There they were, my brand new glasses, with expensive progressive lenses, submerged in the bowl, which was now beginning to rumble with an impending flush. I instinctively reached for them, jamming my hand down the toilet up to mid-forearm.

Too slow! The glasses eluded my grasp and were swept away by the torrent, into the depths of the local sewer system, along with any self-esteem I’d gained in the aforementioned conversations.

As I vigorously washed my hands, I considered denying the incident had occurred. I need my glasses for driving, but I wasn’t wearing them at the party. No one would be the wiser.

Then it occurred to me that maybe they hadn’t been flushed all the way down the sewer. Maybe they were caught in that loop in the piping beneath some toilets. Meaning the next person to use the johnny for anything besides No. 1 was in for an unpleasant surprise.

I sucked it up and walked out of the bathroom.

“I just flushed my glasses down the toilet,” I announced, instantly becoming the life of the party.

After we finished laughing at my expense, I tried to shrug off the loss. My new prescription isn’t too different than the previous one, I’ve got plenty of spare pairs, etc. I’d only just gotten the glasses, so I really wasn’t too attached to them.

But before my spirits were fully lifted, an ominous report came from the bathroom: the toilet was overflowing.

My beloved and I slunk away from the party shortly after that. On the way home, I resigned myself to the loss. My new glasses were gone now, lost in the subterranean labyrinth between toilet bowl and sewage treatment plant. It was unfortunate punctuation to an evening that until then had required very little editing.

Thus I was pleasantly surprised when Doni informed me by email the next morning that her plumber, “who should have been a surgeon,” had retrieved my glasses intact. However, they were not exactly in pristine condition, as the attached photo attested:

My shiny new progressive lenses.

The image was exactly what I expected glasses that had been lost in the effluent limbo to look like. I was once a freckled-faced boy, and I recalled a joke my grade-school buddies used to tease me with on the playground.

“Where were you when the shit hit the fan?” they’d taunt, adding, after my bewildered pause, “Right in front of it!”

I laughed out loud at the recovered memory. The image of my retrieved spectacles was a metaphor for my life, at least as a journalist. I imagine I can see clearly, but my vision is just as obscured as the next scribe’s. It helps to clean your glasses, frequently.

But here’s the real punchline.

It turns out Doni’s friend doctored my glasses with tiny bits of tissue paper and chocolate frosting to prank me. Doni didn’t let me in on the gag until several hours later, when she emailed me and assured me that it was all her friend’s idea, she would never play a practical joke like that on anyone.

Right. Anyway, it turned out to be a swell party after all.

In the heart of the tinderbox forest.

The Rain is Gone

It’s Saturday afternoon and after three-and-half days, the rain has finally stopped. We’re all breathing a sigh of relief up here in Whitmore, in the heart of the tinderbox forest 30 miles east of Redding. The 3 to 4 inches of precipitation we received was more than forecast and enough to temporarily tamp down the risk of an errant spark kicking off a catastrophic wildfire in the area.

There’s more rain on the way, and it appears one of the most horrendous fire seasons in California’s modern history is nearing its end. But for those of us who live in a hazardous fire zone that somehow escaped this year’s conflagrations, there’s no time for celebrating. The arrival of the rainy season means it’s time to tune up the chainsaws and get to work.

If it rains enough, it also means it’s time to burn things, dead trees, brush and other forest residue in open slash piles. I already see an enormous slash pile out my window smoldering away 7 miles down the hill. A neighbor told me it was Cal-Fire conducting a prescribed burn, which is reassuring. Better that trained experts with the proper equipment do the burning, rather than amateurs such as myself. Just because we got a little rain doesn’t mean the woods aren’t still dry as a bone. It’ll take a lot more rain than we’ve had so far before I’ll feel comfortable burning brush on our 8-acre property.

We moved here five years ago, and by now have grown accustomed to maintaining the 100-ft. safe space around the house and the garage. This past winter was the first time it rained enough for us to to burn the piles of vegetation that had been accumulating for four years.

One of the piles was the size of a school bus and instantly burst into flames when I set a torch to it, even in the driving rain. It scared the hell out of me for a second, but the flames died down and the entire pile was reduced to a remarkably small pile of ashes in less than 15 minutes. That’s when I truly understood fire was going to be a useful tool for cleaning up our property.

I’ve since come to understand that our property is not exactly the natural forest I once imagined it to be. It’s not natural for all of these smaller trees and shrubs to be growing up between the towering pines and cedars. This is the second generation forest that arose after the area was heavily logged many decades ago.

In a natural setting, fire would have burned all the smaller trees and bushes, allowing the fire-adapted larger trees to thrive. But thanks to decades of fire suppression—to protect private and public property—much of California’s forestland is in the same condition as our eight acres: packed with underbrush and ready to explode with the next lightening strike or malfunctioning high-tension wire.

Clearing 100 feet of safe space is one thing; that’s relatively doable by two people. Clearing 8 acres of forest is quite another. Assuming we could do the work required to remove the underbrush, how would we dispose of it? If it rains enough, we could burn it all. If it doesn’t, what do we do with it? Just let it sit there and decay? Chip it and sell it to one of the local biomass plants? Is there even a market for that?

I confess I do not yet know the answers to these questions, but I’m determined to find out. I’ve got 900 neighbors within a 10-mile radius, some of them have lived here all their lives, and a few of them have become so concerned about the danger they established the Whitmore Fire Safe Council earlier this year.

The community-based fire education and prevention group aims to help residents become more fire ready by improving defensible spaces around homes. It is also establishing and providing maps for escape routes and evacuation centers.

One particular concern is that most of the 2000 rural residents of Whitmore and nearby Oak Run, including myself, don’t have cellular phone service. That means Shasta County’s Code Red emergency notification system, which is shifting to cellular, will not reach us if catastrophe strikes. A petition is being circulated requesting that the county explore placing a cell tower in the area.

It’s easy to become a hermit living out here in the woods, to go it alone. But I can see clearly now. To truly make our property safe from fire, I’m going to need some help. The next Whitmore Fire Safe Council meeting is Tuesday night. I’ll be there.

My life may depend upon it.


R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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