I have a hundred stories of the Woolsey Fires, but this one is the strangest.
Our house on Point Dume in Malibu survived the Woolsey Fire—thanks to neighbors who stayed behind and battled spot fires for three days—but many in our neighborhood did not. Five houses burned on our street. A river of flame poured through the heart of my neighborhood, destroying hundreds of houses.
On the day we returned to our home after the mandatory evacuation lifted, I found a burnt and blackened scrap of paper in the garden. It was the kind of ember that a week before might have carried flame from a burning house to one that had not yet burned.
I photographed the blackened ember with my phone, as a reminder of how close we had come to losing all of our houses. When I uploaded the image to my computer, I was surprised to find I could read words on the paper: “leaf and bloom,” “the river runs” “abandoned,” and “crying.”
It was enough to reveal that it was part of a page from the French Renaissance humanist François Rabelais’ grotesquely humorous book “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” from a chapter that described a burned and desolate country.
This scrap of paper, with its lament for a scorched land, was carried on the winds that drove the fire from someone’s vanished library into our garden. What are the odds that I should find it and still be able to read it? I have no doubt it was a message, one from the Twilight Zone to the Woolsey burn zone.
Neither was it more scorched and dried up with heat in the days of Elijah than it was at that time; for there was not a tree to be seen that had either leaf or bloom upon it. The grass without verdure of greenness, the rivers were drained, the fountains dried up, the poor fishes, abandoned and forsaken by their proper element, wandering and crying upon the ground most horribly.”
—Rabelais, “Gargantua and Pantagruel”