After the Fires
mezzo and piano
duration: 5 Minutes
After the Fires was by commissioned Sasha Cooke
In August 2020 a ferocious wildfire ripped through Bonny Doon, California, the semi-rural community where I grew up and where my parents still live. These days fires have become frighteningly commonplace across California, particularly in the late summer and early fall, but this one touched especially close to home. My parents’ house was spared but Bonny Doon lost close to a third of its houses including many belonging to our friends. Elementary school mates of mine, now grown up, stayed behind to fight the fires with hand tools, walkie-talkies, and improvised equipment, posting updates online. I was on the East Coast during this time, following the events through their Facebook posts, as well as Twitter threads and satellite heat maps, feeling helpless and distant, uncertain of the fate of our house, but in other ways oddly and randomly well-informed. After spending so much time imagining our home burning and worrying about the toll the evacuation was taking on my parents, it was a strange experience to return later in the fall to find the little nook around my parents’ house mostly unchanged except for a layer of white ash dusted across the ivy, ferns and redwoods.
That fall, as librettist Liza Balkan and I began to talk about writing a song together, I sent her all sorts of information about the fires: videos, tweets, interviews, articles, and my own informal writing. Liza ended up drawing mostly on what I had written about my family’s experience, refining, culling and re-forming my sketchy writings into a poem of sorts. Something about this process of retelling seemed right for an event that I myself only experienced second-hand. Though many of us in the last year have had to face calamity and great loss straight on, I think even more of us have experienced the world in an oddly oblique manner, one step removed, wondering how to make sense of things, imagining worst-case scenarios, marveling both at the fickle nature of the world and the bravery and perseverance of others.