Paradise Lost

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“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”

  • William Cowper (1773 poem: ‘Light Shining Out of Darkness’)

In June 2008 the Humboldt fire swept through Paradise, CA, a town of 27,000 in the Sierra Nevada. It scorched 23,000 acres. As many as 10,000 residents were evacuated.

Before that, I used to jest that my sister reached Paradise before the rest of us, but the fire put an end to such talk.

The town seemed to have been misnamed.

It is tempting at such times to inquire, as did the disciples of the Gospels, who was to blame. Was this the wrath of the Almighty in response to iniquity on the scale of what once existed in Sodom and Gomorrah?

Such inquiry, if it occurred at all, was likely met by silence.

Iniquity resides in the heart of man, and has ever since the Fall, but the town of Paradise, to a casual observer, did not seem particularly wicked.

Even if it were, would God’s wrath be visited on it in such a manner as widespread conflagration?

She and her husband escaped with their lives and little else. A few things, including a laptop computer, they were able to take with them. All that remained on their 11 acres was a water pump and the foundation of their erstwhile house.

They fled to nearby Chico and mulled what to do. Rebuild? Sell? Insurance payments muted the pain of their loss, but they still needed to make a decision.

They had multiple factors to consider. Their children were scattered throughout the country. As were their grandkids. Ruth was not gainfully employed. Tim was near the end of his career. They conceivably could relocate almost anywhere.

They sought wisdom from a place none of us can see or have physical access to. Yet we can access it. Communication in a dimension we don’t understand occurs back and forth along the invisible ladder that reaches from earth to sky, the one Jacob glimpsed in his dark night of the soul, a rock for a pillow.

It was still somewhat surprising to me that they decided to sell their acreage and relocate from Butte County.

I don’t know what kind of sign — if any — they sought. Maybe it was a modern equivalent of Gideon’s fleece. Perhaps not. Few if any of us use such tangible evidence anymore. That may be our failing.

Northeastern WA state seemed in the middle of nowhere. The small town they chose was close to the Columbia River and the Canadian border. It was not particularly near family or friends, and seemed decidedly more rural than was Paradise.

So they moved into a multilevel house with log cabin facade, the kind Abe Lincoln might have hewn in his prime.

She worked on music (she has a M. M. in organ performance; I attended her recital and can say, at the risk of seeming partial, it was sublime), and he worked as a valued EMT for the community.

Both are altruistic, and continued to do good. As Mother Teresa observed, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put into the doing.” They both had plenty of love to give.

They took in strangers, some of whom were difficult; were active in their local church, and kept busy.

For a time, they took in a foreign exchange student. They were the kind of people who would do that. Not all of us are.

More recently, they took in Tim’s brother. Tim had promised their mother, before she died, that he would look after Mike. Mike has some mental health issues and has spent years homeless, on the streets.

I asked their son once, “Why did they choose to move to Northport?” He mulled a bit, then admitted he didn’t know.

Meanwhile Tim, who is probably the handiest fellow I know, remodeled a rental house they’d bought practically single-handed.

He installed a motorized elevator chair to access the upper level of their own 2-story house (stairways are steep).

One of Ruth’s daughters recently underwent double lung transplant surgery and is still in the early phase of recovery.

Time marched on.

It waits for no one, least of all for those who may watch the clock.

But I still would wonder from time to time, why did they not stay in Paradise?

Then, recently, the Camp Fire came a 2nd time and decimated the community in 8 hours, this time with greater vengeance than before. It burned over 240,000 acres and thousands of homes. 74 people died.

The local hospital at which Tim had once worked was at least partially destroyed.

The queue of radiology cases from the hospital dwindled to nothing for a time. It is only recently starting to climb in number.

My heart goes out to those who were affected, whose homes burned, whose lives were devastated.

But now I think I know.

I no longer wonder why my sister and her husband didn’t stay and rebuild in Paradise.

As Gertrude Stein described her childhood home in Oakland, CA as no longer existing in “Everybody’s Autobiography” (1937), there is now no there there.

Is there a lesson in this?


As the clock winds down, approaches midnight, we are reminded of the frailty of man, of much bigger forces at work, of our limited ability to alter circumstance and our environment.

Where we live will once again be cleansed. And in a literal way. The fires in Paradise are but a foretaste of things to come, which will dwarf what has happened there.

All we can do is prepare ourselves. For all of us there are only two outcomes other than in a cosmic sense: our eyes will close for the last time or the Parousia will happen in our lifetimes.

Earth is but a stop on the journey to Paradise.



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