• Kate Swisher

Stories in Smoke

I drove through the wooden gates of Sweet Water Farm—a property just fifteen minutes from the Rogue River—on Sunday afternoon. Three days later I drove back through the gates, then continued driving South, all the way back to my parent’s home in Marin County. What happened in between these two trips is a story that went up in smoke.

I pulled into my tiny home at Sweet Water Farm this Sunday afternoon. My host, Denise, invited me inside. She had strung dried marigolds across the windows and placed flower arrangements on the coffee tables. She handed me a basket of mason jars filled to the brim with oats, beans, rice, and honey. When I asked her about a carbon monoxide detector for the space (there was a camp stove inside) she promptly went out of her way to purchase one for me. I was touched by her hospitality and enamored with the new home. I looked out my kitchen window at rows of herbs and a large greenhouse lined with tall tomato vines.

Sam, her husband, walked up my driveway to drop off a bottle of Rosé and take me on a tour of the farm. He was born in his house’s hallway to a farmer father and an artist mother. His daughter, Ivory, was born in the same place. I met her and her tiny hamsters and waved to his son who was scowling (rightfully so) about starting virtual high school. In the soft, warm breeze, the family and I walked outside through sunflowers, hemp, chicken coops, and fields of veggies. Denise said I could grab anything I wanted from the fields anytime. Ivory handed me a piece of kale.

I was content. Isolated and a little lonely, but content. For the first time in months, I had my own place that I worked to earn. I would get to know a family and witness a whole hidden life and way of existing. I would spend the next month or two directly interacting with my food source and learning about growth processes.

I sat down at their kitchen table to hear about my weekly schedule: make soil blocks, transplant, weed, harvest, wash, sell, repeat. They told me to get a consistent, good night's sleep so I could wake up and work early. They also said I should stretch, be assertive, and finally, since it was still hot out, keep my windows open at night.

I listened and responded. I walked back to my tiny home and went to bed at a reasonable hour having opened all my windows before falling asleep. However, at around midnight, I woke up and felt a scratch in my throat and smelled fresh smoke. I heard Denise run out of the main house in fear. We were okay, but I could tell the fire was close.

This was exactly what I was trying to run from. The fires in California were bad. I had left Northern California hoping to spend time outside, working with my body and the natural world without compromising my physical health in the process. The next day I made soil blocks and drove to the river, hoping the smoke would get better over the course of the week. I plopped my feet into the Rogue and allowed solitude to surround me. Creative inspiration hit instantly. It’s incredible what a simple, change of pace can inspire.

Yesterday I transplanted zucchinis and cucumbers while I asked Sam about his life. I heard about a climbing accident in which a friend of his nearly paralyzed him, the money he received as settlement, his trip to Nicaragua, his love for Denise, their early, surprise pregnancy, and his early years of recklessness. I was grateful for new stories.

As I weeded last night, pulling my hoe through the dirt beds, I listened to an interview with the late Mary Oliver. She reminded me that a poet must always sacrifice some of her poems. Some poems and stories aren’t meant to be. Just as a farmer plucks “suckers” or small shoots off of a tomato vine to give more attention and energy to the mature leaves and fruit, a poet must burn certain poems to focus greater attention on others.

I combed through the final row of beet sprouts when I smelled the smoke again, more potent this time. Trees, houses, and the whole town of Medford burned around me. Then, across the sky, a thick line of smoke outlined in orange headed straight in my direction. I put my hoe down and called it a night.

Sam knocked on my door this morning at 9:30am and told me, gently, I had to evacuate. He handed me a box of Japanese pears and a wad of cash for gas and wished me luck on my journey back home. I exited Sweet Water’s gates and let my imagined autumn in Oregon exit with me. This story escaped alongside thousands of stories, poems, imaginings, and timelines in the air surrounding me. The wildfire burned my premature narrative and the resulting smoke traveled into the atmosphere.

I agree with Mary Oliver. It is important to let go of certain narratives, just as it is important to prescribe burns. Prescribed burns—an ancient, indigenous practice— sacrifices a few trees for the health and protection of an entire forest. Failure to prescribe burns leads to dangerous, uncontrollable wildfires like the ones we are witnessing now.

I fear that the amount of rejected stories, poems, adventures, and growth opportunities are building up, creating fire and smoke we can’t handle. Fire and smoke that prevents us from going outside, destroys homes, stalls growth, gravely harms forests, and completely empties us of words. We must know which stories to focus our energy on and which to set fire to, so that we can avoid mass destruction like this in the future.

Back in my yard, I’m watching and thinking about the honey bees who are hiding away in their hive. When there is too much smoke, honey bees hibernate like bears. They collect and hoard their honey inside because they do not want to pollinate in disastrous conditions. As a result, there is less honey, less produce, less of a diverse ecosystem, and yes, less worthwhile stories.


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