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A conversation with a poet whose home burned to the ground » Yale Climate Connections

In a new collection of poetry, “Open Zero,” Pakistani-American poet Sophia Naz explores her grief over the loss of her Glen Ellen, California, home.

In 2017, dangerous wildfires raged across California, burning forests, businesses, and houses, including the one where Naz lived with her husband and son.

Yale Climate Connections talked with Naz about how she uses poetry to process her personal tragedy and to reflect on the consequences of climate change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yale Climate Connections: Tell me a little bit about your home.

Sophia Naz: Glen Ellen is a tiny little village. It’s nestled in the beautiful valley called the Valley of the Moon. It’s also part of the wine country of California. And we fell in love with this house because it was kind of a tree house. All the trees were growing all around it, and some of them were growing through its decks, so we were attracted to it. And so we bought this place in 2010 and then in 2017 is when the wildfires struck.

YCC: Can you tell me what happened when the fires came through?

Naz: I usually work at night, and I had built a little office cabin across from the main house where I was sitting and working. And around 10 o’clock at night, when I opened the sliding glass doors, there was a very strong smell of smoke in the air. But I couldn’t see any smoke. And I checked my phone to see what’s going on, but there was no alert. Sometimes there are wildfires, but they’re far away, and the smoke comes from far away. So in the absence of an alert, I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything. I went to bed, but I couldn’t really sleep, felt a bit restless.

And then around 2 o’clock in the morning, the fire truck came up our lane with the megaphone saying, “The fire’s coming at your home, and you need to leave. You need to evacuate right now.” So I woke up our son, who’s 14. And then we piled into the car and we left, and that was the last time I saw my home.

YCC: When you went back, was there anything left?

Naz: No, not of the house. I work as a healer. I work in traditional medicine from India. So we had renovated our old barn into a wellness center. So that was untouched by the fire. And we had a yurt on the lower part of our property. That had not been burned. And the swimming pool was there. But that was all that was left.

We did decide to, out of sheer necessity because our workplace was not burnt, to move back. And we bought a trailer. And living in the destroyed landscape was really instructive as well. Because then you realize that it’s not just your home that’s been destroyed, it’s the home of all the living beings. The loss of one life form ripples out and destroys the habitat of all the other life forms.

Left: Naz’s home in Glen Ellen, California, before it was destroyed in a 2017 wildfire. Right: The aftermath. (Photos: Courtesy of Sophia Naz)

YCC: Did what you were seeing around you after you moved back begin to work its way into your poetry?

Naz: Absolutely. One part of my book “Open Zero” is about the everyday ground realities of loss, the changed landscape — the burned redwoods, the destroyed manzanitas, all of the ecology that has been so devastated. And in a way, “Open Zero,” part of it refers to I’m living on ground zero of the loss.

YCC: Can you talk about the emotions you began wrestling with after the fire?

Naz: The immediate emotion that one feels is grief, and then the grief gives way to the feeling of loss. And those two are not exactly the same things, because grief is an immediate emotion, and loss a larger perception.

So losing my home to the wildfires, it crystallized the linkages between topics that I had written about previously as separate things — like geography, history, politics, migration, racism, feminism, power structures. When you lose your home, it gives you this immediacy, an urgency, and it broadens your perspective.

These things are inextricably linked, because without the colonization of North America, and without the view of the Earth as simply a resource to be plundered — and then the idea that you simply needed to remove the obstacles to that plundering, that is, the Native inhabitants — without this world view, and without the enormous wealth that white settler colonialism accumulated, you won’t have the current dispensation, right? So all of these things are inextricably linked.

YCC: Was writing “Open Zero” cathartic?

Naz: Of course. Writing is an absolute cathartic process. [Another writer] has said that writing is a way to avenge the loss. Because there are many ways in which one can avenge loss. Some people do it by singing, some people do it by painting. But if you’re a writer, one of the most potent means of doing it is through writing, because it is through writing that one can recreate, as if conjuring out of thin air, a landscape that no longer exists. Because it does exist in your mind. And you can bring what exists in your mind, in your memory, and you can put it down on paper and resurrect it again in a way.

Listen: Poet Sophia Naz grieves after a wildfire took her home

YCC: It’s been a few years since the fire. Has the landscape recovered?

Naz: In my home, there were 32 large trees. I’m talking trees that were over 100 years old. This is not something that can be replaced and certainly will not be replaced in my lifetime. And that is just the devastating truth about climate change, the climate crisis. Behind me, as I speak, is a hillock or mound of earth where my previous house stood. The earth was rendered too unstable to build where it was built before. So we built slightly below it. So as a result, I see this pile of earth, rubble, every day. There’s a few scattered pieces of scrub growing on it, but it’s a perverse kind of thing. It’s only partially covered by the scrub and a few grasses, but it stubbornly remains as a reminder of everything that has gone.

YCC: And knowing that you’re still in the midst of this drought, and that climate change is only likely to bring more severe droughts and fires, you still made the choice to stay there. What is it like living there now?

Naz: Honestly, I don’t know how long I will be able to sustain this choice, because it is getting more and more worrisome by the day, really. For now, we’re here and I do love being here, even though it’s traumatic.

We’ve evacuated twice since the initial fire, and it’s been absolutely terrifying. There is definitely PTSD in in my life at the moment. And honestly, I do think about moving away, because I’m not sure that I’ll be able to sustain it literally, physically, and psychologically. It continues to take a toll on me, because every time there’s a fire alarm, you can imagine what happens to my heartbeat. It’s a palpable reality.

It would be a very strange thing to say that loss is a gift. But I think the gift is the realization that every day of your life is enormously precious. And in a way, it’s all that you have. All that you will ever know is right this minute. And as a poet, that is an enormous gift, because it changes the way that you view everything around you, and your own being, and all your relationships with the environment, with people.

YCC: Is there a poem from your book that you’d be willing to share?

Naz: This poem is called “After, Math.”

The calculus that what’s beyond the hill 
must be left at memory’s table
a feast not meant to be eaten but pierced 
at the precise point which leads
smoothly into the needle’s nose, hugs 
the thread snug so thought fleshed out
desiccates but doesn’t fall 
like meat tendering a resignation 

The trees are bereft of berries now
you would have paused to pick them, grasping
at branches just beyond your reach and knees
would bruise, ripe as a summer peach
disappears, leaving only a sunset 
stain in the corner of sky’s wordless mouth 

Fall’s moist mist almost dissipated 
only wisps of stubborn weed cling to the hill- 
sides feathers ostrich brown, akin
to you whose head swims in the sand 
the drought has dealt you well
you dwell in doubts. The hill 
still beckons, almost against your will

You are walking. Woodpeckers on tap 
to open up the trapdoors. Char
as far as the eye can roam 
sinew of auburn manzanitas
burned and hacked to pieces 
reel after reel you can’t unsee
the forest’s death, a silent movie
plays on, the orchestra a hollow
pump, fist of an organ, thumping 
on and on you walk, to the top, the slope
abruptly condescending 

The price extracted in perspiration’s 
penance paid you richly in coin 
in kind you preened the plumes 
as a peacock dancing in the rain 
would scatter a myriad eyes
their blue made not of borrowed pigment 
but out of bent light reflecting 
ways of seeing nothing multiplying
a hall of mirrors and a single flame

The last house on a dead-end road
would rise up to fill your eyes
first, the roundabout, full of aloe 
and well-fed quills of succulents 
then the porch, overhung with ivy 
so thick even envy would pale
away like winter sun

Shining where it once stood 
where you stand, on scarred earth
scabbed into scrub as if
after many blows a giant 
had fallen and through 
his maws you saw
the valley yawn wide, felt
something give
as the waters rushed in.

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