Over several terrifying summers, deadly wildfires raged across Colorado. Lives were lost, and the flames destroyed thousands of homes. When the smoke cleared and only rubble remained, survivors were left trying to find a way forward against devastating loss. The aftermath of that destruction would span many years, and its effects are still felt today.
In Phoenix Rising, twenty women share their stories of fire, the terror they felt as flames engulfed their communities, and the dark desperation that followed. And how—in the ensuing weeks and months—they worked to recreate a life from the ashes. Their tales of fear and bravery, of deep compassion and heart-rending grief, offer an uplifting chronicle of human courage and resilience.
“[A] gem of a book . . . When it comes to withstanding and making meaning of the most painful twists of this mysterious life, or enjoying its surprising rewards, nothing compares to the company of other women and their stories.” —Megan Feldman Bettencourt, author of Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World
|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
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About the Author
Leslie has a degree in Human Development and Family Studies. Along with working on her memoir Edge of Next and gathering stories for Phoenix Rising she is a caregiver for the elderly in Bellingham, Washington.
Read an Excerpt
Phoenix Rising Leslie Aplin Wharton
Right after the fire, I detested the image of the phoenix rising, and it was all around me. My friend gave me a jade necklace with a carved phoenix. The old milk truck sitting in a field at the base of our canyon was painted with a phoenix rising up from flames. It was plastered with encouraging words like — we will rebuild — we are strong. We were not strong. We were not beautifully transformed creatures rising out of the ashes. We were more like marshmallows burnt by flames — black and crispy on the outside, sweet and gooey on the inside, too hot to touch. If you didn't hold us gently and wait for us to cool down, we might burn you and you'd have to spit us out.
My husband and I built our house, with our own hands, and then it was gone. Having no children, our house was my baby. I gave birth to it and nurtured it for eighteen years. The image of the phoenix pressured me to be strong and to rise out of the ashes, but I wasn't strong. I was a mess while gathering debris at my house site to take to the dump. My hand-medown clothes were black with soot; I had char on my face, and my eyes were red and swollen. I was grieving. I wanted to lie down forever to be covered by ash.
The High Park fire destroyed 259 houses and over three hundred other structures; 87,000 acres of plants and trees — and one woman — lost their lives. They don't report the number of animals lost, whether pets or wild, some of which returned, and some never did. We lost our lives as we knew them, and we fled. People said we were brave to leave Colorado and start a new life in Washington State. It might have been braver for us to stay and rebuild on our land. We just couldn't do it.
We had built that house, lived that life, and climbed those mountains. We were scared of fire and climate change, and we suffered from the trauma it left in our lives. Intense heat and smoke tormented us for weeks as we waited for the fire to be over. After we cleaned up our house site and said good-bye to friends, we moved to western Washington where it is cool and moist.
For a year after the fire, we went into survival mode. Like deer in the headlights of a car, we were scared and confused. Our brains literally didn't work right. We were reduced to searching for the basics — food, shelter, clothes, tools, and jobs. It took a physical toil on us. Stress hormones surged through our bodies. We either ate too much or couldn't eat; we couldn't sleep or we slept too much — and we had nightmares. My husband had hives all over his body for months and months. I drank too much, hoping to erase myself. I had what I call spontaneous weeping.
A vision of the house, a hug from a friend, a brokenhearted love song, or anything could make me weep at any moment. At times we lashed out at each other and the people we loved most. Nothing could be taken lightly. We were left broken by a dream fulfilled, then shattered.
One of the most difficult times for us was seven months after the fire when everyone thought we should be better. We had all the physical belongings we needed to live, but we realized it was not enough. We had to find peace again, which is more difficult than finding furniture. I am at peace again now three years later.
Insurance didn't replace what we lost or sooth us emotionally, but insurance money enabled us to move and buy a home. Grateful for our insurance and the kindness that friends and strangers showed us, we now send small checks to people who lose their home in a disaster only to find out later that their insurance does not cover them. We struggle with rebuilding careers in our fifties and worry about money, but we do not worry about love. Money from insurance can buy a house, but it is the love from family and friends that makes it a home.
On the two-year anniversary of the fire, we returned to Colorado to visit friends, work on our land, and gather with some of the women in this book to read poems and stories to the public. When we first returned to our house site, we stood still on the land and looked out at the black trees surrounding us. We felt sad for a life we no longer had, but at that instant an eagle flew by, soaring right above us. It looked at us as if to say, "What are you doing on my land?" It circled three times. Like our friends, it reassured us that everything is okay, because we have a new life now — and it promised to watch over the land.
I no longer feel like a marshmallow, thank goodness, and the image of the phoenix is now comforting. But I still can't picture myself as a phoenix rising. Instead, I resonate with the bald eagle. Eagles are thought to be courageous. But their strength has little to do with courage; they simply do what they need to do to survive. Eagles rest in the large evergreen trees by my new house and feed off salmon spawning in the nearby river.
This spring, when I was planting trees in the rain, I caught sight of two huge eagles in the sky. One of them had a wingspan of at least six feet. I dropped my shovel and lay down on my back. I spread my arms wide open in the wet meadow grass. My hair was damp with fresh rainwater, and with my head on the cool earth, I lay still. I watched as the eagles majestically rode currents of air. They soared high as they searched for small creatures in the meadow grass. The eagles flew back and forth across the gray blue sky between clouds like sailboats tacking between islands in the bay. They hunted and I didn't dare move. I watched in awe until they disappeared from sight behind the tall crooked trees on the horizon.
In Native American culture, bald eagles are messengers between the spirit world and the human world. Since the fire, I spend more time in the spirit world. I listen to the trees, I wade in the rivers, and I watch the rising tides on the coast. The message the spirits send to the human race is take care of the earth, keep it clean; your life depends on it. The message we send to the spirits is forgive us.
Mark and I don't fly, but while sitting in bed drinking coffee, our minds soar and we catch the slightest currents of energy. We picture our whole lives laid out exposed before us. At times it can be overwhelming. We pinpoint with survivor instincts, in sharp focus, the tiniest chance for food, and we sweep down to grab it with our sharp talons. We bought a freezer and we fill it with salmon from the rivers and berries from our meadow, and I freeze veggies from a local farm I work for. We gather firewood to keep warm in the winter.
The other day I was walking in the yard after planting hollyhocks and heard a loud sound above me. Startled, I looked up to see the two huge bald eagles that live on our land riding on top of each other as they fell from the sky. They made a raucous commotion; it was a huge, dark mass of flailing wings, and at first I thought the eagles were fighting. Instinctively, I ducked and then yelled for Mark, who was in the garage. Then I reasoned that the pair was mating and I quieted. I watched as they descended from the sky, right above my head, latched together at the claws. They tried to fly but couldn't. Their wings flapped together, thrashing loudly, the bottom wings hitting the top wings and the top wings hitting the bottom wings.
They crashed into our large birch tree while trying to perch on a branch, but they were unbalanced and focused only on love, so they tumbled out of the tree and landed on the ground ten feet in front of me. They quickly finished mating and flew away. I ran to tell Mark. I knew they had been sent to me as a message for this story, and I pondered, searching for that message.
It says to me — give up control for love. Cling to what I love, hold on tight, even if it causes me to fall, plummet, leaving me vulnerable. It may be that in the most helpless, exposed position, I will find love deepening. Forget about the Buddhist lesson of detachment and instead attach, furiously. Serenity is not what I need to find; I need passion.
Eagles mate for life. They build enormous nests and add to them each year. Their nests can weigh over a ton. Occasionally, the tree with their heavy nest falls down and they have to build another nest. Mark and I like our new nest in our new house and will improve it as long as we live here. I hope that as we add bits of our creativity to this place, we will grow to love it and that we will allow ourselves to risk intense attachment to home once again.
Our love for each other has deepened as we recover from the fire. Losing our home and belongings taught us that love is the most important possession. Love is really all that matters. If trauma destroys love by death or by stress that is a true tragedy. Anyone living through a disaster should surround themselves with love and hold on tight.
Don't let stress ruin your relationships. Give yourself time; fear and anger will dissipate and love will multiply. Let love envelope you in its tight grip and rest there, when you're not too busy searching for food and shelter.CHAPTER 2
I Know the Color Gray Jenn Nolte
I know the color gray, for the ash falling out of the orange haze of sky For the smoke thirteen miles away on that June day For the lights flashing on the dirt road, for a last pause and then a flurry of away I know the color red, for the next morning the flames consuming all in its way For the fire line coming closer, no longer thirteen miles away For the constant whir in the sky, of hopes of water having the final say For the winds to shift, to stop their merciless howl I know the color black, for the charred bark of trees loved so much, their shelter lost For the long earned love of timbers only now to barely register as dust For the smoke tinged air, of the dark landscape forever changed What to do now — the question amidst all the tears I know the color brown, as the earth is scraped away, along with it a piece of my soul For nothing left except the haunting smell in the air For the anticipated love of place dissolved into despair I know the color green as grasses that color the ridge that next year For the resolve to try again, to dream again I know the color yellow as petals that wave in the gentle wind, rising toward the sky For the miracles of a tiny new cactus in between blackened rocks For the bird calls echoing through the bare branches of a dead tree For the new smells of freshly cut wooden beams I know the color of hope as it rises to form a new beginning the year after Overcoming the flame, the downpours, the setbacks, the frustrations For the joy at the wild turkeys return, for the beautiful fox never before seen For the worn hands laboring with natural stone For the coming home, for the house that now stands proud On our ridge of possibilities bought so long ago
Here Be Dragons Barbara Nickless
On my desk, before it burned, I had a map. A papyrus-yellow sketch of a Lenox globe from the 1500s. I'd chosen this map because it was made during the Age of Exploration when Europeans ventured to the four corners of the globe — into the dark heart of Africa, the wilds of the Atlantic, out among the islands of the Pacific, and across the vast New World.
Perhaps, unconsciously I think, I also chose the map for its warning to sailors — hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. Travel past the edges of the known world, the cartographers warned, and you might not come back.
I'd placed the map on my desk in the hope it would inspire me to risk my own uncharted territories — be they places with real geography or the terra incognita of my heart. But it had been years since I'd known how to face down the dragons. For twelve months, until I rolled it up and tucked it away, the map lay in quiet rebuke, reminding me of everything I feared to do.
Also on my desk, before it burned, was a photo of my mother. Whenever I studied her guarded expression, distressingly cautious for a child of only three or four, the photo assured me that the world my mother lived in had always held dragons. Sometimes, in a half-dreaming state, I would merge the map and my mother's photograph until she was the one offering caution.
"Be careful, honey," I'd imagine her saying. "There are dragons."
Then an embellishment I knew she would have offered if she'd known about my Lenox map.
"Be careful, honey. There are dragons."
My mother prized being safe over living large. Better safe than sorry was her motto. She had a convert's fervor when it came to safeguarding her family against life's calamities. She believed in snakebite kits and overcooked pork. She swore by sanitizing soaps and insect repellent. As a general rule, we steered clear of swimming pools and contact sports.
She told me to always pack snow boots and a jacket in the trunk of the car because you just never know. She debated whether — in the event of a fire — I should have a ladder near my window. Only her worry that I would escape the flames to fall to my death ended that.
Like most kids raised in a safe and healthy home, I ran heedless into the world. Head back, mouth wide open, the wind in my hair. I roamed far and wide, collecting pebbles and sticks and scrapes and bumps. I brought home lizards and fell down holes and rode my bike in places that would have made my mother drop dead in horror had she known.
Through it all I emerged mainly unscathed, rarely needing more than a tetanus shot or an ice pack. This should have been enough to convince my mother that she was now safe. That the dragons had left the enchanted forest and retreated to their caves.
But what she knew and I didn't yet know is that the dragons are patient.
My mother grew up poor in Athens, Tennessee, during the Great Depression. Her father was moody and violent, an alcoholic with thwarted dreams of success.
When my mother was nine, he ordered her and her siblings to line up in the backyard, each with an apple atop their head. He had a bow and a few arrows. While her brothers and sisters tearfully took their places, my mother ducked around the corner of the house and fled into the fields.
Fortunately for my cousins-yet-to-be, my grandmother talked her husband down and took his arrows.
Later, my grandfather called my mother a coward for running away. But my mother was the brave one. It is hard to defy a dragon.
I think my mother fell in love with my father in part because he was safe. He didn't drink. He didn't swear. He never hit her. The pair settled into a 1950s idyll of marriage and children and a series of faithful dogs. Money was tight, but they were happy.
But every night, she checked the stove, checked the oven, and locked the doors and windows tight.
As I grew, my mother wanted to keep me close. But I longed for a life of adventure. College in a faraway place, then a stint in the Peace Corps followed by work in the diplomatic arena. Ultimately, I planned to settle somewhere interesting, an ex-patriot in an exotic land, my own Age of Exploration nicely resolved in permanent exile.
But when my mother discouraged my college choices — too far, bad neighborhood, too expensive, too intimidating — I surprised myself and capitulated. Somewhere along the line, in the stretch of years from ten to seventeen, the dragons had crept in on cats' feet, slipping unnoticed past my mother and altering me forever. My mother's understanding of monsters was now my own, the fear like a plague in my blood.
I stayed close to home during college, took a safe, reasonable job, and settled quietly into my own life of marriage and home and children.
And every night, like my mother, I checked the stove, checked the oven, and locked the doors and windows tight.
For sailors in the Age of Discovery, exploring the world in their frail, proud ships must have been their version of a particularly addictive form of crack cocaine. Which is to say, adventuring was a lethally appealing activity. While storms, cannibals, and man- eating tigers made a dent in the population of European sailors, their own ignorance killed many of them; an estimated two million sailors died of scurvy between 1500 and 1800.
I like to imagine the mapmakers sitting safely in their workshops, pouring over notes and sketches of the known world and wanting, in some small way, to help those brave or hapless men by drawing warnings on their maps: sea serpents and basilisks and the words hic sunt dracones.
After my mother's fears seeped into me, I would have made a great medieval cartographer. Earnest and dedicated. Cautious and precise. Reveling in the small, safe pleasures of a confined space while dreaming of bigger things.
But though I stayed vigilant during those years, watching over my family, I could not keep us safe. For here is a truth: If you don't risk the dragons, the dragons will come to you.
Try to keep them from the gate, and they will dig under the walls.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Phoenix Rising"
Copyright © 2016 KRISTEN MOELLER & LESLIE APLIN WHARTON.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Phoenix Rising Leslie Aplin Wharton,
I Know the Color Gray Jenn Nolte,
Here Be Dragons Barbara Nickless,
After Disaster, Beauty Remains Kendra Eucker,
Life on Melvina Hill Ann Lansing,
No Ordinary Fire Sandi Yukman,
My Paradise Louise Creager,
Shades Beth Cutter,
The 503: The Things We Leave Behind Melissa Fry,
Starting Over Jackie Klausmeyer,
Rising from the Ashes Yvette Trantham,
The Dream Jenn Nolte,
Canyon Spirit Bonnie Antich,
Irreplaceable Things Susan Ruane McConnell,
Tempered, Forged, Tensiled FREE Astrid,
Fire on the Mountain Cheryl Delany,
The Wildfire of Birth Amanda DeAngelis,
The Thoughtful Side of Insanity AnnMarie Arbo,
For Better or for Worse Linda Masterson,
Finding Meaning in the Fire Bethany Trantham,
Walking through Fire Kristen Moeller,
About the Contributors,
About the Authors,
Phoenix Rising Fund,