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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Santa Ana: Patron Saint of Grace and Heat

It's fire season again. When we moved to LA two years ago, a plague of fires broke out across the foothills of Los Angeles. I remember one day stepping out of an Office Depot, my shopping bags in tow, when a man leaning against the wall pointed to the sky with his cigarette and said, "Look." I looked up through the orange smoke which had cloaked LA for several days and made everything, no matter how far away we were from the flames, smell like bon fire. There, hanging like a single burning globe, was the sun -- red and dim from ash.

Wednesday, the first fires of the season broke out in West Hills and Thousand Oaks. A friend who lives in those areas, was evacuated at 3 am. Police rolled through the streets speaking from a megaphone, "This is a mandatory evacuation." Our friend drove 45 miles South to our apartment and slept in his car until he saw the lights go on in our apartment. While his neighborhood wasn't on fire, he chose to stay with us one more night. He could see the flames licking up the hills, and the dark gritty smoke burgeoning. "The wind could change," he explained.

The wind he's talking about is a season phenomena all it's own here in LA. It's called the Santa Ana Wind which visits LA every October with a dry oppressive heat that evaporates moisture. Joan Didion writes about it best in her essay "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

"California...devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at a 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously."

The science behind the Santa Ana wind goes something like this: it begins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, six hours northeast of Los Angeles. When high pressure systems build in the altitudes of the Great Basin and low pressure systems deepen over Mexico the air spills over the mountain ridge, like a levee breeched, and begins to roll toward the lowlands of Southern California. As the desert air falls it gets heavier and drier, hitting the foothills and basin of LA like a mountain sized blow-dryer. This is the hottest season of the year. This is when you go to sleep at night with the thinnest slip of sheet. This is the season when the curtains hang like lead against an open window when the winds are not whipping. This is the season when bodies are too hot to touch.

The Santa Ana's. That's what we call them. Named for the Santa Ana canyon. But many southern Californians believe that the original name was santanas, meaning devil winds, similar to the Spanish word for "Satan." It would make sense: heat and dry, the torture of a wind that should refresh and relieve, but instead lights the land on fire.

There is another meaning for the name Santa Ana. She is the patron saint of women in labor and miners. Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, grandmother of Jesus. And in her name lies "gracious one" and "grace."

The Santa Ana winds which comes upon us with heat and fire, carry with them damnation and hell, salvation and grace. They whip up fires which purge the hills and leave the earth black. They strip us of our homes, and vegetation, leaving nothing behind but memory, and the purity of space. We know we are human. We remember that we die with out water, here in the desert, that we have created a man-made oasis in LA.

After all, the desert has a beauty -- a severe beauty. One which grabs us and makes us survive. One which pushes and steals and forces us to conquer or be conquered. Southern California has let us win. The city of Lost Angeles has defied her barren face, and has become a valley of swirling angels. But every now and then the desert sends Santa Ana, who descends in a gust of saintly robes. She reminds us where we live, who's body we have plunged and cultivated life.


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12:18 PM  
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12:30 PM  
Blogger Enlargement said...

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1:05 PM  
Blogger Samuel Bills said...

This is a great piece of writing Christin. Great mix of history spirituality personal story science etc. I would not have been surprised to read this as an editorial in the Times with my coffee this morning. Santa Ana winds are LA's ghost story...this place is haunted.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous christin said...

Thanks Sam. It would be amazing if you were reading me in the Times with your cup of coffee!
But what was it this morning? Reading me on your Apple, holding Eisley in one arm, and a diaper in the other?

12:13 PM  
Blogger Christin said...

To see stunning pictures of the fires, visit Matt and Mel Barlow's blog. Click on their link in my sidebar.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Kristi Fields said...

Hi Christin! I came across your blog and thought I'd drop a line to say hello. Hope all is well for you! Have a great weekend!

2:34 PM  
Blogger Jess said...

Hey Christin...not sure if you remember maiden name was Jess Jess Schmerse (I married Mark Schmerse). Just wanted to let you know how beautiful I think your writing is. I always appreciate good writing! Thanks!

2:47 PM  
Blogger Christin said...

Jess, I do remember you! Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. It's so cool to hear from you. I hear about you and Mark through the ever expanding grapevine of IWU alumni.
Thanks for the compliment, too!
Maybe the grapevine will crisscross and I'll get to see you in person one day.

9:20 PM  

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