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Wildfire

 

-1-

ACORN WOMAN

 

 

 

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.  — New Testament: I Corinthians, x, 31.

 

 Acorn Woman smiled, as the tribal elders oversaw her order for the burning of the chaparral. They deliberately set the fires to burn off the older brush, grasses and seedlings. It was the beginning of spring and Acorn Woman smiled, knowing that tender new sprouts would emerge within only a few weeks after this burn and attract many deer, elk and antelope, all indigenous to the Santa Barbara Channel, where Acorn Woman and her Native American Chumash tribe lived. The elders nodded towards Acorn Woman and smiled; she was the one who oversaw all the sand-baked leach-pits, where hot water was poured over unrefined acorn meal, which would then be baked into delicious breads and rolls.

 

The Chumash hunted and fished throughout the coastal bay areas of California, as they had for thousands of years, and, although they didn’t solely depend upon the acorn harvest it added to their hearty menu, and Acorn Woman—who had always loved the harvest and preparation of the inedible acorn into bread—was a highly respected member of the tribe.

****

 

Summer came quickly and Acorn Woman strolled through the woods with her four-year-old daughter, Stands Alone, and stopped suddenly. She walked quietly over to where a group of flowery bushes grew and bent down. Stands Alone followed her mother and stooped down also. Acorn Woman put her arm around her little one and pointed at a large acorn and a few small ones clustered about, in all directions. She smiled and turned her face towards Stands Alone and said, “Look, Stands Alone, a mother and her daughters.”

 

Stands Alone smiled and reached out to stroke the acorns. Even at her young age, she understood that all in nature came from the Great Spirit and must be nourished and protected, until it gave itself up willingly—as did also the lower animals and fish in the sea.

 

 

-2-

THE BUILDER

 

 

 

We stuff these newsletters. A woman working on it said at seven o’clock one night, “I never knew it took so many people to sell real estate in San Francisco.”

—James C. Fabris, executive director, San Francisco Board of Realtors.

 

I get people to invest by selling them the depreciation.

—Richard Ravitch, builder.

 

The result which the legislator has produced is the reverse of beneflcial; for he has made his city poor, and his citizens greedy.   

—Aristotle (ca. 340 B.C.)

 

 

 

 Robert Molto smiled at his attorney. They had just been approved for a loan of over a hundred million dollars, eighty percent of it an FHA federally insured loan, to build a fifteen-hundred-unit apartment complex. He stood to make a killing, subcontracting out everything but the concrete work, which his company—M&M Properties—would do—they would clear nearly twenty million dollars and all for having bought the property for a pittance and then having it rezoned for this project. His attorney, and business partner, Tim ‘Big Mac’ McGuire, swallowed a glassful of wine and motioned to the waitress for another hit. As he awaited the refill, he lit a cigarette and exhaled a stream of noxious smoke.

 

They had another project, just as ambitious as the fifteen-hundred-unit apartment complex, set to break ground in less than a week and McGuire had just been informed of a glitch. He smiled at the waitress, as she refilled their glasses, and when she left, said, “You know the project in the Valley?”

 

“Moltoville, seven-hundred homes—Mac—project in the Valley? What’s wid-chew?”

 

“There’s a slight problem—ah, a little hitch—you might say.”

 

Molto frowned and lit a large cigar. “A problem, what do you mean by a problem? We got the commission in our pockets, the board too. Hell wid a hitch—ain’t no hitch in ah Valley—Mac, c’mon?”

 

“The back forty acres—it’s got a real nice lake back there and we were planning to put in some half-acre lots?”

 

“Yeah, I thought we got it?”

 

“Yeah well—the seller ain’t as committed as we thought he was.”

 

“What? What’re you sayin’? Ain’t committed like we thought? C’mon, either he is or he ain’t.”

 

“Well, we thought he was but now he says his grandmother’s against it and she’s an Indian.”

 

“Wha’ … what—an Injun—what’s that gotta do wid it?”

 

“You remember the earthquake last October—up in Frisco?”

 

“You kiddin’ me couse I do—I almos’ went up there to see the third Giants-Oakland game.”

 

“Yeah well this guy’s grandmother, she says all the buildin’ caused the earthquake?”

 

“All the buildin’ caused the earthquake? Do we need this lake and forty acres?”

 

“No—but it would sure be nice to have.”

 

“Yeah well—how much were we givin’ ‘em?”

 

“Bobby—we wuz stealin’ it—don’t you remember? Ten gees an acre.”

 

“I thought he signed the contract? Offer eleven or twelve grand an acre, or sue the chump.”

 

“We only had a verbal commitment from this guy and Allen says he mentioned he wanted to talk to someone. Apparently that someone is this grandmother of his. Anyway, givin’ him more money ain’t the problem; we just can’t seem to communicate with the grandmother.”

 

“Wha’ … what, whadayah mean, can’t communicate?”

 

“I mean that literally Bob—she doesn’t speak English.”

 

“She doesn’t speak English—the hell you say—what’s she speak?”

 

“Well Chumash—I think.”

 

“Chew-what?”

 

“It’s an Indian dialect.”

 

“I thought Allen Copes had this thing wrapped up?”

 

“He was slingin’ the bull, as usual Bobby.”

 

“I think we should fire that derelict?”

 

“He helps with the board Bob, remember? His brother’s been a supervisor for a decade.”

 

“What? Well, we slid this through the plannin’ commish anyway, din’ we? Gave ‘em a wink ah the ol’ eye. We din’ even need his brother, it never got that far.”

 

“Yes but we might still have problems and anyway we can always use another government official in our pocket; the guy’s runnin’ for mayor.”

 

“Oh yeah, that guy—well—who else we got that can talk to this, this Injun?”

 

“Well Allen says the son, the guy we had the verbal with, he’s the guy on the tax rolls, anyway he talks to his grandmother and then tells Allen she’s against it and he can’t go against her. So, what do you think?”

 

“Who we got to put on this—good Gawd man, we break ground nex’ week?”

 

“Yeah, well, I thought I might go out there myself, y’know, I mean c’mon Bobby, that property’s worth twenty-five an acre?”

 

“Yeah but why pay it to these dumb Injuns? When you goin’ out there?”

 

“I figured sometime this week; probably this comin’ Tuesday or Wednesday.”

 

“Yeah, Tuesday or Wednesday, well lemme know—will yah cause maybe—I’ll go out there with yah. This is a big part of Moltoville you know—fah Criz-sakes?”

“Yeah, alright then let’s try for Tuesday—how’s your calendar?”

 

Molto smiled obliquely and exhaled a stream of noxious cigar smoke. “What, my calendar? I’ll clear it for this—Tuesday’s a go!”

 

The waitress refilled their wineglasses again and the lawyer held his glass up, as the builder touched it with his and nodded when the lawyer confirmed it with one word. “Tuesday,” he barked.

 

-3-

A MILLION DOLLARS

 

 

The white men have driven the spirits away. The white man’s spirits are very far away. They

will not come when called. They cannot be bought with gifts. They do not care for men who are alive. The white man’s spirit land is nowhere.

—Toyanke Waste Win, Lakota Sioux.

 

The earth was placed here for us and we consider her our Mother. How much would you ask for if your Mother had been harmed? No amount of money can repay. Money cannot give birth to anything.

—Asa Bazhonoodah, Navajo.

 

     The new 1990 Lincoln pulled up in front of the cabin and Robert Molto exhaled a stream of noxious cigar smoke He nodded at Tim McGuire and then towards the log cabin, which appeared to be more than a century old.

“Good Gawd, they live in this thing, Big?”

 

“That’s what Allen said, Bobby.”

 

Molto glanced at his watch, a quarter to two—they were fifteen minutes early.

 

“Well, might’s well get this over with—huh Tim?”

 

McGuire nodded and they both exited the car. He pounded on the front door loudly. Standing six and a half feet tall and weighing over three-hundred pounds, McGuire’s frame virtually dwarfed the small door, which he had to bend down to fit through when it was opened by Claude Haymes, owner of the cabin and the forty acres of bottom land that M&M Properties wished to add to their seven-hundred-home project, to be known as Moltoville.

 

McGuire nodded at Haymes. “Mr. Haymes?” he said and smiled.

 

Haymes returned the smile and offered his hand, which McGuire shook and then turned towards Molto. “Ah-er, this is my partner Robert Molto.”

 

“Of course and this project is to be named Moltoville.”

 

Molto smiled widely and shrugged. “That’s right Mr. Haymes and how are you today, sir?”

 

“Fine-fine, won’t you come in then?”

 

The two men ambled into the non-descript cabin and followed Haymes to what appeared to be the kitchen, even though it was barely more than a refrigerator and table with four chairs. A woman of undeterminable age was sipping some liquid from a coffee cup and looked up abruptly when the two men were offered seats by Haymes. She smiled, as McGuire took a seat by the wall and Molto sat in the wooden, cane-backed chair next to her. Haymes grabbed a coffeepot from the countertop next to the table and offered the men coffee. They accepted the offer of coffee and Molto lit a cigar and glanced at the old woman. Her skin was a walnut-colored hue, which appeared to glow, and Molto looked at McGuire who nodded with a smirk on his face. Molto added some sugar to his coffee and then stirred it with a small spoon that Haymes had provided. He put on his best Dick Nixon face and said, “Well Mr. Haymes, you know that we are developing this area, we own over a thousand acres here and could ah-er, combine your piece into our project. You have a nice lake there.”

 

“Well, I got family up in Canada, y’know and was thinkin’ ah movin’ up there.”

 

“Oh really, where in Canada,” Molto said.

 

“Vancouver in British Colombia—you know of it?”

 

“Why yes, yes I do—beautiful country up there.”

 

“Yeah it sure is. Well, but I did tell that guy Allen that I wanted to talk to my grandmother and well, she, well she doesn’t want me to sell.”

 

Molto looked at the old woman and nodded at Haymes. “Really, well why not if I might ask?”

 

“Well, she says that the builders don’t treat Mother Earth with any respect.”

 

Molto shot McGuire a look and McGuire smirked again, barely suppressing a laugh.

 

“Mother Earth, huh, well, we’re leavin’ some woods on this project and half-acre lots too.”

 

Haymes’ grandmother said something to him and Molto’s eyebrows shot into his forehead. “What’d she say?”

 

My grandmother says Acorn Woman spoke to her in a dream and told her that much harm will come to this place if you build upon it. The Uhoelpenchaytjho is disappearing.”

 

Molto frowned at McGuire and said, “The Uhoopeencha—what in ah hell?”

 

“It is a place where acorns are very plentiful.”

 

“Acorns, what’re you talkin’ about, ACORNS?” Molto stared at the old woman and scowled. He didn’t know, or care, about acorns; he knew nothing about them but what he did know about was money and that, obviously, is what she wanted, more money. “I’ll double my offer; twenty grand an acre, that’s eight hundred grand. Tell her THAT!”

 

Haymes spoke to his grandmother and she answered him quickly. “My Grandmother says that you don’t understand; you cannot buy and sell the earth. If you do, she says, you will destroy it and yourselves also.”

 

McGuire watched, as Molto turned slightly pale. “WHAT? YOU’RE tellin’ ME about buyin’ and sellin’ the earth. Criz-sakes, I’m a developer, I buy and sell LAND! Think I don’t know what’s on her mind? Tell her this, I’ll give her twenty-five an acre, that’s a MILLION bucks for her earth here, see what she says to THAT?” Haymes looked at McGuire, who showed him that he had spent a great deal of money on his dental work, then at Molto, who offered an almost identical Dick Nixon face. “G’wan and tell her—you think I’m bluffin’? EVERYBODY’S got their price—Injun!

 

Haymes spoke quickly to his grandmother and she answered him even quicker. “My grandmother says you are mistaken about the earth and she says that your greed will one day be your undoing.”

 

 Molto rubbed his hand over his day-old whiskers and smiled. “Haymes, I just offered you a million bucks for your forty acres. You tellin’ me that this old lady’s gonna make you turn that much money down?”

 

Haymes shook his head sadly. “You don’t understand Mr. Molto, we are Chumash and we believe the spirits do not wish this. Acorn woman spoke to my grandmother in a dream and she …”

 

“Acorn Woman,” Molto growled, interrupting Haymes as if it was his right to do so.

 

“My grandmother’s mother was named that. We are Chumash Indians, as I have said and my grandmother doesn’t wish to see this land desecrated.”

 

“Desecrated? I ain’t desecratin’ nothin’—I’m a builder, a developer. Gawd aw-mighty there Injun, Molto said, raising his voice, as his face turned a shade redder.

 

Haymes stood up and scowled. “You may leave now sir—we will not sell to you?”

 

Molto jerked himself up out of the chair and glared at the old lady, then stomped out of the cabin. When McGuire joined him inside the Lincoln Molto smiled crookedly at him. “Nuts, huh Mac,” he said and shrugged.

 

“Yeah Bobby—acorns I think.”

 

Molto laughed heartily at McGuire’s rejoinder—which he would repeat innumerable times over the next thirteen years.

 

 

 

EPILOGUE: WILDFIRE

 

  

Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies, you too will die.  

—John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota, 1932.

  

 

It was Halloween but in Southern California very few children were going to be trick-or-treating, for in the year 2003 someone, or something, had played a cruel trick, as fires raged from as far south as San Diego to as far north as Paso Robles, just below San Francisco. Two million acres had already been destroyed and the fires showed no hint of letting up, even as helicopters and fire crews from across the state and nation flew in, in an attempt to control them.

 

 

****

 

Robert Molto stared down into the valley and then southward, at the view he had of the Pacific Ocean. He lived in a six-thousand-square-foot, custom-built home that he had finished in 1991. From its perch, high above the city, he could see Moltoville going up in flames, he could even see his fifteen-hundred-unit apartment house, built in 1989, and backed by federal money, which he used to this day as a tax shelter, as it was now down to less than fifty percent occupancy, burnt almost to a crisp. Molto stared down, as the fires rushed up the mountain-side towards his home and wondered what he was going to do if his house, built almost entirely out of California redwood, went up in flames. He was there alone, as he had driven up that day to get inside his safe, where he had over three million dollars in cash, and negotiable stocks and bonds. He quickly made his decision when he saw the trees in his front yard burning, as the huge amount of blazing undergrowth licked its way up into his compound. He grabbed his money-laden briefcase and threw it into his Lincoln Navigator, then zoomed out of his driveway. The Navigator roared down the mountainside road, as the burning forest’s smoke turned the skies into a veritable fog screen. Molto had barely made it out of his 250-acre plot when the smoke became so thick that the Navigator rammed into a huge redwood tree and slammed threw him from the vehicle into a forest that was fast becoming a volcanic mass, a veritable hell.

 

Molto awoke with a bloody nose and smoke so thick he couldn’t see six inches in front of his face. He struggled to a standing position and ran down the mountain towards what he thought was the ocean but was in reality the edge of the town known as Moltoville, a project that had made M&M Properties over fifty-million dollars. Molto ran headlong into a tree and bounced off it, sliding into the thick, still damp chaparral. When he awoke, he barely had time to open his eyes before the fires began raging around him. He was lying face-down on the chaparral and, as the fires enveloped him, he tasted the grass and dew that had been jammed inside his mouth, when he fell to the earth. Just as he lost consciousness for the final time in this life, he had a bitter taste come into his mouth and spat out a half-dozen acorns—just seconds before giving up the ghost.