It is hard for us all right now. Covid, hurricanes, tornadoes, and a grim political stage have all managed to change the face of America as we knew it. In California, we have endured an unprecedented (are you sick of that word?) fire season, experiencing the largest fires recorded in state history. Here in Santa Cruz, in early August, an unprecedented (there is that word again) lightning storm was sucked out of a mid-Pacific hurricane by a stifling heatwave and hit the west coast. It was a night of rolling thunder and 11,000 lightning strikes that lasted over six hours and ignited hundreds of fires all over the state. Within days the outlook was dire. In Santa Cruz and neighboring San Mateo Counties, three big fires joined into one massive conflagration now known as the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire that laid waste to a large portion of Santa Cruz County. The days that the fire raged were nerve-wracking to say the least. Ultimately it burned for over a month displacing tens of thousands of people, burning over 86,000 acres, and destroying almost 1,500 structures.
As the containment grew through the courageous efforts of various fire fighting agencies from all over the western portion of the nation (as well as some firefighters that came to help from overseas), and locals that pitched in as well, the toll of the fires was quickly apparent. The number of Go Fund Me pages that popped up on social media sites became a rolling roster of loss as we watched friends and family begin to ask for help. The community responded as best it could in a time of skyrocketing unemployment. We gave what we had. One of the stories among thousands was that of Jon and Liz Payne. Jon and Liz live in Boulder Creek, a mountain community in Santa Cruz, that was hit heavily by the fire. Together, they had built a slice of heaven atop a mountain there that gave them unmatched views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. They nurtured their property – worked the land so that it would prosper and they did this in the manner it should be done – sustainably. They had a beautiful house and Jon and some friends had built a recording studio and populated it with vintage instruments that meant the world to them. They held pre-Covid house concerts there that brought musicians from all over the Bay Area to play and small audiences were delighted by beautiful music as sunsets lit the sky and left unforgettable memories. But early on in the fire, Jon and Liz were evacuated from their property.
The days that they were displaced were incredibly hard as they depended on reports from neighbors, lots of hearsay regarding their neighborhood, and whatever information they could glean from firefighters on the ground. Jon knew, before the evacuation orders were lifted, that there was little chance their spread had survived, but there is always the sliver of hope before the scene can be witnessed in person. As soon as the orders were lifted, Jon headed up to the property and his worst fears were realized. The house, the studio, the instruments – everything was gone. The shock must have been overwhelming because it was not just what Jon and Liz saw in front of them but then the immediate question of “what now?” There was talk of just hitting the road, living out of a van until the next opportunity presented itself, and just going the gypsy route for a while. But that idea died off quickly. Jon and Liz were lucky that their place was covered by fire insurance and, ultimately, they have decided to rebuild.
There is something truly remarkable in that decision and it is a testament not only to the strength this couple shares, but stands as a commentary on our mountain community as a whole. When you love a place so much that you cannot imagine leaving it and commit your lives to it, it is as much a part of you as you are a part of it. Friends immediately pitched in funds and physical help by stabilizing potential landslide sights in advance of the rainy season and also clean-up efforts. Together they built a corn cob tiny home in which Jon and Liz will live while the big house is rebuilt. And then, as it should be, they all came together to make music.
The true embodiment of this struggle and the ability to overcome it came with the idea that music could still be made despite the destruction. True to the muse that out of adversity comes beauty, Jon and his band Wolf Jett, joined by the T Sisters, set up their instruments on the old foundation and, surrounded by rubble and debris, recorded a song beneath the house’s still standing chimney. “Garden Of Pain” and its accompanying video are an exclamation point – they are a musical stand against giving up and a reminder that while we live in uncertain and challenging times; love, calm, and patience can and will prevail. The fire, while wreaking havoc on our community brought out the best in us. People pulled together, helped neighbors, and opened their doors to strangers that needed shelter. While natural disasters are seemingly unbearable, the courage and heroic nature we all have within us seem to rise to the top and overcome the fear.
Now Jon and Liz will continue to nurture their land and do what they can to bring restoration and love back into their mountain top. And while you may not know them personally, you can be proud of them and you can rejoice in their commitment to adapt to their new circumstances. Adapting to this new way of life is really the only thing we have left. Understanding that changing the way we live is the only real solution to the onslaught of climate change is the first step in survival. It is resiliance. Jon and Liz are an example of a much larger community of people working hard for a better way of life in the face of the greatest challenge we will ever face.