We Are What We Breathe

July 3 … 2019

It was a miracle that I had survived.

Thanks to the Highway Patrol officer who came up my 1-mile drive to roust me from my sleep in Two Thousand Eight! That fire came thru Concow in the dark at THREE AM.

The Lightning Complex Fire burned up my home-made house, and a home-made structure that held 150,000 books. The fire, back then, in it’s hurry to devour Concow had left another building I had made especially for books. Narrow double-pained windows, stucco up 10 feet, ship lapped wood above that. All under a metal roof.

Ten years later, I lived in Durham. Three times a week I would go up to Concow to get books I had sold. In addition, I would bring other old books that I had found in my travels, and gradually the stucco building became quite full.

I do not have nightmares about either fire. Especially about this “Mega Thoughts and Prayers” disaster.

Christie called me early in the November morning … as he left our land … about the Camp fire.

From Durham I saw the smoke … black and travelling as a smudge in the clear blue sky … high above the Sacramento Valley, still hot, still travelling in the strong winds.. I suspected my bookhouse might be saved again. But it was not to be. The fire came over the ridge from Camp Creek, snatched my Bookhouse and it’s 150,000 crowded books, Killed two of my neighbors, Richard Brown, Born the same day and year as myself … 1944 … but 3,000 miles away, and so we became of different lifestyles … He a good-hearted Harley-Lover, and myself a warmhearted Booklover …

Also; “Crystal Dave”, who wore a heavy 2 inch diameter local quartz crystal. I would pick him up as he walked to the Dome store. Richard’s fast Bike was not fast enough …

And Dave’s heavy talisman stone … not magic enough … They both died in the smoke,   the fire    and the  ash.

I would have made a prayer to God: “Lord, you can take my books, and their building, but spare me                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            my friends,”

God took them both.     And then …

The fire

Blew over to Paradise

Later …

In Durham, In Chico, all over Butte County, people would look at me thru the smoke, now at ground level.

“What could be in the smoke? … What toxins? What plastics? What chemicals?”

I had built my home and my bookhouses out of recycled wood and stone … new metal yes, but I had intended my footprint to resemble that of the Maidu Indians for whom Concow was named.

 I felt, Mother Nature might somehow give me another pass … for my good behavior.

My other, my first bookhouse had ended just ashes, and only ashes … ashes from wooden bookshelves and paper books … or cloth covers … and thread for bindings.

 Ashes yes,

     And up to my knees,

          Clean, white ash, dangerous as dusty, particle — laden air, dangerous to breath because it was dirty air, not because it was inherently poisonous. After a rain, it was mush, but not poisonous mush.

Survivors questioned each other …

 “What could be in the smoke? … What toxins? What plastics? What chemicals?”

I had become inoculated. I had an easy answer …

“As for me, I contributed Emily Dickinson,

                                                     Walt Whitman

                                                                                     John Muir and Steinbeck.

That smoke carried Shakespeare, Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott.”

B.M. BOWER … Who was SHE to you? To me she wrote western cowboy “romances” while Zane Grey did the same as a man.

This is not to make light of others’ loss … or my own … those writings were my livelihood after all.

But I did want to bring some lightness in the sense of one particular aspect. Maybe it can be expanded out to include an appreciation of other losses. However, that will be up to each other person who contributed to the smoke. What did you lose?

However, just as importantly … 

What did you contribute?


Wayne Piece is a multiple wildfire survivor and accumulator of books. He lives in Durham, California and operates Wonderful Books by Mail. He initially snail-mailed this piece of writing and other generous correspondence to the Ally. We Are What We Breathe was typed on the back of the sheet music for the song, I’m in the Mood for Love.