On April 30, 2012, Austinite John Campbell spoke with KUT News about his experience with the wildfires.
Campbell: I guess there was something about the whole experience that really stuck with me. I wasn’t particularly involved in the fires, I was not in Bastrop, but I just – there was an image that really stuck in my mind cause I had originally – so, I guess, bi-annually my girlfriend and I go out to Big Bend. We go backpacking out there; it’s kind of like our way to I guess decompress, if you want to put it that way, away from all forms of technology. That’s typically the idea, right? So without any access to media or anything like that for four days, we really had no idea that anything like this was going on, and so we were coming back into town, I guess, probably at the height of whenever the fires were going on. And we were coming over the ridge, I think it was Highway 290, maybe – or, sorry – Highway 71, and I could see off in the distance it looked like a bomb had gone off.
It was just these two pillars of smoke that were reaching up, I don’t even know, probably several thousand feet into the air and I couldn’t tell, I couldn’t judge distance on where it was, but I mean, if I’m being honest, I thought like a bomb had gone off or something like that ’cause it was just so dramatic looking. And we actually pulled over on the side of the highway and I pulled out my phone trying to figure out what was going on, and it was just such a terrifying image, I guess – in every sense of the word. It was frightening, but it was also just sort of so startling and striking that I couldn’t look away from it. It was that sort of set phrase, pornography of violence, I guess. It just seemed so impossible that something like that was happening so close by so I – that stuck with me. It still does. I can still see it in my mind, and so I actually – I ended up writing a whole bunch of stuff about it; just trying to imagine – at first I guess what I could offer to people that were actually affected by it since I wasn’t directly affected.
I work with a bunch of people who live out that way and who were directly affected and so there were all kinds of fundraisers and food drives and things of that sort that everyone that I worked with participating in, but I wanted something that was more personal to me. And I guess a lot of the homes that I ended up writing about that I felt – excuse me – I ended up feeling pretty selfish about it. Like trying to create something artistic out of someone else’s tragedy. So I remember going back and just completely rewriting everything that I had written to focus instead on that, because I didn’t want to purport to understand what it was like to have everything I own go up in flames. But it was more like my relationship to the fire and what people might think of me as an outsider looking in on their experiences, trying to contribute something to it, so I think it was just kind of a combination of the I guess the image itself and what precipitated from that.
KUT News: Don’t you think you went from the beauty of nature in the sky in Big Bend, that sky, that beautiful nature out there to then coming back to the, to civilization and – boom – there’s your sky?
Campbell: Right. I think – I guess one part of the story that’s I guess really worth bringing into the fold is they were equally at danger for the same thing out in Big Bend. They usually get 15 inches of rain and they got two that year and that’s already in the desert and so we were pretty cognizant of just – the desert can be sort of desolate on its own, but when there hasn’t been any rain, it’s just even more so, so we were, we were – in a way we were already in that mode ’cause just the whole drive out there and the whole drive back – Fredericksburg certainly didn’t look the same as I remembered it, and nowhere did – along that corridor just everything was dead and it was kind of like the, I don’t know, it was just the sheer graphic nature of the image that really drove the point home like: this is serious business and this can actually happen. And I think it was seeing the smoke itself was striking, I guess, against the beauty of nature, but it was a reminder that we’re not, we’re not excluded from it in a way so we appreciate nature, but it can also wreak this back upon this I suppose.
KUT News: What color was the smoke?
Campbell: It was a really dark and light grey sort of interspersed I guess depending on where it was and the altitude. There was a really good image that I saw; it’s probably from right near where I was the next day that was essentially the same view. It was probably one of the images that got circulated around that weekend.
KUT News: Would you like to share your poem with us?
Campbell: I can. I would have to.
KUT News: I’ve got it here if you’d like to read it from what I have here.
Campbell: You’ve got it right there?
KUT News: I do.
Campbell: Okay. I can do that.
Campbell: It must have been in that case, because I was on the west side of Austin looking out, I guess Bastrop and all of those fires are out down 71, I don’t know, 20 miles east of Austin maybe – so I think, you know, when I saw it, I knew that the magnitude was probably something that I wasn’t really appreciating at the time just because of how far away it was and then I find out later where it actually was and that made it sort of – that kind of cemented the experience. I’m pulling this up on my phone just because I have an updated version of it.
KUT News: Okay. And how were your friends and co-workers affected by the fire? Did they – you knew people who actually lost their homes?
Campbell: Yeah. I want to say for the people that I was working with, it was more like they had farms out there that they lost. I think it was just a – it kind of forces a community, I guess, on everyone involved in a way that it’s sort of upsetting sometimes – that it takes a tragedy to induce. But I think, you know, they were all in some ways, people were in survival mode from what I remember, so there wasn’t – there wasn’t as much emotion as I might have expected. It was almost transactional in a very efficient way like, “We know that you need this, so let us help you, and we’ll deal with the rest of that later,” is what I remember about it. So that’s kind of how I am personally – so it could be my own lens on what was going on.
KUT News: Because they’re processing – they’re not even beginning to even process.
Campbell: Right, yeah.
KUT News: So much they have to go through while they’re grieving, while they’re in shock, it’s like when you lose a loved one quickly, it’s not –
Campbell: Yeah, I mean, I can’t imagine what it would be like to – essentially other than you and hopefully all of your loved ones, everything else would be– your evidence on earth being gone up in flames. It would be just pretty horrible and impossible to understand unless you’ve been through it so –
KUT News: Absolutely. Well, alright –
Campbell: I can read it?
KUT News: Yes.
Campbell: So, it’s just titled “Bastrop September 2011″ and I guess I titled it that because my – a lot of my family lives in Houston, so I ended up driving through there fairly shortly after the fires happened, and it – just seeing all the trees gone and everything like that I guess just I didn’t want to try and distort the metaphor by trying to be more creative than just the city name so –
I mean residual like life / retracted, center and story / drifting toward a purgatory for things. But let’s be serious. I’m talking about a city unwound to ash, / fire on the sea floor, /boulevards of people divining water from a music box of whispers / Every reason stoked to cinder, the mind repeating tragedy, / tragedy, skin wet in the after image of its own imagining / Even still it must be obvious / I’m in a field / writing absence, absence / unable to save the horizon from its tenuous descent / to poem—no tree left flowered, call of burnmarks—faithless before the image / the ode turned inward. As if anyone needed more kindling / A smoke-loaded laureate’s bundle of words
So, I guess that was just me trying to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have anything material to offer in writing a poem for anyone, but it was a way to sort of catalog how I felt about all of that I guess which was just sort of helpless.
KUT News: Did you also write about the moment you saw the smoke?
Campbell: I did originally. You know, I’ve had various feelings about that. I think in the end though I felt like it was disingenuous to just try and talk about destruction I guess in poetic terms; it just didn’t seem – it didn’t feel right to me. I mean, I’ve read plenty of good poems, I can do that, but it’s not something that I could do or felt comfortable doing. I always felt like the best thing that I could do is be honest and the only thing I could be honest about was my own experience and because I was not in the fire; that was sort of how I came to terms with that.
KUT News: Did you share it with anyone?
Campbell: Yeah. I’ve sent it out to a bunch of journals to see what happens with that and I’ve – I still have friends that are poets, obviously, and we share each other’s work, so yeah, I’ve shared it there and I’ve shared it with people at my office who were affected and who weren’t and we have actually – we do an annual anthology for people, because apparently there are a lot of writers at my office, but it’s going to be in that, too.
KUT News: Great. We’d love a copy.
Campbell: Sure, yeah.
KUT News: What about your girlfriend? How is she?
Campbell: I think we were both in shock you know it’s settled in a little bit for me cause I actually drove through there after all of it happened pretty soon, but we were both sort of bewildered. And it was that feeling of not trusting your own senses, I guess, just not really believing that it was there actually there until we went home and turned on the news and saw what was going on; like we needed someone else to verify what we were seeing, I think, was how we both felt cause it didn’t seem possible I suppose.
KUT News: Was that the first moment you received a report, was on television or in your car?
Campbell: Yeah, so I was scanning the radio for it, but we were relatively close to home at that point anyway so I didn’t find anything on the radio in time, but all I had to do was get on Google and it was all over the place.
KUT News: On your phone?
Campbell: Yeah and then I looked up more when I got back just to kind of – I guess I was always – when it comes to things like this, I’ve always been, I don’t know, I try to catalog how extensive something was so just trying to get a sense for how big the fire really was and where it was and all of that just because I feel like I want to have a complete memory of it for whatever reason it’s just kind of how I am.
KUT News: I felt that way about – I couldn’t take my eyes off the 9/11, the planes.
KUT News: And then after I got to process it a little bit, I realized what I was really looking at and I couldn’t look at it.
Campbell: Yeah. I – I mean I had the same experience with that and I actually went to the 9/11 memorial last weekend; not this past weekend, but the one before that. I was in New York, and that was something that I wanted to see, and I hadn’t I guess – that was my first time to New York, so just sitting in the space and trying to put myself in that situation and being surrounded by people that were there and talking to them about it was pretty unreal so – yeah, I think there’s a essence to the oral history component of it that you can’t really capture in text or in any other way; that’s just an intonation in peoples’ voices that’s worth keeping track of and cataloging for everyone else so I’m glad that you guys are doing this.
KUT News: I’m glad you shared your poetry and your experience. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Did you get any type of feedback from those you shared it with who were directly affected by the fire, that you were surprised about or –
Campbell: You know I think that in so many words I explained to them kind of what I told you about why I didn’t write directly about it, and it turned into more just my experience with it and I think that most of those people I was showing it with aren’t poets, so I think they had a harder time understanding that inclination ’cause I think they didn’t feel like it was going to do anyone any disservice to try and write it from their perspective; to try and imagine myself in the fire, but I think they appreciated it. I think it was meaningful to them to know that it impacted someone else enough to sit down and put something like that on paper. I think that this meant something and it still does I think so yeah.
KUT News: It certainly does. Thank you so much, John.