Redford Lindsey and Susie Fowler
Redford Lindsey: Uh, hi, this is Redford Lindsey. I live at 25001 Highway 71 West. We’re out here on the cliff line right past the bridge that goes over the Pedernales River and we were hit pretty hard by the fires last year.
Alright, um, I guess the way it all started for us was, there was a – my mom had a house party going on – or a music event – and, so there were probably 70 people here, and we were just kind of working around doing all that. And the first memory of the fire really is that, I guess, my mom’s friend Peter came up and said that there were ashes floating around outside. So I walked out and you could just see everywhere there were little flakes floating through the air as if it were snowing, so pretty thick.
And we thought it was coming from down at the cliff behind the house, so, I ran down there, and kind of ran up the river and back. Kinda looking around trying to see if I could spot where the fire was coming from, cause at that point we thought that was the direction it was coming from. So I couldn’t find anything, obviously, because it wasn’t at that point down there, and came back up.
And then and at some point our neighbor, Andy – I found him once I got back up here we went up to his property which is farther down the highway, I guess farther west from here, and it’s up on a big hill so we could kind of see where the fire was coming from over there. And at that point you could just kind of see like it was a big tall column of smoke. And we watched it for a while and it got kinda more whitish at some point, like they’d poured a bunch of water on it, so we thought it had kind of gone out, and – at least that they had it in control.
So we came back here, and at that point people we starting to leave the concert because the fire was actually – a lot of the people that were out here are from around the are so they were going back to their houses to take care of things. And so it was kind of a strange scene at that point to have everything suddenly be breaking up like that. So once people really started to leave genuinely – we saw the fire getting put out, or we thought that was what the case was so we kind of calmed down, but that obviously wasn’t the case. It kind of surged back up. And so more and more people started getting calls that their houses were in the paths of fire and people started to leave.
So I think at that point I asked my mom what, you know, what I should do, to kind of prepare everything. And at this point we were still really thinking that maybe it would come into the area, but there was never any real sense that it was actually going to come and get the house – or even the property really.
That was kind of the most surreal thing, was reality setting in and just going through these multiple stages of: “Oh, there’s a big fire out there,” and “Oh, it’s getting closer,” and I think I spent, for a long time – I went up towards the front of the property and walked across the highway up by the golf course and there was actually kind of a big tree up there by the fence, and I remember climbing up on the fence trying to look out and watch you know, as if being able to tell if the fire was coming towards us or not was the most important thing. Whereas I realize now it would have been much better to kind of start preparing stuff and getting things together and doing all that.
So anyway, my mom’s suggestion was that we had some sprinklers and we kind of set them over in the direction that we had now determined the fire was coming from, that it wasn’t coming from the cliff that it was coming from Paleface Ranch Road, up the road. And so I ran around and set out a bunch of sprinklers kind of over to the left of our house – of the garage apartment, rather, which is the one building that ended up staying up. We kind of wet down that whole side of the building, which was just as much as we were able to do pretty much.
And everyone had pretty much gone at that point. We just had a couple of family members here. My grandma was here. My aunt was here. And that’s when I guess I’d kind of – once I got the sprinklers set up, I’d been continuing to go back and forth to the front of the property, to kind of see what was going on, and I’d been watching it from afar, like I said, going to the golf course and trying to watch over the hill and everything. And at some point it just turned into this wall of orange. I was up there and when I showed up to kinda get a look there wasn’t a skyline anymore. It was just kind of this dark orange color, just spread through the entire sky and I knew at that point it was not time to delay anymore and just immediately came back here and started yelling at everybody that we really did have to get out of here right now. And my aunt took my grandma and they left and my mom and I just started grabbing up a couple things. Just as my aunt has said several times before the end of this, my mom was getting cheese and food from the party and putting it all back in the refrigerator and my aunt was going “get pictures, get your valuables, we gotta get out of here.”
So we were again just this sense of this isn’t really happening to us. This isn’t going to happen. It’s not going to hit our house. If it burns our property it’s not gonna catch the house on fire. That kind of thing.
So at this point we started getting the reverse 911 calls where they call your cell phones and say anybody in this area you need to leave and evacuate immediately. So we went up to the front of the property and stood at the gate for a while and went through this process of every ten minutes somebody would say, “Oh! There’s something I forgot!” and the other would say, “No, we don’t need to go back, we can’t go back now,” you know. So we waited for maybe a half hour or 45 minutes, I’m not sure exactly how long and eventually the fire trucks started coming up and down the road and telling people that they did actually at that point have to leave.
And then we kind of played this game for about an hour where we’d drive as far down the road as we could before we’d need to, before we’d, you know, stop as soon as possible, you know, pull over, and then wait about 20 minutes and then the fire trucks would come and say, “No. You need to more a little bit further down.” There was kind of this whole group of people that was steadily getting pushed farther and farther back from their houses.
And um – so finally, after this happened about three times we just gave up and drove farther out. And we ended up stopping at Opie’s Barbaque where there were a bunch of people stopped. And it was kind of an interesting scene there. He had closed up shop because they had turned the power off at this point throughout a lot of the area; I guess trying to prevent further fire risk from downed power lines, I’m not sure exactly – but they cut the power so all of his meat freezers and coolers were down so he had all this barbeque and he couldn’t be open for business. But he was letting people come in that were, you know, had no place to stay. So he was turning away customers, but anybody who’s houses, anybody who had been evacuated, he was letting them hang out. And it was, I guess it was kind of a Memorial Day, I don’t know if it was Memorial Day Weekend or if it was some kind of holiday weekend, but a lot of people had, you know, wine in their trunks, and liquor, so it turned into this little bizarre kind of party in the parking lot where everybody was kind of drinking and hanging out and having a good time as much as you could for the fact that a bunch of people there knew that their homes were in the process of burning down.
So it was just one of the most surreal things that I think I’ve ever experienced, just this real sense of camaraderie and people being neighbors and helping each other out and being there for each other. And so it as just a really interesting thing to witness all these people.
And so that night we kind of moved on towards Marble Falls and stayed with my aunt and uncle. And it was a really weird night because we didn’t really know what had happened. At some point some neighbor that could see the house called my mom to let her know that she could see that her house was on fire. And so that night we thought, you know, that everything was gone, that the garage apartment had burned along with the main house. So it was kind of a whole night of really not knowing.
And then the next day a friend of ours, I guess, snuck over from across the river and revealed that the garage apartment was in fact still standing, that my yellow Mazda was still sitting in the middle of the driveway, miraculously enough. And then we spent another three days not really knowing ‘cause it was three days until they opened everything up and let us back in.
So we knew one thing had burned, that something was still there on the first day, and they wouldn’t let anybody in because the fires were continuing, so there were several days of just being and wondering, you know, “The house was there, is it still gonna be there when we get back?” So it was a very strange period.
So we got back after about three days. And they had most of the places open quicker than that, but because of, I guess, where this area is, there’s not a lot of houses on this stretch, the fire was really, I guess, going strong here, and it’s in between, it’s just between, that small section between the bridge and between Fall Creek that they had shut down for longer than anywhere else.
So once we finally got back in there was a lot of the property that was still on fire. So we just spent several days kind of putting out all the little – you know, the firefighters were so busy with all the fires in Bastrop that – you know, they’d be able to – you know, they’d come out here at I guess eight or nine the night of the main fires and finally were able to put some water on the house that had burned and stop the other house from catching, but they hadn’t been able to do any of the other clean up stuff after that.
So I had some friends over, our water had burnt. So we had to get water from the neighbors. Stretched hoses from there place and stretched ‘em down the cliff. There were a lot of trees down the cliff. I remember one particularly huge one that was laying down, and so it was just a long bed of coals pretty much, that was sitting there. So we’d just sit there for an hour dumping water on one stump and just watching steam rise up.
Or up at the cliff there’d be rocks that would go down and roots that would go down into the rocks, and we’d just sit there and pour water into these holes and steam would just come up and up and up ‘cause it was, everything was just so hot and there were still so many coals so we did a lot of that.
And we took wheelbarrows and buckets and just kind of walked around all the upper places in the property where we couldn’t run hoses, and we’d do it at night and take three or four guys and just kind of walk around. And somebody would spot a glowing red thing in the distance and we’d walk over and it’d be some big tree stump and we’d pour water on it for a while. So –
KUT News: How long did it take you to put out all of the coals?
Lindsey: We did this for, I think at least three or four nights. I don’t remember exactly what, but it was something like three or four nights, and some of the nights I think the first night when it was just me and one of my other friends we probably went out at 11 or midnight and I think we probably stayed out until five in the morning so it was a, there was a lot. Everything was just totally still on fire.
And for days afterwards, even once we were back here, you would see there would be helicopters that were flying around and dumping water on a lot of the stuff that was still going. And there’s a pond over on the neighbor’s property and there was a little bit of water in the river – and I think they even let some more water down river so they’d have something to fight it with. So they were here and landing at the golf course.
So it wasn’t like a, it wasn’t an immediate thing, it was just continuing to happen, which was I think an interesting part of the experience, was it wasn’t like one thing that happens and then it’s done. It was you know weeks of suddenly dealing with it and then months of dealing with it since the whole property was burnt.
KUT News: So, you came back three days after the fire and you’ve been here since?
Lindsey: Pretty much, yeah. I mean, I was living here before, too, but I’ve been here the whole time, watching everything grow back. And I was talking to my mom yesterday about it, about the difference in kind of being able to visualize the property. Because I’ve been out here the whole time since it’s all grown back I can’t remember what it was looked like as much as before. Whereas she can really remember distinctly where there were more – and she’s lived out here more – there were a lot of, a lot of, there was a long time when I was living in Austin and other places and haven’t been out here. So she’s probably got a better picture what it was like, too.
But it’s kind of been a different thing. Instead of taking it in chunks, coming out every once in a while and seeing the property change it’s just been a real gradual thing, so for me it all feels just very familiar and just – not like it’s always been, but just I’m very used to this all being what it is now. So, uh, yeah.
KUT News: But what is it like walking out your door in the morning and seeing all of these trees like this?
Lindsey: Well, so that’s the thing is, now, it’s just totally, it’s what I live around and I’m just used to it. It’s the trees that are in my front yard. But, um, I remember for quite a while it was a really shocking thing. Because everyday you’d walk out and there was nothing green, it was all just black and gray and there was a really strong smell. I remember for months after the fire I’d get up to go to work in the morning and you’re just greeted with – especially any time after it rained or when there was any moisture introduced because it was – the entire property was just ashes. So I remember the smell and just the colors.
So now we’ve had all these rains and a lot of the leaves have come back, especially on the oaks around here, and we’re doing some supplemental water, so it’s a lot greener now. So at this point I think the trees are beautiful, even the ones that have no leaves are kind of like silhouettes.
So I’ve gotten used to it now, but it was definitely a very shocking thing at first, to walk out every day and be in the middle of a, you know, I would say a war zone, but that’s not really it, but it was very just chaotic. And even for a while before all the rubble was removed, you know, there was the frame of the airstream that burned and the truck that was in front of that and I think there was a propane barrel, like a 60 pound aluminum propane barrel that exploded so it was carnage, it was a crazy looking scene.
But it’s been neat to watch all that slowly kind of come back. And one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that wherever a tree has burn there are a bunch of little saplings that are all around the edge of the tree and with the persimmons and the mesquites a lot of the different plants around here even if the main one died up from the root-stock grows all the little young ones. And so there have been parts of it that have been really inspiring and beautiful to watch and there are parts of it like the smell, just dragging through. But a lot of that’s gone now so it’s just a nice place to be again.
KUT News: Why did you choose to stay instead of moving back to Austin [with your mom]?
Well, I like it out here. We’ve been – we bought this property, I guess, about 15 years ago. And we came out a lot before there was even a house, just to camp and hang out. I remember hanging out in this house before it was – when it was framed up we’d come out here and just kind of hang, hang out on the slab of that place when it was just a slab before there was a house there. So part of it just felt like an opportunity to kinda stay out here and do something. And I like living in the country, I had been in the city for maybe eight years prior to moving back out here, so I just wasn’t really ready to go back into town yet. I enjoy being out here too much. And it seemed like a really unique experience being able to watch everything grow back. Like we were just talking about with the plants and everything growing back and replacing the old dead ones and watching all the different types of plants come through. You know, there’s been some in one season, they’ll get replaced by a whole different one – the wildflowers were incredible this year. I don’t think the wildflowers have ever been the same as they were this year. Just, maybe because of the ash, or because it burnt away all the ground cover so that there was just more space for them to grow. But that was a particularly tremendous part of it all, was watching that. It just – it felt like a good way to complete the experience too, I guess, to have all that happen and really watch it all change.
I think one of the most bizarre parts of the landscape was it just seemed like houses had popped up all around. There was a big patch over to the right side of the property that had just been trees. And I’d walk out there, especially at night when it was really the most striking, because there’d be lights all along the front of this, I guess, garage structure or whatever it was. You could suddenly see it, like a big space ship sitting over there to the right of your house that just hadn’t been there – well, it probably has been there for ten years or so, since they built it. But to have stuff like that just appear out of no where was also kind of a surreal part of the whole thing.
KUT News: Let’s talk about, I guess, clean up of the property, I guess, after – not fires, but having to go through the belongings in the house.
Lindsey: Well, that wasn’t really what we expected it to be. We thought it was going to be kind of like – you know, you see on TV when people are looking for dinosaur bones or going through some kind of old historical place – the whole house imploded, a propane line exploded, went off, inside the house, and it all kind of collapsed from within. It was a pretty large, tall structure. So we expected to kind of be sifting through and go, “Oh! Look at this! Look at this!” And there was a little of that.
We definitely found some stuff – but the sheer amount of the house itself, all these things that you never really think about when you’re in a house, you know, all the insulation and the wiring inside the walls, and the walls themselves and the sheetrock. There’s just a tremendous amount of stuff, and it had all been reduced to these little marble-sized, pebble-sized chunks. So – and it was all very heavy, and there was all kinds of sharp glass and rusted metal all mixed in with it. So it was near, anywhere near as romantic as you would think searching through the remains of a house would be. It was much more just drudgery of sifting through piles and piles of sheetrock and maybe finding a quarter or a piece of a handle from one of the cabinets.
And we think maybe some people came and went over it before we got here because I had a tuba that melted fairly completely and we found a small chunk of metal from it. I imagine there probably should have been more of that. It seemed like there was a lot of stuff that should have cropped up. Maybe it was just hidden under stuff. It was just really hard to tell because it was such a overwhelming amount of, of house in comparison to the ratio of stuff in there.
And you know, I had a whole room full of books, that ranged from – I had school work when I was a kid, my entire collection of books from when I was – I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy books when I was a kid, between travelling back and forth a lot to – my step-dad had a ranch in Goliad. It was like a three hour drive so I would read books all the way back and forth – so huge amounts of books, books from my dad’s family and my grandmother’s books. So there was an entire room just full of paper, of just burnt paper, so that was a really weird place to walk through because it was piled really thick all along everything.
So it just wasn’t what we expected, which was kind of the whole thing was a lesson in the reality of life and not what you expect. But we thought it would be much more orderly and much more stuff that you could find.
And I remember one of the most striking things of the whole experience was, you couldn’t really, it was very hard to visualize the house walking through the rubble of the house. You would think having been in a place that long, that you could really clearly imagine, “Well I’m right here in the house, ‘cause there’s that angle on the slab,” and, you know, “That would have been here, and this would have been there,” but instead it was incredibly disorienting. And for a while the roof was on, and once the roof got pulled away, it made a little bit more sense, but it still was really striking how unfamiliar you could be with a place once it’s changed that much even though you think you have this map of it in your head it would be so hard – we’d sit there talking trying to figure out, “Well, we’re here, and the kitchen should have been over there, so what is this spot right here? What should have been here?” It was really much more difficult than you would have thought, the degree of just disorientation, being in a place that’s been changed and reorganized in that chaotic of a fashion was really surprising.
KUT News: Could you walk into the house? How much of it was still –
Lindsey: Um, well, when it first happened, the roof – we had an aluminum roof, and so it had kind of bowed and slumped, so it made all these crazy shapes. We were originally thinking about keeping some of them for artwork out here it was that much of a kind of bizarre melted looking landscape. And so, when it first happened you could – that had all – the house imploded, everything blew up inside the house. All the rock’s collapsed. So what you were left with was this giant melted roof sitting on top of everything else. So if you were going to walk around the house you had to crawl underneath the roof and crawl around in there. So, we did walk around a little bit, but it felt kind of dangerous because you never knew if something was going to fall on you, or just, what was going to happen. So we waited to do a lot of the looking around before we finally got somebody to pull off the roof, and then at that point it was just the slab with all the rubble on it
So, um, and at the beginning the chimney was standing, too, which was really kind of the striking image that you see in kind of bombed out and burned out houses – the whole house’ll be just gone and you’ll see that one really tall chimney just rising up. And we had a pretty large stonework fireplace, and the whole thing was just kind of interesting to see, just the huge slab, and I think there were a couple large agave plants in front of that, too. So, uh, that was kind of the striking image of the whole thing, was that big towering chimney, with the collapsed roof behind it, agave plants in front.
KUT News: Could you give me kind of, um, a timeline here, from when you got back to when you were able to go into the house, to when the roof was taken off, and kind of what you were doing in between the times you stopped putting out fires around the property and when you started cleaning up?
Lindsey: Um, let’s see. It’s really hard to think that much about the time and all that. But we started looking around fairly soon. We were – I remember walking around, you know, wearing boots and being concerned about being burned by coals and stuff in the – so we were, you know, very quickly we were inquisitive and we wanted to see what was going on.
Um, and then, there was a lot of stalling, I think, and all that. Because it became a really painful process to actually look in and – certainly more so for my mom than for me because she lost so much more stuff in there. But, uh, but you know, all my little, all my little childhood possessions, all the little things that remind you of memories, so many of those were lost. And so I think it was, I think that was a lot of the delay in all that, was just wanting to – well not really wanting to, but just not being able to deal with this sudden trauma of having all your stuff just turned into powder, fine powder. And even the stuff that you would find would be so ruined it’s just an interesting reminder of what you had, but it’s not at all what you had. Nothing was really, very few things were left whole.
One really interesting thing that was left whole was, uh, um, my step-dad, or the guy who had been my step-dad who was my adoptive father, uh, killed himself the year before this all happened, not even the year before, but several months before it all happened in the year preceding this. And my mom had, uh, at the time been making these ceramic urns. And there, uh, there had been one that I’d been looking at, that I just for some reason felt that it was appropriate for Bill. And it was just, you know, they’re expensive, and I never thought to buy one from my mom or to ask her to give one to me, to be able to use for him – we didn’t have his ashes or anything, but just as a kind of memorial, sentimental thing. And, uh, but I never really asked her about it – I mentioned to her that it might be appropriate for him, but we didn’t really do anything about it. It just kind of sat up there on the bookshelf with the other urns, ‘cause I was, you know, it was a nice one, and I was hoping she’d sell ‘em. And, uh, when the fire happened and when everything collapsed, I was just thinking how interesting it would be if for some reason that one had been the one that made it through. It was kind of a small, compact, tough looking little shape. And sure enough, for some strange reason it survived. The top, we lost the little top piece that went on to it, but the whole urn – and this is out of, pretty much none of her other pieces survived. It was one of the few that just came through, completely whole and undamaged. I mean, it’s a different color, it got smoke-damaged, but it really was amazing, and very helpful at the time to – even though it’s a fairly meaningless thing to see something like that and to be able to draw some kind of meaning and hope that something did survive and it was the one thing that I really wanted to survive, and so, that was a nice touch.
But yeah, as far as the timeline goes, it just um – they got the roof off, once they got the roof off, we again started going through things. We had a couple groups of people out here. And it started as a real gung-ho kind of effort. A lot of people would come out and shift, but then, or sift, but then it got just kind of confusing, ‘cause it was all these different people – too many cooks in the kitchen, kind of, whatever. And uh, I think we had at least one person out here who was actually trained in the operation and knew what she was doing, and I remember her just being so frustrated because everyone was just kind of going through stuff and just destroying the order of it. We realized at some point it was not going to be an archeological dig. There was no way that you could do it in a way that was really going to keep the order of – especially with so many people out there just wanting to sift through and find things. So even with that we got a remarkably small portion of the actual matter sifted and so it really became more and more clear that it was just too much stuff to adequately sift through and so we just kind of waited and waited.
My mom’s year has been really long and trying ‘cause her mother has Alzheimer’s, so a lot of her time and attention has been focused on that. And so, for one reason or another we’re sitting here nearly a year later and we’re now finally getting the slab cleared off, and we’re getting everything put into a big dumpster to haul off. And we’ve joked about setting up like a big Indian mound or something, pouring it all in one place and cover it with grass, and then if we ever decide that we really wanna go dig up Grandma’s spoon collection of silver spoons or memorabilia or find some lost family relic than we could, but it seems like overall it’s just better to let everything go. So it’s sitting in the dumpster now, waiting to be hauled off.
KUT News: Why do you think it’s better to let everything go?
Lindsey: Um, I don’t know if it necessarily is. I think part of it is a practical consideration, that there’s all kinds of rusty nails and screws and broken glass in there and it’s better to just let the bad out with the good. Yes, I would certainly want to keep all of the stuff if I knew what was in there, but I think on a practical level, trying to sort through everything is pretty impossible and that leaving all that dangerous stuff on the property is probably not the best thing long term. So, I guess it’s one of those things where I feel very attached to that stuff, and I’m sure my mom does too, and at even just the prospect that some of it might be in there, but just on a rational level, knowing that we have to move on and rebuild and keep moving forward. And uh, I think we’re both kind of hoarders, so there’s a temptation to hang on to every little bit that you can.
And this has kind of been a lesson of – I think that’s been the biggest thing for me, of the fire was – and thankfully a lot of my stuff didn’t get burned, but, of the stuff that did, it would have been really nice to get some of the things that were really important to me, and I think sometimes trying to hold on to so many different things that you don’t know what the really important things are or even where the important things are if you know what they are because you can end up with so many little keepsakes and things to remind you of times gone by. And so, I knew where all my hard drives were. I knew where all my digital photos were. And that was something that I felt confident and comfortable, that I was able to gather up and get out of here. But, um, it makes you think about all of the stuff that you keep and what’s really important. Trying to just slim that down and live a saner life with not so much clutter.
KUT News: What’s important to you now that wasn’t so much before?
Lindsey: I don’t know, I talk about, I just mentioned about, like, getting the photos out, and I think that really – I’ve been using a digital camera for at least, ten or more years now to capture different places that I’ve been, and um, I think that was something that was important to me before, but realizing that just, when it really comes down to it, being able to pick up something as small as a portable hard drive, a stack of portable hard drives, and just take that stuff with you, really made me think a lot about digitally storing stuff. So I guess that’s not really what specifically what was important, but more of a medium. Maybe there’s different ways to kind of organize your life – I’ve thought a lot this year about, just about how our lives change, especially with my grandmother having Alzheimer’s and kind of losing all our memories. So keeping all those photos was really important to me. ‘Cause a section of them was when I went with my Grandma to Scotland probably six or eight years ago. And uh, it was one of the last big trips that she got to do and it was the only trip that we’d ever really taken together. So to be able to look back on that later, I think will be really nice. So it made me think about kind of the importance of organizing things like that. For me I think the photos, or having some view of the places you’ve been or the people you’ve known is an important thing.
KUT News: I guess, where do you see the family a year from now? And then, I guess, five years from now?
Lindsey: I really have no clue. That’s so much of what’s up for debate right now. My mom’s trying to figure out what she wants to do as far as rebuilding. I think this hit us at kind of crucial points in our lives. My mom’s 60, and I’m 30. The fire happened five days before my 30thbirthday, so it was really a, it made me wonder a lot about that kind f question exactly, and with her being 60, kinda starting to get towards retirement age and having lived a pretty full live and having done a lot of stuff, she’s really trying to figure out what she wants to do, and she was doing so much with having events out here and music and making art, and a lot of that was really important to her life and she’s now kind of wondering where’s she gonna go with all that and whether to try to rebuild the whole thing you had going or just kind of relax and enjoy life. And I’m kind of at this other point of where do I really wanna go in life. What do I want to do with the energy of my life? And this has really been a good thing for all that I think, ‘cause it really – for one, it’s given me the opportunity to take a year and sit back and work on the property and try to take care of things out here and just kind of consider – and it also really makes you think about what’s important. So I can’t say any real definite answers or directions we’re trying to go in right now, but it has been a very introspective time of trying to figure out what is important, how you want to spend our days.
KUT News: Well, um, I guess I’ve reached the end of my questions. Is there anything else that you’d like to add? That you think is important –
Lindsey: Well, two things, I guess um, the one other interesting story thing that I think about in this whole experience was how much the weather changed, and what a strange experience that was. It had been such a hot and dry summer. And the day after the fire, I remember waking up and walking outside my aunt and uncle’s house, and it was just this crisp, cool, feeling. There was moisture in the air, the temperature had dropped a lot, a whole new weather system had moved in on the day of these fires, I believe. It was just so dramatically different. So much had changed from the night before, from the day before, it felt like it was months away already. So that’s been really an interesting way of looking at time and the effects of and the way we experience time, because stuff like that, it makes it seem like it’s a worlds away from where you’ve been the day before in such a sudden moment.
And also just the positive and negatives of the everything. I think the whole experience has been really trying for everybody out here. But there was also this tremendous sense of community and I talked to people that I never talked to before and got to know neighbors that I didn’t know existed or that I’d kind of seen around but hadn’t really talked. And, you know, watching everything grow back out here. There are so many negatives that people associate with things like this. And I’ve always really kind of liked fire as an element. I like nothing more than to sit around a campfire and relax. I remember having my first controlled burn after all this had happened, and having a fire in my fire pit out there. And sitting and thinking and enjoying the fire and just, looking at the positive sides of everything I guess. There’s, there’s uh, a lot of stuff that’s happened that’s just been good, and bad, and that’s life. And it’s been interesting to grow with everything and watch it change. And so I guess that’s just the silver lining in everything is what you’ve got to look for.
KUT News: Great, well, thank you very much.
Lindsey: You’re welcome.
KUT News: Alright, this is March 22nd, and Susie, could you give us your name and where you live?
Susie Fowler: My name is Susie Fowler, and I live- well I currently live in downtown Austin but I live primarily in Spicewood, Texas.
KUT News: And tell us your first moment of the fire please. When you were aware of the fire.
Fowler: We actually- we were getting ready to have a big musical party at my house and we noticed smoke coming up the riverbed and from Haynie Flat’s area, two different directions around 1:30. And we called a 9-1-1 call around 1:40. But we didn’t actually see fire, till probably 4 when we broke up the party and left the house, then we could see the fire across the highway, before that we were just very aware of the fire and could smell the smoke and could hear sirens now and then.
KUT News: And, what were you doing that day?
Fowler: Well, I’m an artist. And about four times a year I have a musical gathering that includes an art show of whatever my most recent work is, and so that day I had a little trio called the Twilight Trio, and about 60 to 70 people sitting down in my house for a concert when we actually had to evacuate. We had a potluck lunch first and the band arrived, and all during that time we were aware that there was a fire. Everyone that comes to these musical parties live in the area, and everyone was very aware, everyone had their cell phones in their pockets. It was a very distracted day. The anticipation, I mean everyone knew it was a big deal, but didn’t have any idea, we never thought it would cross the highway, really.
KUT News: So you were still having your function knowing that it was miles away.
Fowler: Well, it was about 5 miles away, the fire was about five miles from my house, as the crow flies, but we could smell it hours before we saw fire. And we were aware of it, because some people who were guests at the party lived behind the fire, so they saw the origin of the fire and knew it was huge and coming our way, so one of the people who always comes to my musical events was there, his name is Steve, and he lives behind the fire, so he went back, and actually we were in communication for the whole party, by cell phone. Because we knew that if there was going to be an evacuation, we knew what was going on in Bastrop.
So we knew that- I knew from when I made my 9-1-1 call, who I was speaking to was not a local dispatcher, it was evidently because of the disaster declaration, it was- we were actually speaking to dispatchers from homeland security, and they had no idea where anything was in Spicewood. And so that was the big difficulty in Spicewood, was that it started long after the Bastrop fire was already in full swing, and the resources were all over there, and we just had no resources. And then when the fire actually got bad enough, the power lines went down, and then we had no electricity, so you couldn’t pump gas, and water pumps didn’t work and nothing worked. But when I called my 9-1-1 call in, they couldn’t figure out where I was, and I live on highway 71. And they kept saying, well: We don’t see that you’re there, and I’ve been there 14 years, so no one came to put out my fire till about 8 o clock in the night.
And, as a result, you know, it burned to the ground. But, I mean I’m right on highway 71, it never made any sense to me, but they never came to my house for a very, very, very long time, and by the time they did, the house was fully engulfed in flames, and all they could really do was save the garage and the studio part of the garage.
KUT News: So when did you put that call in?
Fowler: 1:40 in the afternoon.
KUT News: And they arrived at …
Fowler: I was told several days after the fire, I was told by a sheriff who came to the house because he saw my gate open, that he was the one that actually turned in the fire… the fire call that actually got responded to, and sometime around 8 o clock in the evening, 8 or 8:30 in the evening, evidently- by that time, we were forced to evacuate, we got the evacuation call, the official one at 4:15, we evacuated the party at 3:45, because Steve called and said that he had talked to some Fire Marshall and that they were going to call an emergency- a mandatory evacuation. So we evacuated the party ahead of that so we weren’t so that we weren’t all trying to enter highway 71 from one driveway.
In an evacuation, and so when the actual evacuation happened, my son and I stood out at the highway for about an hour, because the fire hadn’t crossed the highway, and we wanted to go back and try to get some more things out, but they said: no, you can’t go back. So we didn’t, we never went back to the house, once we walked away until Tuesday afternoon when they let us back in. But, we went then up to Fall Creek Road up on a hill and watched the houses burning. And all the neighbors were up there, we were all trying to figure out which houses were burning and which ones they were actually putting out. And at some point in time, my propane tank blew up, and I had a 1,000-gallon propane tank, cause I’m a potter.
And so I had a huge propane tank from my gas fire kilns. And when it blew up, you could see the fireball, and at that point my son said, that’s got to be our house. Nobody else has a tank that size above ground in our neighborhood. So at that point we left and went on to Granite Shoals to stay at my sister’s house, and-
KUT News: What time was that?
Fowler: We left about, before 8 o clock. And then evidently, when the fireball happened, someone noticed and drove down this area, realizing that there had to be something there besides brush. And that’s when they actually did come in, but I’ve been told that the people that put out my fire was a pump truck from- there was a pump truck and a tank truck, and one of them came from Buda, and one came from Llano, and evidently they were dispatched by this sheriff who realized that there was actually a house down this long road, I have a very long driveway two tenths of a mile long road, and I’m a wildlife preserve, well not an official preserve, but I have my land and wildlife management, so it’s very wild still, and very densely wooded, the properties on the other side of me are very expensive, lots of grass areas, a lot of hard cover and humongous houses, and they just show up better.
So they could see them from the air. I don’t think they could see my house that well from the air, because it was a metal roof, and it was encroached on by all these trees. So I, you know, legitimately they probably thought there was nothing down there but more trees, because it wasn’t local people. Anyone else, the local people, I give to their fundraiser every year, I mean this year I was their featured artist for their fundraiser which actually happened two weeks after the fire.
And the piece I originally donated was in the gallery the day of the fire and burned up, so I gave them another piece that was in another gallery and that’s what they used for their fundraiser. But they all know me, everyone in Spicewood knows that there’s a potter, they don’t necessarily know me, but either their children have been to one of my field trips or they’ve been to one of the musical events or, I used to do fundraising a lot because I had a great big house so I did fundraisers for environmental concerns and political concerns and the public library and that kind of thing.
KUT News: So the Spicewood or the Pedernales Fire Department, where were they?
Fowler: They were in Bastrop. Fighting fires in Bastrop.
KUT News: So did they ever- did they ever come back to –
Fowler: I don’t know. I was told by this sheriff that my fire was fought by a Llano and a Buda fire people. And I’ve seen, I mean I know a lot of the people in Spicewood and the Pedernales fire and I’ve seen them. They were all over in Bastrop. I mean they all feel terrible, everybody feels terrible that my house burned down. It was kind of a community center, unofficial community center and really I do a 5th grade field trip, so every year the whole 5th grade comes and we do an hour nature tour and then we make a clay tile and they press native stuff in it and I glaze them and fire them.
Fowler: So I’ve done this for 8 years, so I know a lot of people in Spicewood. And most of them I let come on my land and take pictures during bluebonnet season, which by the way it is, and it’s incredible right now, the wildflowers are incredible. So since the fire, mostly what we’ve done is land work, we haven’t even begun to rebuild, we haven’t even cleaned off all the ashes, cause-
KUT News: So you went to your sisters…
Fowler: Went to my sisters, we were there until Tuesday afternoon. My neighbor from across the river who’s also a potter called me around 10 o clock or 10:30 Sunday night and said: I’m sitting on my porch and your house is totally engulfed in flames. And at the time, she thought everything was, we were amazed the next day when the fires were dying down to see that the garage and the garage, you know, my son’s room above the garage were actually still there. Cause the rest of the house was completely gone.
KUT News: Why was she sitting on her front porch, wasn’t she supposed to be evacuated?
Fowler: The other side of the river had gotten back in. everybody did evacuate, they had evacuated but by that time, they let people come back into the neighborhood around 9:30 or 10 I think, on the other side of the river, not on our side. On the highway 71 side, we were still evacuated. We didn’t get to come back in until Tuesday late afternoon. But Cindy came and, they live off of Pedernales Canyon Trail and when the fire happened, you either had to go to either the Austin side of the bridge or the Marble Falls side of the bridge, and then you were there until Tuesday afternoon. And they went, they were at my house, but they went towards the other place, they went towards Angel’s, I think they hung out at Angel’s Icehouse. And we hung out at the barbeque place for a long, long time. And then we realized we couldn’t see anything from there and then we went up to Fall Creek, where we could actually watch the whole thing.
The photograph that I sent you, that was taken at Fall Creek, looking down at my house in flames. Incredible photograph isn’t it? By that time, the roof had melted and fallen in, my house was 35 feet high, it was a humungous, sort of a church-like building. And the pole that held the spiral staircase had bent over almo- no maybe half way. And the stairs had all come off the welds, the welds had all fallen apart, the I-beams had all melted, it was just incredibly hot. All the glass was in little tiny pieces.
KUT News: And this neighbor across the river called you on-
Fowler: Sunday night.
KUT News: And at what time?
Fowler: I think it was around 10:30, and she said, we just got back to our place and I’m sorry to tell you, but your place is completely in flames, there cannot be anything left of your house. And that’s pretty much right, there was not much left of the house, I mean there wasn’t anything bigger than about an inch cube.
KUT News: Have you already been told about- you heard the propane tank explosion?
Fowler: We heard and saw the propane explode, so we were quite certain it was our house, but everyone up there felt like it was their house. My neighbor, Diane White kept saying: Oh, I know that’s my house, and I kept saying: I don’t think so, I think that’s my house, but you know it’s a funny vantage point, and there was fire everywhere. I mean, everywhere you looked, there was fire.
So it was hard to just focus on one point, but we all knew, you could tell by the river where we all live, cause we all back up to the river. And really once the propane tank blew up, there was no doubt in my mind that it was my house because, I’m the one that has a propane tank. We just- I know all my neighbors and I’m the one that has the huge propane tank. So…
KUT News: Did you ever feel in danger for your own life?
Fowler: No, I never did. Because we were always above the fire watching it from a distance. Now in my mother’s mind we escaped with flames licking at our feet.
KUT News: Because she was with you?
Fowler: She was with us. Oh yeah, she was with us, and what happened was, when we finally got the 9-1-1 ca- well, when Steve called to say there was going to be an evacuation, I just got on the microphone and thanked the band and said: we have to evacuate. You know, I’m really sorry but they really think it’s going to cross the highway, and people were like: it can’t cross the highway. Everybody folded up their chairs and put them in front of the fireplace and picked up their wine bottles and walked out the door, it was very leisurely and then- but then at 4:15 we got the 9-1-1 reverse call that says: you have 5 minutes to get out of your house.
And at that point, we really went into action and my mother and sister left for Marble Falls and another friend left and took my dog to town, and I went upstairs and got my passport, and one piece of art, I’m so glad, and not my own art, but I had this incredibly beautiful beaded headdress from West Cameroon, Africa. It’s really an incredible piece of art of handcraft. And I debated that or this beautiful painting, and I didn’t think I’d get the painting down my staircase without tripping, and I’m glad, it was the right choice. And that’s really, basically what I took. We took family pictures out of my bathroom.
And as people were leaving the party, they were going: Should we take art? And I’m going: Nah, it’s not going to cross the highway. And really I had 70 people, we could have taken an enormous number of things out, but no one really thought it would cross the highway, we all thought we were doing this, you know, good citizen, follow directions, don’t make waves, shut the party down, you know, behave yourselves kind of thing. And then hours later it crossed the highway; it didn’t cross the highway probably till 5, 5:30. 6, I don’t know.
When it was, cause I didn’t have on a watch. The cell phones, you couldn’t even make a cell phone call, cause so many people were making cell phone calls that the towers were just completely not working and the generators, there was no power in Spicewood, the generators- there were generators from place to place, but basically there were no lights and so, nothing was working. So, there were actually, when we drove to Marble Falls there were fire trucks on the side of the road that had run out of gas, and you couldn’t get gas, cause there was no power to pump gas, I mean it was frightening to realize how unprepared, how low on resources our area was, it was just astonishing.
KUT News: So, when you got the call, and then you were- what did you decide to do from your neighbor?
Fowler: Oh, when I got the call from her? Well, there was nothing to do really? I mean, we just spent the night, we just went to bed. (laugh) Like, OK. We know now. We knew before, but there was no doubt then, we had confirmation our house was gone. We went to bed and the next morning we got up and went into Marble Falls- I mean went into Granite Shoals and had breakfast and visited with my mom, and tried to get a little more information. A friend of mine from Austin drove up and went and took photographs of the house, and sent me photographs by e-mail. So by noon on Monday, I could see that everything was gone except the garage, and the little garage apartment. And so, we knew exactly what it looked like, we could see the devastation, we just couldn’t go in.
Now some people did go in, but we were told we couldn’t go in, and we believed them. I wish we had, because we could have saved a lot of our trees if we had gone in and just shoveled sand on them to put out the stumps that were burning, but again, you kind of hope that you’re doing the right thing when you follow those kinds of orders. So we didn’t actually go back in, there was a meeting at Spicewood at noon on Tuesday to talk about the fire relief effort, especially for people who had no insurance and no place to go, I mean I had hundreds of people say, come stay with me, come stay with me. But you know, for the people that didn’t have a database with 3,000 people in it, they really needed a lot of assistance. And we were at that meeting when they raised the evacuation time and so we could all go back to our homes. So, we went from the meeting to our house, and that’s when we actually saw it in reality. And I would say that for at least two weeks, I never looked to the right or the left, I just drove down the driveway to the house. I just couldn’t bear to look at the number of trees that I thought would be dead.
Everything was completely black on my property, I mean there was- everything was covered in ash. Every tree was black, and even the ones that still had leaves on them. Everything was black with ash, so you couldn’t tell what was even alive, I mean, now, we’re beginning to see a lot of tree growth, so we actually are going to have a lot more trees than most people said we were. We had arbors come out and say: You know, you should cut these down, and we’re going: Oh, no, no, no, no, wait until spring, they might live, and people told us we were crazy, but I worked years ago in the- oh I guess it was ’77 or ’78 in the Aspen area, with the roaring Fork, the big fire that went through the Aspens, and I had learned then that… trees are amazing.
And even when the bark is completely gone, trees can live. I had a red oak that I have babied for 14 years, because it is the only red oak on my 30 acres, they’re all, I’ve got all sorts of live oaks but I have this one red oak and I’ve had people tell me I should take it out because it could harbor oak wilt, all sorts of crazy things. And I just keep nursing this one tree, and it was burned, even I didn’t think it would live, but every day I’ve gone and prayed about that little tree that it might make it cause it was just… beautiful, and I noticed yesterday when I came out that it’s got little green leafs all over it, and I would- I mean it’s almost miraculous that that tree could live. And I was, my son and I were both stopping at the highway to talk to people and say: Don’t cut down your trees yet, you know, there- don’t count them dead until you’ve had a spring. You can always cut them back next summer, or this summer, but at least give them one spring. And it’s astonishing how many trees are completely ringed, they call it girdled, they’re completely girdled, and they have lots of leaves coming out.
KUT News: They are learning so much, unfortunately, but…
Fowler: About this fire, yes, about trees, absolutely, well especially trees because trees have that enormous underground network which we don’t think about. So even though, like on this red oak for instance, it’s girdled at least 12 inches up. I mean, it’s charred, the bark is an inch and a half- I mean, 3 quarters of an inch to an inch thick, and it’s gone in much of those places, and this tree is budding out all over. And it’s fed, but it’s fed by this incredible network of roots underground and actually live oaks underground, they’re all one network, wherever they cross, they graft. So you can have a tree that’s burnt, but it’s being fed by all these other trees, and if there’s any passageway, it can grow. So, it’s just astonishing, what we can learn.
KUT News: So you drove back with whom?
Fowler: I drove with my son, well we both took our cars, and then my car was about to run out of gas, so I left it at Opie’s barbeque I think, yeah, and then we drove on together, and then we came back together and eventually got anoth- got his car from my place after we got back on Tuesday. And we just, we didn’t- I don’t remember what we did those- on Monday (laugh).
Really, I don’t I mean, we just ate I think, I mean, visited, we were all in total shock. I don’t remember much of what I’ve done in the last 6 months to be perfectly honest. It’s overwhelming, there’s so much to take care of, I mean just insurance work and cutting off utilities and you know, everything.
KUT News: And you, and the decision to rebuild, or how to rebuild.
Fowler: For me, because I did have insurance, I just told them that I wasn’t going to make a decision until after spring, because I wanted to know what was going to live on my land. My house used to be in complete privacy, I mean I had neighbors on both sides, but I never saw anything but the tops of their houses. And now, I see the backs of the garage of one house, and they have an enormous amount of traffic at this house, so I don’t want that. And on the other side, I just see the back of a house. But it used to be very close to the cliff, and completely private. And now it’s still close to the cliff, but there’s no privacy left at all.
So I don’t know that I would build on that same slab, and I won’t build a really big house again, ever. So I don’t need that big a slap, so I don’t know what I’ll do. So I cha- I actually had a meeting with the insurance man yesterday out at the lot, out at my land, and he was asking me, what are you going to do? What’s your timeline? And I said, you know Bob; I change my mind about once every second. I mean I can have about 12 different ideas about what I might do, in a minute. And he just laughed, and he said: that’s why you have 2 years to do all this in. You really have 2 years to make that decision. And I don’t- I certainly won’t take 2 years to make that decision of whether or not to rebuild, I’ll rebuild something, but what I’ll rebuild? I don’t know. I’m thinking more in terms of an open-air ban shell, cause I love to do music parties. And at a very, very small house for myself, and maybe even on the same slab, but just the very back, what used to be the back bedroom might actually become my little house, and then the rest will just be open area with little arbors.
KUT News: What about a studio?
Fowler: The studio is in the garage. So it actually, you know, I’m a potter and I don’t work on the wheel, I’m a hand builder, so really my studio is really just a room with some tables and a lot of clay and a lot of chemicals and two kilns outside, I mean there’s not much equipment in my studio, and none of that burned, not that there’s- well, I have to rebuild the burner system so the kiln, cause they have metal fatigue from the heat of the fire, and the gauges of course all melted, but the kiln’s are fire-proof you know, that’s what they are, they’re kilns. So that didn’t bother them at all. So that part, if my brain was recovered and I had time to create some clean space in my life, I would have a place to work right now, but there’s so much else going on that I can’t imagine being able to produce art. (laughs)
KUT News: If your brain had recovered-
Fowler: Yeah, I mean it’s- my brain is so on overload, that I was actually talking to a friend the other day who’s a nurse and she said: You know, Susie, I think you have post-traumatic-stress, really, I think that, you know you handle everything, but your brain is just- my brain is on total overload, I mean complete overload. I mean, it’s hard for me to have a conversation with people, I want to say: too many words, that’s too many words. Even my son, I have to say: too many words. It’s just- there’s so much, it’s like having an earthquake or something going on in your brain, I mean it’s just- there’s the insurance stuff and there’s dealing with my mother and there’s- I haven’t even started on listing the contents in my home, which is an enormously emotional experience. My house was full of art, hand-made furniture, stuff I had traded for over 40 years with other artists, I mean, you know, very little of it did I buy.
It’s all stuff that I’ve accumulated through exchanges with other artists and… most of it was stuff I’d made myself. For years and years and years of my life, collections of everything from under the sun, from birds’ nests to pipe stems collected in Province town to little porcelain doll heads, I mean, I just had, you know I’m an artist, I had strange things. The day after the fire, the first time my insurance adjuster was there, I had two van-loads of kids who’d stopped, who made their parents stop, cause they wanted to say hi, cause they had been on my field trip, and their questions were: Did the snakeskin burn up? And I used to have this gigantic paper wasp nest that was about, I don’t know, 20 inches high 18 or 20 inches across and a student, a grown woman, a retired nurse who took a class from me gave it to me, she actually drove to North Carolina and got it as a gift cause my field trips were always about integrating art and nature and using art- using tools in nature as art, so she brought me this fabulous wasp nest, and the kids. I mean there’s a little flashlight, and they look up and they see all the little honey comb things inside and, you know the kids are just- they’re so dear, and the adjuster got it really quickly that: Oh, god, everybody knows this woman, and the kids are like, Oh, what about the baby grand piano, oh yeah, it’s gone, you know. My son Is a musician, not a professional musician, but he lost a pump organ…
An upright piano, a tuba, drums, you know, every book he ever read, he’s a voracious reader and he had his many books from his father and his grandmother, and they all burned and, at the library, I asked the adjuster, I said: are we really supposed to list all the books in our library? I mean, thousands of books, and he said, well some people can list all the books in their library, because they don’t have very many. But we’re literally just going to show bookcases, the position of a bookcase in a room, how many inches it is, and if it was art books, we’ll just say art books, 12 inches, 24 inches, cause I don’t know how to do that. But that’s how you do the contents portion; you have to list it all.
KUT News: Can you draw a picture of it? Since of course you don’t have a photo, well maybe you do?
Fowler: Well, I have photos. I have a lot of digital photos that I do have, but anything from about- I probably started using a digital camera about 6 years ago for my artwork, but not for my life. You know, I just didn’t make that transition about just the kind of camera you have to have for the right sized pixels to upload into an online application process, but not really for anything else, so what came before that, I don’t have photographs of, but my family members have… I was the family center, sort of, for all the big events, cause I had the biggest house, and I had all this land, and I was a single parent so I didn’t have… no rules, there were no rules at my house. So I was always the gathering place, so there’s a lot of family photos that document a lot of areas of my home, and people that have done concerts there, there’s always photographs of that, so I have plenty of photographs of the piano and lots of photos of my son playing tuba and photographs of people playing at the baby grand, that kind of thing will be pretty easy. But it’s things like, how do you value a piece of pottery that you got in Belize in 1970, in the middle of the jungle?
Do you value it at $2 that you paid for it? Or the trip to the jungle? And it’s not really the pot, but the experience that the piece of pottery reminds you of. That’s really what you’re missing, and that’s why people have really mad fun of me, cause I keep not being able to get rid of my ashes but, every time I go out to decide, OK, today I’m going to let them scrape them off, I look down and I see something. A little doll arm from one of my porcelain doll collections, I go: O, look! There’s an arm! And then I’m ready to call it all off and keep sifting because every one of those little, it’s the holograph really. I can see a little chunk of pot and go: oh, that’s from the funerary urn that I made, I had all these urns, I was this particular show in September, I was unveiling a series of funerary urns from peoples’ ashes.
So, it’s so odd because most of the things we’ve found in the fire are these little angel heads, cause each of the pieces had some kind of winged figure in them. And we haven’t found very many- everything blew up in to little bitty pieces but the angel heads were solid, so they kind of still- you can find them whole. So all scattered through these ashes are little pieces of wing and it’s very strange. It’s very, very strange.
KUT News: And you’ll be keeping all that?
Fowler: I keep all that- I’m thinking about- we’re talking about making a little, well people say that the reason my house didn’t get noticed was I didn’t have a big fancy gate. All those people by me have big stone gates and I just have this little simple blue arch that says Shade Tree Potter. But people don’t notice it because it is parallel to the highway and it’s not flashy and it’s not lit. So I think what I’m going to do is build a little wall out at my entrance with- not every piece of shard, I mean there’s thousands of little chunks of clay out there, but with the bigger pieces of clay that have enough of an image that you can get an idea of something more than just a little leaf impression.
So that, I think I’m going to do it with that, and I think it will be with the rock that we take out that can’t be used for building, it’s too fragile. Sandstone, my house was built of sandstone. And the sandstone fractures really easily when it gets hot. So we saved all the rock, and we’ll use it for beddings and little walkways and stuff like that, but not anything structural. Can’t use it for structural. So I think we’re going to build a rock-wall with impre- with the little pieces of the different clay in it and probably the little doll heads will go into that. I don’t intend to build a great big house, so I won’t ever have the enormous collection of- I mean I couldn’t collect all the stuff in what I have left, than what I had (Laughs).
And, unless I was really diligent, I just had too much stuff. Really, I had too much stuff. And now I have nothing and it’s kind of nice, in one regard: Oh, don’t have to worry about writing any of that down, who gets what (laughs).
KUT News: And when did you move out there?
Fowler: Into Spicewood? We bought our land in ’95, and we were pretty much out there all the time. We moved in in ’99. So I’ve been a full-time resident since ’99. And I love Spicewood, it’s a very, incredibly friendly, cooperative community, I mean, really literally, my phone and email went crazy for weeks, I would get 2 or 3 hundred emails a day, and equal number of phone b- I couldn’t keep my phone box cleared. I finally put a message that said, please leave a very brief message (laughs).
Cause, you know, one person, oh I remember when I came to the field trip. And they go on and on. You want to keep all that, I finally said: send me emails, cause I can keep the emails. And eventually I’m going to print all those emails, cause they were amazing. And so many people had been to my place over the years, for a free function, they never bought a piece of my work, they just- they were there for a fundraiser or a field trip or to take pictures or to hear music or whatever, but not as a buyer. I mean I only had 4 shows a year; it wasn’t like it was a big buying thing. But all those people wrote to say, although I never bought anything, or I bought a piece from you in 1983 in Dallas.
I heard from people all over the world, because someone posted it on the Austin College. Some Austin college person that I went to school with posted it and I heard from people that I hadn’t seen since the late 60s early 70s. It was great; I mean that part of it was great. For about a month I walked around going: wow, this is amazing. I don’t have anything to take care of and all these people love me and somebody’s giving me a place to stay and people are taking me to dinner and then about a month into it you’re kind of going, ugh, I don’t have any privacy, I don’t have my own stuff, so that’s what I mean by my mind is being so on fire, is that nothing is really ordinary. And I’m not a person who goes to a work, to a job. So, I don’t leave it and then come back to it.
KUT News: So can- so when you saw the damage on Tuesday with your son, then what did you do? Did you live- what did you do?
Fowler: We started hooking up temporary water from our neighbors, our neighbors let us use their water supply. So, that was the first thing we did to start putting out more fires. There were little spot fires for about a week. They would come up from underground; the root systems would pop up and catch on fire everything was so dry. Anything that wasn’t burned would quickly burn, so we did that. And he moved into- well, we had looters, and so he decided to move into the space just above the garage and just- I mean he was already living there but he just stayed. He didn’t stay at my sisters any longer, he just moved upstairs and he had water from the neighbors and he camped in the house for a while. We started just- immediately we started building berms to try to catch the top soil that was running off badly because of the incline of our land, and we knew that once it rained, there was no ground cover, so all of our soil was just going to flood down the cliff. So we started building berms. And then just, I started- I don’t even know what I did; really- I can’t remember that month at all.
KUT News: What did the looters…?
Fowler: Well, evidently they went through our house with a metal detector, so I lost some- my wedding rings and my parents’ candle sticks, you know, just special stuff. Metals, precious metals, we never found my son’s tuba. All the brass from the tuba. And everyone knew, one of the cable news showed up within minutes of when I showed up on Tuesday and my neighbor was going: AH, this was an incredible house full of art. Nobody thought about what we were saying, we were just, we were in total shock and later on, my mother said, why do they keep showing your house, and everyone’s going to know that’s your house and that there’s nobody there.
And I thought, wow, she’s the only one paying attention. And she was right, people really did, we’re pretty sure, people went in because I found- I knew where things were in my house and I found- my rings were in a fireproof box, a metal fireproof box and – my rings and my earrings. And I had put them in the top drawer of my bathroom. I had actually had my diamond on right before the party, my ex-husband had died, and I had worn the ring around as kind of a memorial to him. And I decided not to wear it to the party because it was a big old diamond and it just felt weird to look that married. So I put it in the drawer, well when we first looked, I had an archeologist friend who came with me specifically to look for the diamonds, cause they were of hugely sentimental value, and they were good diamonds as well. And we looked in a very professional archeological way.
And we found my father’s- my father was a big smoker and he had a cigarette lighter, and I kept it after he died, and I also had a church key that he’d bought in Canada, I mean Cuba that was made like a shark. And those 3 things were all in the same drawer. And we found the lighter, and the shark thing, but not the box. And, I mean it was all- I know exactly where it was. And there were just a few things like that where I knew exactly where they should have been, and the other things were there. And the candlesticks, silver pitchers, those kind of things were gone. So someone just…
KUT News: Knew what they were doing.
Fowler: Yeah, and we didn’t go in for ages to look for that, we didn’t know if the building was stable, there was metal all crumpled up, I mean, we didn’t enter the place for weeks. We waited until we had someone to lift off the sections of roof, this big section of metal roof, so that we wouldn’t hurt anybody. And by that time, things were just gone. So, it’s just one more little part of the whole puzzle, and you kind of think… well, who would do that (laughs). But there’s a lot of people who really, as my son says, they probably needed it more than we did and you just have to… you know… move forward.
KUT News: So are you still living with your sister?
Fowler: No, I lived with my neighbors who didn’t lose their house, but they lost 90 acres of trees. I lived in their guest house for about 2 months, and then I moved to downtown Austin for, just for a year, my insurance will pay for me to live somewhere for a year while I decide what to do. So I rented a place downtown actually, and I’m enjoying live music, my mother loves to come and see the skyline and it’s kind of fun. I wouldn’t want to live downtown for more than a year, just cause I’m a country girl at heart.
And I spent last night in my studio and I woke up hearing the birds this morning and I thought: Oh, birds instead of elevators. I remember why I love it out here. Cause really it’s beautiful downtown, but it’s noisy. And it never stops, I mean the sirens never stop, but I totally enjoyed South by Southwest, my son came in, we did a bunch of free stuff, listened to people behind Antone’s in the parking lots and went to all the KUT stuff at the Four Seasons, I mean, we just had a great time, but I wouldn’t want to permanently live downtown.
KUT News: Maybe a nice change?
Fowler: It’s kind of like being a tourist, I mean it really is like being a tourist for me because I never eat out; I never go down and have coffee and all that stuff. So I just- I really needed a break. A lot of people said you should just do something totally different. Cause I had worked really hard for 12 years to keep my house.
Going and to build a client base and to let people know I lived out there and to build a community, and my heart was broken, so a real change was… it’s very odd, and it’s kind of disconcerting, but it’s very different. And I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to live in town, and at some point I realized- my son said: You know, you could go live downtown, and do music and see what you think.
KUT News: Be a city mouse.
Fowler: Right. I mean, it’s not- I come to Austin all the time, that’s why my house is such a perfect place, I can be anywhere in town in 45 minutes. And then I drive home and I live in the country, so I wouldn’t want to give my place up.
Regardless of what we build out there, we will always be out there. We just love it, and my son loves it just as much as I do, and you know, we have now this- it’s like having a whole new project, because it looks completely different. What used to be our thickest, deepest, undisturbed area is now nothing but meadow. I mean, there’s still trees there, but they’re all dead. And so it’s just completely different, there’s stuff we’ve never seen grow coming up in that area because it’s now exposed to the sunlight.
And it’s got all this ash and mineralization that’s been happening because of the fire, and years of leaf mold turned into organic fertilizer basically, and so it’s- and we’ve had this incredibly amazing rain. So between the two, I have blue bonnets that are two feet tall, I mean they’re just astonishing and it’s because of all the rain. And the sun, I mean everything on my property is full of sun right now (laughs). Cause the trees are so- there are trees that are coming back, but they’ve lost all their leaves, during the fire. So they’re just now starting to look like leafy trees again.
KUT News: Can your new growth help you heal?
Fowler: oh god yes. Yesterday was amazing to be out and see… I mean, yes. Without a doubt, in fact, spending more time out there, I now have a bed in my studio so I can actually spend the night out there and not move into my son’s space, I mean, I like having my own private space (laugh). So yeah, without a doubt, and just being out there, I like to go out there and sift through the ashes actually, and I’ll soon start deciding, you know, sketching what I might build there. I designed my previous house from the ground up and so I’ll design this house too and it will just be a very, very, very different house.
But it’ll be much more sustainable that what I used to have. I won’t have to clean so much, that’s the silver lining. My big house is gone and my tax space will go way down and I’ll be able to afford to live there. I mean that’s, they always say there’s a silver lining. It’s not any way compensating for losing everything that I had, cause I had an amazing amount of beautiful, wonderful hand-made things. The paintings are easy, I have them so memorized, it’s really the objects I will miss, because they’re so much harder to grasp, you know, a three dimensional object. You can’t see it all in one glance, and you don’t get the pleasure of holding it.
And I had lots of silver pitchers and strange little things that I had collected over the years, and had a box collection. I mean, I never thought of them as collections particularly, they were just- I had a jewelry box from when I was 16. And it still had jewelry in it from when I was 16, cause I just hang on to special things like that, and they were all little things. I actually was in the process of creating a series of collections of shadow box pieces from all these various collections cause I was realizing that my son was someday going to have this enormous task of dealing with all my possessions.
Because I was doing that with my mother’s possessions. And so I had decided that I was going to build a series of sort of Joseph Cornell shadow box things, with dolls and nests and- I mean I had a dirt daughter’s nest that I had been carrying around for years, it’s probably 20 years old and I had a little Korean wooden box that I kept it in and so I was making all these little shadow boxes and they were all up in my loft, and they were all actually organized. There were probably 19 or 20 of them, I can’t remember, almost 20 of them, and they were all already set up as little entities, but they weren’t put together yet in boxes. And they had little poems, I have always written poems. That’s really the hardest, I think, of the whole thing is years and years of journals and sketchbooks, cause those I- you know, those are the hardest things for me to lose. Because I always figured that when I got really old and I couldn’t work anymore, I could just reread all those sketch books and relive my whole production over years and years and years of collecting and making art.
KUT News: It’s interesting how you remember- that you remember 2D, but objects…
Fowler: Well think about it.
KUT News: Like a video or, you know.
Fowler: Right, anything that you can’t grasp in one frame requires a different kind of memory, I think; I mean it does for me. And I tend to think three dimensionally anyway, cause I’m a three dimensional artist. And I can sort of see an aerial view of things. But you always are led to what you can’t see when something is three-dimensional. Or I am. And I think it’s why I’ve always worked in three-dimensional art. The idea of painting a painting is terrifying to me. I don’t know why, but it is, but the idea of painting on something round is fascinating to me because you’re never really finished until you come all the way around and you have to really think the whole process through so that when you come back to the same place, you’re in the right place. So you know, with a three dimensional object- I have a lot of masks from various countries and baskets- I had some Todo Moda Indian baskets from when my son was 3 and they’re 27 years old, but when you open them up they still smell like pine, I mean, they still smell like being in Todo Moda when you first bought them.
It’s amazing to me that objects can carry that kind of life for that many, many years. And I had pieces, like I had a book- I remember this one shelf where I had a lot of the little tiny collections, I had a book by Soetsu Yanagi who’s a Japanese craft philosopher I guess is what he would be considered. But when I was in graduate school, everyone was reading Soetsu Yanagi and everybody was learning who Shoji Hamada was and my particular book was signed by Michael Kardu who’s this African- he’s an English potter who went to Africa to teach the Africans native craft. And he had come to New Mexico many years ago when I went to a workshop with him, and I took my Yanagi book and asked him to sign it. And he inscribed it and signed it, and you know, it was one of my most precious objects. Well, what is its value on an insurance claim?
It was a book that had been run over by a car and signed by this incredible human being, but to me it was the whole essence of graduate school and my early days as a potter and learning about indigenous craft and how different it is for manufacturing and it just was- it represented that 10-year period of my life. So to me, it’s much more, I can’t grasp it, it’s a whole book. Whereas a painting, I had these beautiful paintings by Charles Shorie who was the glass-sale art guy in Houston for years and years and years, and they were incredible paintings, probably the most expensive things I owned.
But I can see them so vividly in my mind’s eye that I can just see them. I can see all three of them together, I can see them when they ended up in different rooms, I can remember the day that I bought them. Just cause I can kind of grasp that whole image. But when I try to think of the objects, I always want to go to the other side, and see the other side. I think it’s just my three dimensional nature. But it’s why I think I’m so glad that the piece I actually chose out of literally hundreds of things I could have grabbed was this West Cameroon piece and, for one thing it was beautiful. It’s an Indian headdress, it would have been worn above the head during a wedding ceremony, and then a costume would have been over the body and the eyes would have been in the fabric. It’s very heavy. And when I would do my field trip, the children would always be amazed by: it’s all made of glass beads and they’re sewn on this three dimensional thing. And there’s figures on ponies and they’re carrying little clay pots and it’s a magnificent craft item.
But for me, it holds the memory of eight years of field trips with all these children who just would always be so thrilled. I mean, I never had a kid break one thing in my house, once. Not once, and you know you have 50 fifth graders running around like crazy with piles of clay and dogs and you know, it’s bedlam. But no one ever broke anything. I mean, they were always completely respectful of everything, they never fell off my cliff, they would back into cactus, that’s about as bad as it ever got. But this- when they would look at this craft piece after they had just spent 10 minutes making a clay tile, and they thought they’ve worked hard, you know, and they look at this piece and they realize there’s thousands of beads on there that have been sewn on there, they would just be stopped still in their tracks. So I’m thrilled I got that. Plus it’s very different colors from the colors I work in, and I ended up buying some tables that go with the art piece. Which is very, I’m not a decorator, but I thought, well, I’ve got this gorgeous thing, it’s the only thing I have. And then I found these tables that were made out of recycled teak boats.
And they’re very alive, they’re- you can just see all these pieces of boat and then they’re in a wooden frame but- and the clay sit crooked on them- I mean they’re just totally non-functional really, I’m sure if you were really going to eat on them regularly, you would put a glass top or something, but I love them. Cause I don’t care if the cup is sideways, they’re just so real. And they’re- I wasn’t going to buy art to put in this rental place, you know, and I don’t want to put nails in their walls even, but these two tables who just, have all this color and you almost have the sense of waves because they’re chunks of- they’re like 12-inch chunks of boats. Anyway, they’re great and they make me feel at home. They make me feel comfortable cause they’re real solid, and they look reclaimed- I really wanted to reclaim everything from the house, all the metal and everything- course that didn’t work, my metal guy kind of (CLICK) took all my metal, but- and really he was- probably did me a favor, cause now I don’t have to reclaim a bunch of metal. But I thought, OH, I’ll use the banisters again and- so I think that’s why these tables appeal to me. Somebody actually found a use for all these boats that didn’t float anymore.
Fowler: They cut them up and turned them into tables.
KUT News: I gotta ask you, where did you find them?
Fowler: I found them at JIYA. It’s a little place over on North Lamar. It’s like- you know where Wildflower Bedding is?
KUT News: No.
Fowler: Well, they’re right there on Lamar. It’s just a little tiny store. And they bring them over from Thailand, and they’re contemporary tables but they’re made out of reclaimed boats. Anyway, they’re just very… they’re not slick at all, they don’t look new… they look like they have a history.
KUT News: So, I see you’re rebuilding and going around to the backside of your life to see…
Fowler: What’s on the other side… Absolutely. It’s very- I think the most overwhelming part for me is: when I’m 60, I didn’t think I would start a whole new life at 60. I’m loving; I was loving what I was doing. I had a garden and I had my life and I took care of my mother, and I had these art parties, I mean it was just kind of- it took me a long time to get to that life, and I was just starting to enjoy it. And so, I don’t want to not have the art parties. I don’t want to not do anything I was doing, but I have to do it at a much lower level cause it’s too much to have to rebuild for.
When I had all that space, it was easy to say yes to everybody’s everything. It was, my mission in life was to say: oh yeah sure, you can bring your girl scouts here tomorrow; I’d love to show them around. I mean, it’s what I did, you know, it was my new life. And it was sort of my semi-retirement life. Especially since 2008 when people stopped buying art, (laugh). From that point on it was like: why am I doing this? But now I can do it at a very sustainable level, and I won’t have the incredible stress of trying to generate enough tax money to keep my land, cause I had this huge house, so, you know, once you finally stand back and all of the debris sort of gets shifted off from side to side. And what you’re left with is: you have great friends; the support I received was amazing. My son and I, who are just about as close as two people can be, are even closer, in a new way, in a way where he’s my equal.
You know, very different from- not that he’s a child, he’s always made his own way but, his devel- he’s even said I feel like I’ve gone from being a guy, being a kid, you know a young man, to a man. During the course of this summer, because it’s been so demanding. Just the physical work was demanding. Just putting out the fires was demanding. And the rebuilding was huge. But mostly it’s just the emotional thing. Just realizing what really matters and who your true friends are and how many true friends you have. I mean, it was really like going to your own funeral for a while. It really was, the number of people who showed up in odd ways to tell me how important I had been in their life was completely astonishing.
My son just said: I don’t know, I can’t believe this many people, I mean, I remember when it was just you and me and Bill and the ranch, and we never saw anybody. And now there’s 100, 200, 300 people a day, leaving messages and phone calls and- it was an amazing outpouring of support. I had half a dozen people offer me a place to stay for a year. Take my guesthouse for a year. Live in my spare room. None of those things I really want to do, but being offered them, genuine offers, it was just astonishing. And it made me realize, not that I didn’t think I had a lot of value in my community cause I knew I had a big impact on children, that’s really what I love to do. But the number of adults that I had touched really surprised me. People who told me that, having done my work shop, they went on to realize that they always had an artist inside and they just never had time, and now they bought a little kiln and they make pots in their garage and… I would hear those stories but not in the kind of testimonials that I got after the fire. It was just really, very heartwarming. Very, very heartwarming.
KUT News: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Fowler: Oh my goodness, I feel like I’ve rambled and rambled.
KUT News: NO, I mean what a story. You were a community center.
Fowler: Yeah, I can’t tell you how many people have called and said: God, I feel like my house burnt down. My niece was married there, or actually she wasn’t married there, but she had her pre-wedding there and her post-wedding there, so… they actually got married at the vineyard in Spicewood, but everything else happened at my house, and my nephew WAS married there. And my son intended to be someday married there. We had my mother’s 75th birthday party there. And her 80th party there. And babies had been christened and- it’s a major, major, major family place, and it was a life I never really thought about having. It was a big life with a lot of people in it, built from a really little life. Cause when I moved out there, I knew no one in Spicewood. My husband and I built this house and… we had lived in Lakeway for years. But I knew nobody in Spicewood and as a person who works alone and basically lives alone, it- I had to hang my flag out and say: HEY, let’s have an art and wine party! I started an art and wine trail, oh maybe 10 years ago, that’s- won’t happen this year, cause I’m the one that makes it- do it. They might have it, but I doubt it, I seriously doubt it. But it’ll happen again next year. Cause by next year, I’ll be working again.
And we started the arts roundup, which is a big art show that happens in October, my neighbors, the ones who lost all their trees; we used to do it in their stables. This year we did it at La Cabana restaurant because, everything was gone, the stables burned, the trees burned. But we started it 8 years ago, and the money goes to fund public school art programs and music programs in school, so it’s just a fun little- it’s a great little community, everybody is very supportive, the library communities, they built a little tiny library out there and all those people have done things with me and I’ve done things with them and it’s a community very, very different from anything I’ve ever lived in. And I feel like people say: Oh, you’re going to move downtown, and you’re never going to come back, and rover goes: Oh, no. She’ll be back; she can’t even stay away a week now. I can’t I go out there and stay and I like to wake up in the country and hear the birds and I like to work outside and I like to wake up and go outside immediately. Which is good cause I live in a high rise right now and my dog likes the same thing (laughs).
KUT News: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add? I’ve got your pictures I think up, if you’d like to-
Fowler: Oh, wow.
KUT News: I don’t know if that’s going to be too much.
Fowler: oh, no. I got that picture memorized.
KUT News: Do you want to talk about that one?
Fowler: Yeah, you can see. This is where we are-
KUT News: You need to be near the microphone.
KUT News: I’ll bring it over I guess. That’ll be good.
Fowler: yeah, the white buildings in the front, those are off of Fall Creek road, and then my house, which is burning in the background, is about, probably five, seven miles away. And you can see the two kind-of triangle peaks. One at each end that have holes in them. Those holes were where there was an I-beam that ran the whole length of the house and supported the roof. And in that picture, the roof is gone. And you can see through everything. All that white, that’s all house. And this area over at the side that’s all in smoke, that’s actually the garage apartment in the studio, that big area of smoke. So what they were doing is they were soaking the garage while the house burned, cause by the time they got there, the house was completely gone, I mean past saving. So they just soaked that place, and the trees around that are completely green. From all the water, from the fire. And then that’s just everywhere out on the hill, I think this is actually my house at the front, and that’s probably east of me.
KUT News: And what- how about this one?
Fowler: And that’s just over off of Fall Creek road, this is actually not my land. But it- my land looks just like this. That’s the smoke, that’s before the smoke crossed the highway, before the fire jumped the highway. That was what we could see, was this humongous wall of smoke. And every once in a while you would see a flare of fire. But for ours, all we saw were walls and walls of smoke.
KUT News: Was this taken at your place looking out?
Fowler: Yes, towards the highway, at my neighbors place not my place. That’s what it looked like while it was gathering. That’s what you could see when you looked out our door, was nothing but smoke. And every once in a while- like right there, you can see a little fire right back there. And that’s all you could see, was every once in a while you would see- and usually it was a propane tank blowing up, and you’d see a plume of fire come out of the smoke, which is kind of what made us all realize it was serious, and then the helicopter. They were dipping water out of- there was one little- there’s one spring area in the river in the Pedernales close to my house, and they were dipping water out of there. And then the golf course, Austin golf course right across from my place on the highway, and they have a huge reservoir, and they were dipping water out of that reservoir, and dumping it on all the houses. That’s how they were fighting the fire, for the most part.
And for days, in my neighborhood. With helicopters- with one helicopter and one bucket, as far as I could tell. I think there was one helicopter and one bucket. I really do, I think that’s what they were doing. Basically what they did was they dropped the bucket of water, I mean it’s a big bucket, but they would drop that on a roof, and whatever was around that, and then they would go back and get another big bucket and they’d drop it on a roof. I think with my house, they just couldn’t see my roof.
And since there were enormous houses to the right and to the left of me, with a lot of hardscape and driveways and stuff, they could see them and thought, I’m assuming they thought there was nothing but brush between, you know I was like the green belt between these other two big houses. And my roof is metal, and there’s are big clay tiles. They just, my roof was very, was a 10/12 pitch, so it’s really hard to see cause it’s so steep and it’s a very old roof so it’s grey.
KUT News: How many square feet was your house?
Fowler: I lost 5,000 square feet of house. Was huge.
KUT News: OK. (laughs) What else would you care to-
Fowler: Really, I think that for me it’s been- I’m sure it’s a life changing experience. I don’t yet know what it means, other than I have a lot of friends and a lot of people who care that I keep making art. In some day of depression change my message machine to say that I used to be the shade-tree potter and I haven’t yet changed it back, and people keep saying: What do you mean you used to be the shade-tree potter?! It’s a hard thing, you really- I go up, I go down, some days I feel like I just like to crawl into the bath tub and other days I can’t wait to get out and start being the solution, it’s a very intense experience.
KUT News: And a long one.
Fowler: A long one, yes. I think it will be- I have no idea what it will do to my artwork. I never know, you never know, at least I never know with my work, that it’s changing until it’s changed enough that I recognize a difference, and then I can usually sit down and realize what I did and why. But it’s never the other way around, a conscious change. But I know what I’ll do with the land, the land is incredible, I know I have 3 or 4 years of rock I can lay, I’m a busy person, so I have many projects left.
KUT News: How many acres do you have?
Fowler: I have 33 acres.
KUT News: Well, thank you so much.
Fowler: You’re very welcome.