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California Wildfires

to the tune of “California Dreamin’”

All her landscape bronzed,
Her breezes ashen gray,
What can Cali dream on,
Despoiled and rechauffée?
Never safe, too sultry
In her disarray . . .
California wildfires
Have scorched her prime cachet.

Tresses blazing gold
Her forest wealth display,
Woods with fever flashy,
Tree huggers’ easy prey,
Limbs fall glowing gruesome,
Crash on smouldering clay,
California wildfires
Have seared sequoia sprays.

The tastes of charred terroir
No vintner’s fault betray—
Cali spreads her nightmares
To clear debris away;
Ochre oak, tobacco,
Smoky cannabis or hay,
California wildfires
Have singed her wines’ bouquet.

Striving to be free,
There seems one torrid way
As the Party gloats on,
To boil its cool blue sway:
They can’t deal with Dixie,
Decalescence or dismay;
Californa wildfires
Have stoked the frontier fray.

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rechauffée: reheated, tiresome
tree huggers: environmentalists (who find fire prevention measures unnatural)
terroir: local wine growing conditions
Dixie: name of 2021 fire that is the largest in state history
decalescence: slowing increase of temperature as heat is absorbed

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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25 Responses

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for pointing toward the lovely song by Stan Rogers, and spelling out his poignant comment about the place that seems to steal all his friends. At present, in official tallies of immigrants and emigrants, California is losing population, due to high cost of living, and bureaucratic interference with life. My friends have gone to Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Florida, etc.

      Reply
  1. Brian Yapko

    Well done, Margaret. There are so many layers to this poem/lyric. I don’t know how much of myself I’m bringing to this work but I can see the California fires as a metaphor for the utter social and political devastation of the Golden State. Given California’s huge influence on the rest of the country, when “Cali spreads her nightmares” it is indeed something to be dreaded. And “the Party’s cool blue sway” seems utterly incapable of coping responsibly with any of it. And even removing all deeper meanings, I must mention that smoke from the California wildfires has been creating quite a haze here in New Mexico. I pray for better days on so many levels.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      I think you’re right, Brian, but I think that the metaphor extends far beyond California, as does indeed the smoke.
      It’s as if “the Party” has unleashed hell on earth – the smoke is already here, the flames cannot be far behind.

      A brilliant note was the “omission” of Newsom. Did anyone not hear it in the inclusion of “gruesome”?

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Brian and Joe, thank you both for recognizing the dirty sky’s multiple layers of spume and fume in my poem. The filthy reality itself should be obvious to most people, but here under the clouds the unhealthy atmosphere still appears blue and sunny. One of the Party’s gravest faults is to have so many methods of coping with it, almost none of them responsible–as you, Brian, point out. Takes a former Californian, I suppose!

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      And thank you, Joe T., for noticing Newsom in the poem. You see in the photo above a forlorn “Recall Newsom” poster (the full name shows up in the slightly bigger picture within the POETRY column, but it got half scratched through when the picture morphed to head this post including Comments). I agree with you about implications. Since Gavin survived the Recall, he undoubtedly feels confident about re-election in 2022, and will do his best to cut such a strong figure in the next three years that he becomes Resident in 2024.

      Reply
  2. Peter Hartley

    Margaret – I don’t know if it’s just about being a Brit or whether I truly should be ashamed that I am not familiar with “California Dreamin’” but it reads as though it would rollick along in song. “Decalescence” is a new one on me although I could work out a bit of it, and I shall keep hold of it for future use. Thank you for that. The imagery of burning sequoias is so effective and so well described that I could smell the smoke in my own living room and several times had to check that I didn’t have a ucalegon next door (that’s a word for YOU to look up. I particularly liked the “landscape bronzed” and “tresses blazing gold.” Altogether an excellent picture you have drawn.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Peter, you may not know “California Dreamin'” because of the British dominance of popular music in the 1960s. But you would love the melody and lyrics. The song starts off with “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray,” and thus sounds something like my burnt re-interpretation. But in the 1967 original by the California folk rock group The Mamas and the Papas, the singer is somewhere else, dreaming of how marvelous things are in California. Watch the YouTube video posted by Folk Experience for this song that expressed longing for home to many men in Vietnam. I can tell you from meeting them that homecoming was not always happy.

      “Decalescence” as I use it here refers to the constant buildup of seemingly inexpressible wrath in many contemporary Californians. A vast amount of heat is absorbed, but as this happens, the temperature rises more and more slowly, and thus the sum total of overall frustration remains unnoticed. I did have to look up Ucalegon; he is such a minor character in the Iliad and the Aeneid, and just an allusion in Juvenal. But thanks for bringing the classics into this discussion. I’m delighted you liked my picture, but I hope you can get that smoke smell flushed out of your mind!

      Reply
  3. Jeff Eardley

    Margaret, I have just been singing this to the guitar. The original was good but your version surpasses. A great song made greater and a powerful message.
    Like Peter, I can smell the smoke from here.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Jeff, I am most gratified to know that my song is singable to someone who sings this kind of music, and that you find the lyrics meaningful. I appreciate the original song much more after writing mine. Like many good folk and popular songs, it uses significant indirection to suggest ideas and emotion, and I followed that, although it isn’t my usual method of composition. Among other things, my song offers an incomplete portrait of “Cali.” Over a number of years, I could hardly help noticing this abbreviated name for the state gradually becoming a personification, and Cali girlz a new generation of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” Her personality in art and commerce is still developing, but she no longer seems to be what “I wish they all could be.”

      Reply
  4. Yael

    Margaret your dystopian rewriting of this old pop folk
    song is fascinating to me. I have to admit that I never really paid much attention to the original lyrics because their outstanding harmonies and the intricate timing of their echo/response format fully absorbed my attention every time I listened to this song in the past. So after reading your stark and frightening re-write I listened to some original song versions and promptly got so distracted by their musical performance that I missed the lyrics again. So I forced myself to listen to the words and found them bland and repetitive compared to your expert romp through the lesser traveled routes of the dictionary. Your lyrics are not just descriptive of the situation in California but I find them symbolic of the strange story of the band itself. I hope that someone whose vocal and musical skills are on par with the Mamas & Papas will re-do the song using your lyrics because it would make the song even more interesting than the original. I realize that’s a tall order but I can dream about it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you so much, Yael, for liking my song well enough to want to hear a good performance. You made me check out available editions of the music by John and Michelle Phillips, of which there are many. Buying a certain number of copies includes permission for private or non-profit performance. And as a singer myself, I have some tenors and sopranos in mind. But to make a good recording, I would need a studio with the proper equipment and a capable technician–along with the ability to get everyone together for the time it would take. But I’m thinking of your suggestion! And if the project happens, I’ll get you to review the result, and decide whether my more difficult words do in fact make a song worth listening to.

      Reply
  5. David Watt

    Thank you Margaret for a fine re-wording of these timeless lyrics into an intense, metaphorical piece.
    The massively destructive fires experienced here in 2019-2020 were made that much worse by a fashionable reluctance to employ fire prevention measures. Lessons have finally been learnt, but at the cost of life, landscape, and property.
    Of course, California, like much of the world today, has political incompetence compounding the harmful effects of natural events.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for the compliment, David. My husband and I are supporters of the local California Botanic Garden, where they have a “Desert Springs” display area, with several palm trees around a small pool. Unlike palms along streets, the “Desert Springs” trees have long “skirts” (many years worth of brittle dried fronds enveloping their trunks). I pointed out to staff that if sparks ever reached this area, the palms could soon be 50-foot-high torches, ready to destroy the rest of the Garden and nearby homes. What did they do? Put up a sign explaining to Garden visitors that skirts are the natural appearance of palms in the wild, where they provide shelter and habitat for lizards, field mice, and other small creatures. At least in Sequoia National Park, caretakers have recently been busy wrapping lower portions of giant redwood trunks in flameproof blankets. We lost 10% of those irreplaceable ancient trees in last year’s fires.

      Reply
  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, I love this toe-tapping gem of a poem that simply begs the reader to break into song. The language is rich and packed full of poetic treats for the agile tongue – ‘Despoiled and rechauffée?’ and ‘They can’t deal with Dixie,/Decalescence or dismay’ being prime examples. The creative intricacies never once detract from the gravity of the message… in fact, they add to it. Margaret, I have thoroughly enjoyed ‘California Wildfires’ and thank you for bringing a ray of sing-song sunshine to these grim, grey days.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Many thanks, Susan, for reading and giving this toe-tapping comment! This really makes me feel as though I reproduced the rhythm of the musical style called “sunshine pop.” No matter how sad the lyrics, this style of music and performance could make listeners happy. I’m glad it works for you.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks as always for your friendly attention, and for taking the trouble to comment.

      Reply
  7. Mike Bryant

    Margaret, California Dreamin’ is one of those songs that has haunted me on and off for years. Your updating of the words is so much more meaningful than the original… in fact, I’m not sure that I ever did figure out the original. Now, I’ll have that tune going around and around in my head for years. I hope you’re happy! 😉

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I’m happy to know you find my song meaningful! And I don’t mind the tune going around in your head, as long as it’s just on and off. The melody is happy and appealing. The original words are, as you say, not entirely comprehensible. The story goes that John Phillips couldn’t get them right, and woke up Michelle to help. As far as they make sense, the song tells of some guy in cold country who has romantic and spiritual problems, and hates the weather but can’t make up his mind to leave. The only solution is to dream happy dreams–and performances of the song are always happy and lively. Successful dream therapy! My words take a realistic look at the wildfires as the one thing that seems to proceed freely today. Not a happy prospect, but maybe facing reality is truth therapy. There’s a lot of good in California, but too much debris. Thanks for the comment and the wink!

      Reply
  8. Jill

    Margaret,
    This is a very insightful poem about the state of the California wildfires. And I thought that using the tune of “California Dreamin'” to read it was the icing on the cake. Until I realized the references to Governor Newsom and the recall. Then I was disappointed. Why couldn’t it just be a poem dedicated to the horrible destruction of the California landscape?

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Jill, I’m glad to finally see your comment. It took a long time for the text to show up to me, after it was clear that another comment had been made. I certainly didn’t mean to neglect your question, and I thank you for your praise of the overall concept of the poem using familiar music. The reason Newsom is significant in the horrible destruction of the landscape is that he made it worse. Had it not been for the recall effort, Californians would not have realized how little their governor was willing to do about wildfires, despite the dramatically bad fires of 2020. The same thing happened again this year, and we can bemoan it, but we also need to echo the outcry of nature and keep up the political pressure. This pressure had visible good effects in some areas of life, even though the recall election failed. My little allusion may not benefit the forests much, but it is a Mamas-and-Papas style pushback against the carelessness and insincerity of irresponsible authority.

      Reply

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