In Defense of Gawkers and Looky-Loos

Local news reports here in Sonoma County  tell us that many people who lost their homes to the October fires are upset that the fire tourist “looky-loos” now descending on the rubble of their streets are adding further insult to the grievous injury they have already suffered. This is an understandable response, and I feel for them.

But it seems to me there is much more to this phenomenon than mere voyeurism, so I would like to offer another perspective.

I do so as someone who did not lose his own home but, like most all residents of this area, know many friends and acquaintances who did. And who, like everyone connected emotionally to this beloved landscape and community, shares in the grief of so much loss.

Within the collective trauma, each person, in the privacy of their own fears and anguish, still has to reckon with their sense of loss, still has to make peace with the images now seared into memory of their world on fire, of flames licking at and then overcoming so many sites that they had held dear.

I got up to the hilltop Fountaingrove neighborhood for the first time last Saturday, about sunset. I did so with a kind of fear and trembling, not wanting to be obviously craning my neck nor feasting with morbid curiosity on the pain of others. I would be taking no grinning selfies amidst the ruins.

But I did feel a strong desire and emotional need to see and breathe in the actual, material, right-there-in-front-of-me extent of the devastation. I had to view it in real time, with all my senses, to bring the enormity of the loss into full perspective.

And like everyone else who was touched by this event, I had my own grieving to do.

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I was a Hospice volunteer for many years and have attended, at this age, the deaths of more friends and loved ones than I can any longer count. And though every person’s death sends ripples through their own community of family, friends and neighbors, those deaths still largely beget grief on an individualized scale.

The fires, however, were my first personal experience of community grief, of widespread trauma affecting an entire population. It went unnoticed by approximately no one that the fires were virtually all anyone talked about for weeks on end, particularly with those one hadn’t been in touch with during the catastrophe.

Yet within the collective trauma, each person, in the privacy of their own fears and anguish, still has to reckon with their sense of loss, still has to make peace with the images now seared into memory of their world on fire, of flames licking at and then overcoming so many sites that they had held dear.

I drove slowly through the side streets off Fountaingrove Parkway, beholding entire blocks leveled as though by bombs. It’s notable how little difference there is in areas devastated by fire. Nuclear bombs or wildfires, it’s the same ash to ash, making a mockery of all our pretensions to permanence. The world becomes rubble and remnant of the grandeur that once was.

Cruising slowly and seeing nary a looky-loo nor residents of the spared homes, I went in search of the house, or what is now merely the “property,” of my friends Mary and Steve. I had been in their home multiple times, sat eating, drinking and attending meetings in that living room, dining room, and deck. Their home had always been a welcoming one, well lived-in and friendly.

Part of me didn’t want to face what had become of it—and another part needed to.

Despite my familiarity with the home, I passed by the property twice, so disorienting was the specter of streets where fire had hopscotched cruelly, leaving some homes intact while turning the home next door to cinder.

Finally, I resorted to searching for the painted house number on the curb, found it and parked. I got out and stood there immobile, for a long time, my eyes scanning left and right, my mind trying to piece together what had been where, my heart heavy for my friends’ loss.

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The home had felt so spacious and open in its time, but now, with but a few beams and pillars hanging at crooked angles, it looked surprisingly small, stunted, forlorn. As if it had been left to fight on its own after the humans had fled to safety, and not been up to the task.

Neither God nor blind luck nor firefighters could save this once stalwart repository of so much precious human experience. It was gone with the wind and the flames.

I couldn’t help marveling at the merciless damage the fire had wrought. The whole scene made me feel just as small and humbled as Mary and Steve’s home had felt to me. Not unlike, in a different context, beholding the grandeur of an old European cathedral or an all-powerful natural setting like Yosemite Valley.

One always feels insignificant in such milieus, leading to feelings of awe and, ultimately, submission to powers greater than oneself. All of which is at the very root of religious sensibility.

Sure, there’s crass, “Here we are at the fire making funny faces!” looky-looism. But ultimately, that’s the unthinking version of a universal pull to behold scenes of a kind of sacred power, and our pilgrimages to such sites are rarely, at base, to revel in others’ misery.

Rather, they invite us to pay homage, to come to terms with the awe-full power of the cosmos, and to feel whatever solidarity and comfort we can draw from beholding and sharing our experience with one another in an often pitiless world.

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Twitter: @AndrewHidas

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Light image near top of page by YangTS.

Local fire photos by Andrew Hidas, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/ 

8 comments to In Defense of Gawkers and Looky-Loos

  • Mary  says:

    Hi Andrew
    I cannot tell you how heartwarming it was for you to step in our world of 42 days now. I am startled by how few people have toured the worst of the fire damage.
    We who lost our home to the Oct 9 fire have desperately needed at least one person to step in our world for even a Moment. You did that. Such relief it gave. Thank you.

    To your blog readers, we Say do not heed those who say don’t look. It is not only ok for you to look but thank you Andrew for putting some words and compassion to the suffering earth, fauna the flora, our homes and those who lived there for 18 years.

    Steve and I have had 13 exchange students over the years from India, Argentina, Germany, Finland etc and 10 of them have contacted us because their news showed a ravaged Sonoma County California in the US and they remember being in a city that is now much in ashes. They get it while many locals are not ready to see it yet.

    For the many who choose to only see one or two burned buildings and then go back to their normal life, they have no idea of the global view of this. Soon they will lose the chance because the clean up has started and the feel that Andrew describes, the universal compassion for our Sonoma County will never be as visible as it is right now. It opens one’s heart to love.

    Thank you our dear friend Andrew for bringing light to the darkness! For your loving blog.

    I invite all your readers to drive by and look at at least 1,000 of the 5,000 homesites today. If confronted with resistance, tell them Mary and Steve invited you!

    Hugs
    Steve and Mary

  • Carol Caldwell-Ewart  says:

    Andrew, Your caring and thoughtful perspective is always so welcome. I didn’t lose my home or even have to evacuate, but like all my Sonoma County neighbors, I have too many friends who did, several who barely escaped with their lives. My heart stops and then pounds when I hear a siren or smell smoke from a once-comforting fireplace. I am awed when I hear of the generosity of stores like Wild Birds who is donating 50% of all November sales to the RCU Fire Relief Fund and Penzeys who is giving $80 worth of free spices to people who lost their homes. There are five fire relief concerts I’m aware of in the next three days. And what about the artist who replaced prints lost in the fire for his collectors. So easy to do nothing, so amazing what our community is doing. And one of the most important things, one that we can all do, is listen. In restaurants, in intermissions, in grocery store aisles, people gather to tell their fire stories, again and again and again. They will be telling their stories for months, for years, and it’s important that we listen and keep listening, because every time the story is told, it hurts a little less, the pressure inside diminishes a fraction. And as you say, Andrew, and as Mary invites us, it’s important that we visit the fire sites, because the devastation is inconceivable until you see it for yourself, and we will listen more effectively when we have seen. Carol

  • Candi  says:

    Such beautiful words from you Andrew, and from Mary and Steve and my friend Carol. Those of us who have lived through this tragedy will forever live with a before-the-fire / after-the-fire framework. I am so lucky to have been a witness, affected by smoke and emotional angst, but no loss of property. I am mesmerized by the stories. Some will haunt me, others grip my guts and leave me so depleted I need to sit down. Like you suggest, listening seems essential to come to terms with the way things will be now. I have been reluctant to see the most devastated areas but tomorrow is another day and your encouragement gives me reason to face more than just walking the local parks that have burned. The new grass shows up so vividly against the black scorched ground.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Mary, I went back up today with my other friend Mary, who had heard and read plenty about the fires, but there really is no preparing for the sight of entire multiple blocks burnt to the ground, a hulking denuded car or two in virtually every driveway. So many chimneys, arches, blackened trees-become-sticks framed hauntingly against the setting sun. One small sign stuck defiantly in the dirt, “We will rebuild!” And on one portion of hill, a group of 20 or so, a few adults, mostly late teens, all gathered to commiserate with one another, a few of the youths cruising down occasionally on skateboards past the ruins. That’s the spirit! Thanks for your “permission” to join them!

    Carol: “rising from the ashes.” That’s everything you describe. And thanks for noting the curious but consistently proven fact of how much unwinding we have to do, all that intense and repeated processing, after catastrophe. Seems a sifting of the ashes, turning them over and over until they are not so hot to the touch, is required before any sustained rising can take hold.

    Candi, I got out to Sonoma last weekend and was shocked by how much damage there was right along the highway. Then the other day, hiking above Lake Ralphine a stone’s throw or two from my house, blackened hillsides and burnt structures along my favorite upper trail. There, too? More shock. And tonite, paying respects to Willi’s Wine Bar, one of my longtime faves now gone, then crossing that long stretch across the highway and seeing what fire had done along Cleveland Ave., a veritable ocean of concrete. The “How could that happen?” question reared up yet again. 70 mph winds driving a firestorm, is how that happens. Now we know…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    My wife Dawn and I met in Sonoma County; my niece married in Sonoma County, and each of us love the area and have dear friends, including Andrew, still residing in the area. Our lives have spread to Washington and Colorado and we still feel a sense of place and rootedness in Sonoma County. Each of us would like to see the area for matters of the heart and not for superficial looky loo curiosity. We all ache for the land and for those who are there. Thanks to Andrew and others for sharing thoughts and feelings with us all.

  • Brad & Dina Duncan  says:

    Very well said. Thank You for putting into words what I think many of us that did not lose our home feel and think.

  • Michael Krikorian  says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful article on “Looky-Loos,” Andrew. I have felt much the same way – very conflicted between my desire to see and feel for myself what so many have experienced yet not wanting to be seen as getting some thrill at someone else’s expense. When I finally did drive into those areas I was moved to tears. To me, that is empathy which I believe is a good thing. Thanks again.. -Michael Krikorian

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, your line about “aching for the land” catches me amidst Trump’s tossing Arctic oil drilling into his abhorrent mess of a tax bill, of his long-running climate change denial, coal revivalism, and basic turning over of regulatory oversight to polluters. Our aching for the land is about to get even more acute, I fear.

    Thank you for reading & commenting, Brad & Dina, am always happy to give voice to the unspoken!

    Michael, seems to me that witnessing such decimation activates something deep and abiding in us, and that the empathy you speak of may well be part of our natural human condition—right there competing with the tribalism, solipsism and other “isms” that keep us stuck on the merry-go-round of conflict still dogging us in this world. I think empathy and the positive qualities associated with it are winning out, though—albeit sometimes by just the thinnest sliver of an inch at a time before we backslide half a sliver again!

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