Q&A with Robin Carlson: ‘The Cold Canyon Fire Journals’ and Rebirth from the Flames

Rebecca Rukeyser

When Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, an ecological preserve in the California Coast Ranges, was ravaged by the Wragg Fire in 2015, Robin Carlson found herself struck by a sensation of loss. “Although my mind understood fire’s importance in the ecosystem, my heart did not,” she writes.

The way to reconcile her contradictory feelings—those of a Californian haunted by a well-founded fear of fires and of a trained biologist with knowledge of fire cycles—was to return to Cold Canyon, notepad in hand, to observe the devastation and first stages of regrowth.

And she kept returning. Sometimes she was accompanied by scientists, sometimes alone, always drawing. The result of this work is The Cold Canyon Fire Journals: Green Shoots and Silver Linings in the Ashes (288 pages; Heyday Books): part naturalist’s sketchbook, part lyrical meditation on destruction, part ode and elegy to the embattled Anthropocene West Coast.

I’ve known Robin Carlson as long as Robin Carlson has known Cold Canyon. We met in 1990. Thirty-two years later, she’s still in my life, now as my sister-in-law.

My relationship to Robin means I’m not an impartial reader of The Cold Canyon Fire Journals, but it also brings me closer to one of its central preoccupations. After all, this book is also a treatise on examination over time, on the fact that familiarity sharpens your observations even as it allows the scope of your gaze to widen, soften, see something you’ve known for years—a sister-in-law, say, or a natural reserve—with new astonishment.

The following interview was conducted via email. It has been edited for length and clarity.

ZYZZYVA: I’ve admired your science drawings for years, but your practice gained more prominence and visibility recently via Instagram, where your handle is “anthropocenesketchbook.” Did you start Cold Canyon Fire Journals as an offshoot of this?

ROBIN CARLSON: I’m so glad you bring up the connection! I’ll start with the driving force behind what I do: my main purpose in creating art is to document the world as it is right now, in front of me. And to continue to document what is right in front of me tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. So that in the accumulation of time, I am developing a picture of how the world is changing. More specifically, how the world is changing as a result of human impact. This leads to the “Anthropocene” part of the Instagram name. The Anthropocene is an informal geologic term referring to the period that began when the human impact on the world’s ecosystems first became significant.

I am always asking myself: what are the small things that I observe that are tied to our changing climate and the ways that species are adapting or failing to adapt? And The Cold Canyon Fire Journals came out of this directly. I was looking for a project to take on that would explore environmental change in a local setting, in a place near home. Stebbins Cold Canyon is a very popular local hiking spot, for its beauty and for the thrill of its rugged slopes and high ridge views. When it burned in a 2015 wildfire, I seized on the opportunity to make a close study of rapid habitat change, visiting regularly and sketching everything that caught my eye.

Z: It’s so interesting that you bring up “small things,” because I think that addresses something really singular about this book. In my experience—as a Californian abroad, who’s deeply concerned about the fate of my home state and so taking in all the fire-related media I can find—everything I read/hear/see about California fires is on a scale that’s big, big, big. Huge maps. Loss expressed in growing numbers. Video shot from helicopters, or from moving cars. The complete opposite of a close study.

And then, on the other hand, you have The Cold Canyon Fire Journals.

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Maybe you could talk a little about what it’s like to document the effects of fire on a small scale? Both in terms of the area covered (Cold Canyon is pretty small) and in terms of your detailed sketches?

RC: This cuts right to the heart of why I started the project that led to The Cold Canyon Fire Journals and why I urgently wanted to publish a book.

Fire is big and scary, and as humans with our built environment around us, we have every reason to find it so. We have a lot to lose in fires, and the increasing frequency and scope of large fires is threatening and tragic for human lives and property. But I wanted to understand what fire means for wildlife and plants and fungi—to try to see fire and its aftermath from their perspective.

I do not believe that this can be done at a large scale. Without being present in a recently burned habitat and without watching that landscape change over time after the fire, it is impossible to know—to feel—the true impacts of the fire.

As I wrote the book, I thought a lot about the difference between observing a recent burn from a car flying down the highway and observing it on foot, fully immersed in the scene. From the highway, what you see often looks like devastation: blackened ground, charred limbs of trees and shrubs, and eventually occasional patches of green where resprouting has begun. As you walk through the burn, though, it comes alive.

Blackened limbs are fabulous resting places for lizards, and insects come to lay their eggs in the burned wood, which is still a great food source but no longer has the defenses of the living plant to repel the intruders. Insects are drawn, too, by the wildflowers that emerge in great numbers after a fire, when the shady trees and shrubs are removed and they have abundant light and space to grow. The insects are food for the lizards and also for birds like woodpeckers and sparrows. Woodpeckers are especially numerous in burned areas, taking advantage of insects and also the nesting cavities created in charred trees. It has made me change my thinking dramatically, to see how a fire destroys but also brings life and is in fact a vital source of unparalleled opportunities for some species.

None of this was obvious until I explored Cold Canyon, and I think this is important to keep in mind when we think about climate change and all the frightening large-scale environmental catastrophes happening in the world. The way in is through our own neighborhoods and what we can see for ourselves. I am not saying that catastrophes suddenly become OK and lose their power at the small scale. Not at all—in many ways what I’ve learned in this project has been how much we stand to lose if places burn over and over again at short intervals and never have a chance to recover. But it is very much by observing the small scale that we can find the beauty and hope that lie within the appearance of calamity, and the seeds of what we might expect to find in the world to come.

Z: “Find[ing] the beauty and hope” brings me to something I think this book accomplishes deftly: approaching the subject of climate change with appropriate gravity and dismay but also finding room for a sense of a future. This is tricky to pull off, I think—it can often feel, in general, that to feel anything but despair in the face of climate change is to treat climate change lightly, to diminish its threat.

RC: That balance of despair and joy is a very real reflection of the path I took through the burned canyon. The book is a record of many different journeys: a journey through space as I traveled the canyon itself, a journey through time as I followed the canyon’s changes over the years, and a journey through layers of understanding about fire’s role in the ecosystem. It was also a journey of emotions, from sadness to awe and hope, and back through sadness again and fear for the future.

I learned after the first fire that while there are individual losses to grieve, fire is itself not a tragedy. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. I saw how beautiful the burned landscape is to so many species. When the canyon burned for a second time after only five years, I knew to expect this joy again. And found it, while also, again, grieving individual losses, like the great oak that stood near the entrance to the canyon, survived the first fire, and then succumbed to the second. But after it burned again in 2020, things have changed for Cold Canyon, and this mirrors what is going on all around us. Five years is a very short time between fires, and there is ample reason to fear for what this means here and in all the other places that are burning again and again thanks to drought, heat, and climate change, as well as longstanding fire suppression policies.

All of these things can exist at once. Fire can be terrible and it can be wonderful. The world can be ending and the world can be going along as it always has, changing, adapting, surviving, though maybe not in the ways we would choose if we could. This is what I find most beautiful: the contradictions and the challenges to our human comprehension, and truly, more than anything else, life going on, step by step, taking the reality of what is offered right now, and making the best of it.

Z: But sometimes The Cold Canyon Fire Journals is really interested in what occurs outside of the present!

I was struck by how your close observations made you reflect on the past—both yours and Cold Canyon’s. You sometimes dwell in particular nostalgia, thinking about earlier points in your life, and you also reflect on the non-human past, imagining the lives of plants and animals.

RC: I do not think it is possible to be fully immersed in the present moment without also being situated firmly in time. Counterintuitive as it may sound, those memories and trips into the past, real or imagined, are ways to ground myself more fully in the present. I know that what I observe and how I interpret it are inescapably informed by my past—what I know already, what I’ve learned, and how and where I learned it. My understanding of how a bluebelly lizard might experience a burned landscape is inextricably informed by all of my past experiences with them, including learning how to catch them as a child as they bathed in the sun on my father’s family farm.

What usually triggers the recollections, or the guesses at what might have happened, are questions. How did something come to be the way it is now? If I see the lines marking where a tree skeleton burned to ash, how did that happen? What did it look like? What would it have felt like to be there as a witness?

Letting myself walk backward in time as I look carefully at lichens on a rock allows me to remember times when my preconceived notions were challenged before, and to interrogate what preconceptions I am still harboring. Is a lichen a boring and insignificant decoration on a boulder, or is it a rich world of interactions between forms of life very both fascinating and valuable? Is a burned stump a dead and barren wasteland, or a rich resource, only made available by the actions of the flames?

Z: When I look at your sketches, I’m struck by the inclusion of ink-lined images alongside finished, colored images. In particular I’m looking at an image where a finished, colored-in drawing of flowers called whispering bells are set alongside brown ink outlines of whispering bells. Is this standard in nature drawing, or is this your choice?

RC: This is not uncommon in people’s sketchbook drawings, and the technique is used for a variety of reasons. It might be for speed: to capture the color information about the subject, but save time by leaving the rest uncolored. It might be for emphasis: to draw the eye to the subjects of greatest focus. It might be for overall aesthetics: to contrast the beauty of the simple line with the beauty of the color painting.

All of these play a part in why my pages look this way, but I’d say the primary reason that I do this is to preserve some of the process of making the drawings. Leaving some of the initial line drawings alone helps me to remember the how it felt to observe those species and to draw them, and this helps me return to that place and time whenever I review my sketchbooks. And it can also draw the viewer into that process, to invite them into the canyon with me when I was there, hiking and sketching.

Z: An alternate title for this book was The Phoenix and the Newt. Can you expand on why you wanted this title, especially the inclusion of the newt?

RC: The newt started out as a fascinating tidbit and turned into a theme wandering through the whole book. In a small note in an academic journal, I discovered that the former director of a different UC Natural Reserve, while conducting prescribed burning on the reserve, happened to watch a pair of California newts walk straight into the flame front. Now, the flames were very small, as this was a very low-key fire, but as the newts walked into the flames, they foamed up, presumably from something in their skin secretions. The foam appeared to act as a fire retardant, and they emerged on the other side of the flames unscathed. This seemed like an astounding adaptation and an exciting window into how at least some wildlife may approach fire. Fire is not always something to flee or fear, instead just a part of the ongoing life of the ecosystem.

I loved the idea of contrasting the dramatic image of the phoenix, which is gloriously reborn from the flames, to the humbler image of the newt. The newt that plods along, taking fire in stride as a wholly usual part of life. There’s a reason for this symbolism around the phoenix—it encapsulates the way our society thinks about fire. As a dramatic break, a terrible force that utterly destroys the ecosystem, and from which the world must begin again. The newt, and so many of the other species I learned about during this project, showed me, though, that fire doesn’t destroy anything, and the ecosystem doesn’t need to begin again. Fire fits seamlessly into the continuing thrum of life.

The dichotomy between the phoenix and the newt is the story of the change in perspective I underwent over the course of the last seven years.

Z:  Besides the newt, can you single out another organism that defines this project for you? Or that you just learned a stunningly cool fact about?

RC: Insects that are drawn to fires!

While visiting a prescribed burn in the Klamath in Northern California, I saw large wasps flying around, landing on my sketchbook and landing on me. They were horntails, and they were coming to the fire to lay their eggs in the burned (and sometimes still-burning wood). Their larvae would then be able to tunnel and eat the wood to their heart’s content, unhampered by the defenses that a strong and living tree would be able to mount.

To add another fascinating detail: the female horntails carry a fungus in their gut that is also injected into the tree along with the eggs. The fungus digests the wood first, making it easier for the larvae to eat and ensuring that the fungus is taken into the guts of the next generation of wasps and transported to new burned forests. It is an incredibly intricate set of relationships!

Another insect, the charcoal beetle, lays eggs in burned wood, too, and the beetles have been found to contain highly sensitive infrared-sensing organs under their wings, enabling them to detect the heat of a fire from up to eighty miles away.

These two species of insect thrive in fire and are also vital parts of the ecosystem web as recyclers of burned plant material, paving the way for new growth of trees and shrubs and wildflowers. Vivid reminders of the life to be found in burning and recently burned habitats—not wastelands at all but full of species for whom this is their shining moment.

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