Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District and also for the U.S. Forest Service, fighting wildfires throughout the western U.S. Her new book on Bamboo Dart Press, After the Dome Fire, focuses on that aspect of her life. She has been notably published in Boom, California; McSweeney’s; East Bay Times; Los Angeles Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) and Desert Oracle among a plethora of other landings. Ruth was named the inaugural Mojave Desert Literary Laureate in 2021. Below is a conversation I had with Ruth Nolan on the eve of her new book which was issued September 5th.
After the Dome Fire is a collection that has a history dating back at least four years that I am aware of, that is when I first read the poem Mopping Up (the trailer featuring the poem can be seen here ). The poems in the book reflect back on decades. When did the seed of this collection start for you?
Truth is, I’ve been spending my past few years gathering and sifting through the memory-weave of my desert life, as experienced from childhood until now. Re-visiting and re-imagining a deeply storied desert landscape, and my place in all desert places and journey across space and time. The 2020 Dome Fire in the East Mojave Preserve horrified and infuriated me, and I’d say that my motivation for pulling these poems together was the real incentive for bringing this collection together – an elegy and testament to the brutality of wildfire, in all its fire ecologies, human influences, and the recoveries and resilience that follow via the power of the natural world to heal and regenerate, sometimes in the face of great odds.
So much of your poetry is a reflection of the high desert. This collection is more personal. You not only voice your experiences as a firefighter, but also that of a new mother, of love and loss which is threaded through poems of destruction and rebirth of the natural world around you.
Interesting for you to say this, because my work as a wildland firefighter – frequently working in the area of the Dome Fire and the East Mojave Preserve – was my introduction to the forces of wildfire in that Mojave Desert Region, typically spawned by monsoon lightning strikes, and my time as a firefighter came to an end just a year or so before my daughter was born. So there is definitely an overlap and connection: working to care for and nurture the desert through the work of firefighting, in the immediate face of danger and destruction, and also the closely related baton handoff of giving birth and literally regenerating a new life!
It reads closer to a novel than a chapbook of poetry. A novel with many subplots whose intersections become clearer on repeated readings.
As I’ve said, the many intersections of fighting fires and giving birth, as I have lived them, are filled with possibilities in one’s imagination and poetic sensibilities. Other intersections reflected in my poems weave throughout his chapbook, like long-used footpaths and trails and roads eked across the desert land, and hopefully touch on some of the elements in our shared human stories universal to us all. And truth is, I miss my firefighting days! Some days, I’d rather be out there, working with intent and teamwork, using my shovel and Pulaski fire tool to work hard and get meaningful work done – the excitement and rush of it all. I’d rather be out there than sitting in an air-conditioned condo, writing about it – this can feel rather dull, in contrast.
Your photographs in the book add another dimension to these poems and offer the reader a moment to catch their breath with some of the more harrowing poems. Most of the photos appear are not of torched landscapes, but of landscapes recovering or untouched.
I feel that in writing these poems and taking these pictures in such an isolated and exotic landscape little understood by most people, I’m a sort of poetic ambassador – and how interesting to connect this to my current term serving as the inaugural Mojave Desert Literary Laureate – to bring images and stories of the desert to the forefront through my own deep experiences and interpretations of those. You can see that in some of the photos, the torched desert sits next to the pristine desert, burnt Joshua trees almost touching limbs with untouched trees – as if seeking comfort and regeneration, which they are undoubtedly busy doing, above and underground. Just as beauty and vulgarity often stand and even shine, side by side, seeking some sort of transformation and return to balance that we, as humans, must actively work to restore through the power of honoring, nurturing, and caring for the land, and for our own hearts.
There is a stoicism in your voice that has that same quality in these poems.
Just like the ever-stoic Mojave Desert itself! Except the softness filters in here and there: the lick of gentle monsoon rains; the drifty scent of wildflowers; smudgy sunsets in rainbow tones; gentle sunrise tones peeking in baby hues above the sharpest ridgelines…the softness is always there, against the harshest notes.
Grace and beauty exist in these words, but they are the kind that are as tough nails.
Don’t fuck with grace and beauty!