In the foreword to Kristen Moeller and Leslie Aplin Wharton’s book, “Phoenix Rising: Stories of Remarkable Women Walking Through Fire,” journalist Megan Bettencourt sums up the collection by describing it as a look into the lives of women united by wildfire. She calls the book a gem that allows the reader to see the “shock and fear, grief and disorientation, and then, armed with the wisdom of retrospection, walking out into whatever comes next. It’s nothing less than being witness to the very act of creation itself: from chaos, order; from nothingness, something. Kind of like fire and the regeneration that follows.”
Wharton, who lost her Rist Canyon home in the High Park Fire in June 2012 and has since moved to Bellingham, Wash., connected with Moeller, who lost her home in the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County that same year. They discovered that both had imagined a book such as this one. Wharton says that working as partners has been a gift and that neither of them could have completed the project alone during the time when they were getting their lives back together, finding new homes and dealing with reams of insurance paperwork. The project kept them sane and connected to something larger than themselves, Wharton said.
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The book contains a couple of poems and the stories of 20 women who either lost their homes to fire or watched as their neighbors did. Some of the contributors were experienced writers; others had never before written anything for publication. A couple had been firefighters. They have many experiences in common but their reactions to their circumstances differ. They are old and young, have a wide range of life experiences, but all of them express their passion for nature and the joy of mountain living.
It’s fair to say that each of the book’s contributors was changed by the firewalker experience. They find different ways to express the way they feel about their losses, but over and over they mention well-meaning people who point out that luckily, they did not lose their lives and that material things can be replaced. The firewalkers argue that some material things, treasured mementos and gifts are irreplaceable and are a part of one’s life, now gone forever. Those of us who have not gone through the experience may think we could handle the loss of our “stuff” without trauma — until we delve into the pages of this beautifully constructed book.
“Why did you rebuild? Why not move to town?” people kept asking Fort Collins Realtor Louise Creager. Her story explains that her home was where she and her family had created memories, from designing and building the place to knowing that neighbors might be five miles away but always looked out for each other. Some of them helped the family to rebuild the place where Creager says they now are building new memories that will fill the place with music and laughter. She’s grateful for living close by deer, wild turkeys and foxes and still calls Rist Canyon her paradise.
Wharton describes the book as “an intense read,” and that it is. She suggests: If you buy this book for a firewalker, giftwrap it in beautiful paper. Tell them what’s inside, but let them open it only when they’re ready. It’s questionable whether they’ll open it the first year after their fire — and if they do, they may not be able to finish reading it. The second year after the fire they’ll love it. They’ll read each story and cry and cry. Then they will read it again.
The book contains dramatic photos of the aftermath of fires and a section at the end provides brief biographies of the contributors and the two authors of the book.
Northern Colorado contributors include: AnnMarie Arbo, long-term recovery caseworker; Bonnie Antich, former firefighter and owner of Canyon Spirit Gallery in Fort Collins; Amanda DeAngelis, owner of Nine Births Childbirth Services in Fort Collins; Astrid, property manager for low income singles and families; Jackie Klausmeyer, math and science teacher for at-risk youth; Jenn Nolte worker with at-risk patients in a Fort Collins residency program; Louise Creager, Fort Collins Realtor; and Linda Masterson, the author of “Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life.”
“Phoenix Rising,” will be available at JAX Outdoor Gear and other local bookstores this month. Twenty percent of proceeds will be donated to the Phoenix Rising Fund which provides scholarships to therapeutic writing programs for women who are dealing with natural disasters. See PhoenixRisingFund.com.