HE THOMAS FIRE became the largest recorded California wildfire at the dawn of the 2017 winter solstice. Across the span of 2.5 warm and exceptionally dry December weeks, Thomas has burned over 280,000 acres of developed and undeveloped land from Fillmore to Santa Barbara. The previous record holder for acreage, the Cedar Fire, scorched San Diego Counties through the end of October and into beginning of November in 2003. The first recorded largest fire in California history was the Matilija Fire of September 1932–which, as can be deduced by the name alone, burned the same region as Thomas (the latter thus, I perhaps too soon hint, appearing as some sort of “twin” or second coming of the former). Though the fire locally began in Santa Paula’s Steckel Park (a name of German Jewish origin), it was officially christened after St. Thomas Aquinas, due to its rapid surrounding (though not incineration) of the St. Thomas Aquinas College north of Steckel Park. To make it easier for the Media around the world to discuss the St. Thomas Aquinas Fire, the first and last articles were dropped, leaving it as the secularized “Thomas Fire”. So who is the Thomas which this blaze was baptized by?
History has it there are two St. Thomas–which is appropriate considering that the name Thomas means “twin”. The first St. Thomas was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles originally named Didymus Judas Thomas (dido Judas twin); he is the origin of the phrase “Doubting Thomas“, as this Thomas–twin of Judas, the betrayer–initially doubted the resurrection of Jesus. He is speculated as being the scribe of The Gospel of Thomas, a logia attributed to Jesus, which was rediscovered as a written document in 1945 in the sands of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The second St. Thomas is St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Italian Dominican Friar, Catholic priest, and Doctor of the Church–of which the college in Santa Paula is named after. His most prominent (and yet unfinished) work, which he wrote from 1265 to his death in 1274, was the Summa Theologica, “one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature” (Wikipedia). He was a proponent of Natural Theology (vs. the scriptural, academic study of the divine), which argued that the existence of God (greater intelligence) can be understood through reason and ordinary experience of nature. According to the Wikipedia article on Thomism (the philosophical school which arose out of his ideas and works),“Thomas Aquinas believed that truth is to be accepted no matter where it is found“. Of course, upon reading deeper, his explorations of “truth” can be unraveled and interpreted in various, even seemingly contradictory, ways. Be that as it may, this general stance towards “truth” (which essentially overlaps with the philosophy of the 19th century Theosophists, as evidenced in their motto “There is no Religion higher than Truth“) resonates with Thomas the Apostle’s acceptance of Jesus’ resurrection only after having his own personal, natural, physical experience of it:
Though the image above is of a detail from a real oil painting physically hanging in the Uffizi, it was created in the early part of the 17th century by an unknown Italian artist as a “replica” or copy of Caravaggios’s masterpiece, The Incredulity of St. Thomas (shown right). Both the “original” Caravaggio (hanging at the Sanssouci Picture Gallery in Potsdam, Germany) and the replica depict the Biblical scene of Didymus Judas Thomas sticking his finger of disbelief in Jesus’ wound post-resurrection. Thomas is quoted in the Gospel of John as saying, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Thomas is then given the opportunity to dispel his disbelief in this manner, and upon doing so, is quoted exclaiming, “My Lord and my God”. Anteriorly echoing the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas the Apostle found “truth” in a theologically naturalistic manner.
Having witnessed the replica painting in person, I don’t doubt its existence or its credibility (technically speaking it was an excellent painting, and could potentially be mistaken for the Caravaggio). I have not seen the “original” Caravaggio, the “first” The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which is in Germany, in person. But I know–via outside information such as text and photographs–that there is a “first” The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Thus, in physical but separate locations, there are two visually identical depictions of the same thing–two twin paintings. Yet, subjectively, which one is more “original” or truthful for me? What if I wasn’t informed that the painting at the Uffizi was a “replica”, instead just seeing it as its own original painting on the wall? For me, in this instance, is the “original” painting simply vicarious? The seeds for what was to become the post-modern trend of questioning notions of “originality” and “authenticity” were sown centuries ahead of time–and perhaps it is because these conundrums are woven into the fabric of existence. Centuries before art started tackling “originality” head-on, and centuries before that when the twin paintings of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas were created, Judas Thomas questioned the authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection until he penetrated the original wound in the original Jesus who had originally died.
I had no idea when I saw, in painting form, both Saint Thomas Aquinas and Thomas the Apostle at the Uffizi in mid-November that weeks later the largest wildfire in recorded California history named Thomas was going to completely circumscribe my hometown. I awoke on the morning of December 5th to no electricity, spying distant flames burning hills across the valley at its Eastern end. It didn’t occur to me then that this could be anything more than a seasonal wildfire characteristic of the region. An alteration in my disbelief occurred when I received wind that the nearby mental health hospital in Ventura burned down (where are all of us crazies going to go now?). My place of residence in Ojai went under mandatory evacuation. I watched flames rear up over a ridge less than a mile from where I stood, within minutes blazing across its length. That was enough “direct experience” for my sympathetic nervous system to kick in and motivate me to evacuate and head North. Within days, the entire Ojai Valley was under mandatory evacuation, with most houses and structures being threatened, some burning down. Over the course of one week, the surrounding landscape was burned through, the internal part of the valley only being spared due to firefighting intervention. Though the area is known for its wildfires, the fire that unfurled was seen as “unprecedented” and seemingly incredulous in December. However, with severe drought conditions and global warming, perhaps it shouldn’t have been greeted with such surprise.
Perhaps we can weld together some nominal clues to penetrate the mystery of the origin (the pearl in the oyster, a la The Hymn of the Pearl) of Thomas:
Fire was first reported in the early evening hours on December 4th near Steckel Park in Santa Paula (Wikipedia). According to www.ancestry.com, the surname Steckel is of German and Jewish origin, three different interpretations being: “easily affronted”, “little stick”, and “outhouse”. The fire proceeded to burn from Santa Paula (named after Saint Paula, a Desert Mother) through the Los Padres National Forest (the Fathers Forest, referring to the Catholic missionary priests who were in the area during the 18th and 19th centuries), through Ventura (Saint Bonaventure, a medieval Italian Franciscan and philosopher)–within hours burning through hundreds of homes and buildings–to Carpinteria (a carpenter’s area), to Santa Barbara (Saint Barbara, a patron of architects whose feast day is December 4). Thomas the Apostle is also recognized as a patron saint of architects and builders. Both Thomas the Apostle and Thomas Aquinas are depicted as holding a (potentially flammable!) book.
For some statistics: Over 8,500 firefighters were brought in from across the Western United States, “the largest mobilization of firefighters for combating any wildfire in California history” (Wikipedia). It has destroyed over 1,000 structures and damaged over 280. Two deaths–a woman and a firefighter–have been reported. Thomas even generated it own weather, called a firestorm, at its peak wrath burning an acre a second. Over 100,000 people evacuated. So far it is the 7th most destructive fire in California history. All of this is not even to mention the six other significant wildfires that ignited across the Southern California landscape in the wake of Thomas–one of which (the Creek Fire in Los Angeles County) is still burning.
The full moon on December 4th was not strong enough to cool the heated glow illuminating the “moon” valley. As of writing (December 25th, 2017), the “cause” of Thomas is “under investigation”. It has been determined however that the Thomas Fire actually started as two separate (twin!) fires in the vicinity of Steckel Park. It has been projected that the fire will continue to burn into the New Year.
Within Aquinas’ Summa Theologica can be found numerous mentions of fire. Repeatedly Aquinas asserts, in various expressions, that “fire begets fire”. In regards to the query “Whether Paradise is a Corporeal Place?“, he objects: “Paradise reaches to the lunar circle”….“But no earthly place answers to that description, both because it is contrary to the nature of the earth to be raised up so high, and because beneath the moon is the region of fire, which would consume the earth. Therefore paradise is not a corporeal place” (pg. 355).
But wait! Plato and Aristotle were BOTH right:
While a refugee in Carpinteria from December 4th to the 12th I monitored the progression of Thomas in non-corporeal space via the 21st century technology of Google Maps. Hour by hour the swath of red designating burning areas inched (literally) across the screen closer and closer to my corporeal location. I then decided some vital virtual measures were to be undertaken:
After a week of evacuation from my original place of residence in Ojai, and after having gone though my succession of regressive virtual removals, I just couldn’t seem to escape the physical reality, as Thomas then reared its flames upon the ridges less than a mile from where I was in Carpinteria:
Not having burned up or down and no longer under evacuation (though far from over) I returned to my Ojai residence. I proceeded to photographically document what I could find:
If we regress back to 1965, we can find a place to sit down–with art. The conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth did the first installment of One and Three Chairs in a gallery setting (sitting?) in which was presented a trinity consisting of a 3-dimensional chair, a photograph of that chair (image on the wall), and (also on the wall) a printed dictionary definition of “chair”. Here we witness a juxtaposition of “chair” as 3-dimensional object, pictorial representation, and written exposition. The object becomes the subject, and vice versa. In a straightforward manner we are initiated into the post-modern narratives (yes, there is a such thing!) surrounding “originality” and “objectivity”, “replication” or “reproduction” and also language in art. Art After Philosophy, written by Kosuth in 1969, is indeed a historical document of that “contemporary” moment–the blip in time known as “post-modern thought”. The essay supports the post-modern discrediting of “aesthetics” (suggestions and ideas of “beauty” or visual appeal) as something worthy of consideration in a work of art, favoring instead the idea of art existing for its own sake– or “art for art’s sake”. “Concept” alone becomes the raison d’etat, exclusive of aesthetic value. Yet when being presented with this paradox, I pause: Isn’t this the same thing as (but the opposite pole of) art serving an aesthetic function–which was, at one time, a type of art for art’s sake?!? So we’ve traded in our decorations for concepts…(or rather: instead of having purely pretty pictures, we have complicated conceptual cop-outs…).
Kosuth asserts that art has been liberated from religion, philosophy, and aesthetics–which in the post-modern timeline, was true. However, to conclude that this liberation amounts to greater awareness and a higher purpose for “art”, and that this will fulfill “the spiritual needs of man” is sort of like taking Darwinism to the social level (er…that’s not even a good concept). At the end of the day, what good is a chair whose seat has been burned away by the fires of “art for art’s sake”? Could we have possibly digressed far enough that we made it to the era Post-Art-For-Art’s-Sake?!? Is art the original cause? And if so, does that mean we have reached the final cause?
Such it is that The Incredulity of Saint Thomas became The Treachery of Images in the Modernist fire of the 20th century:
Perhaps we’ll call this one Ojai After Thomas aka This is not Ojai:
I regress…It’s just the Kali Yuga
In Manly P. Hall‘s 1922 esoteric work The Initiates of the Flame can be read:
“Nature is the great book whose secrets he seeks to understand through her own wondrous symbolism. His own Spiritual Flame is the lamp by which he reads, and without this the printed pages mean nothing to him. His own body is the furnace in which he prepares the Philosopher’s Stone; his senses and organs are the test tubes, and incentive is the flame from the burner”
More photos of the Thomas Fire can be seen here