Jason Walsh: A rare bird in the land of Sonoma

Black swans were thought not to exist until the 16th century when Dutch explorers discovered a species in western Australia.


“A rare bird in the lands, and very much like a black swan” – Roman poet Juvenal

652 isn’t a flashy number, or even particularly noteworthy. It’s the area code for Kufra, Libya, as it happens. And it was the birth year of Byzantine Emperor Constantine “the bearded.”

Perhaps the number takes on more meaning to Sonomans when they consider its place in James Strong’s “The Exhaustive Concord of the Bible,” a 19th-century index which assigned a number to each original-language word found in the King James Bible.

In that tome, 652 represents a Hebrew word for “darkness, gloom and calamity.” Which is an apt description of what it represents in Sonoma this week, as fire officials have released their first count of Sonoma Valley structures destroyed by the recent fires: 652.

It’s by no means official and by no means going to be the number when the total losses are eventually tallied. Neither is it an indication of housing loss – barns, sheds and rickety outhouses with crescent moons on the door are structures, too. But it is an early indication of the ruination wrought by the infernos – in homes, and by extension in many cases, lives.

Though no homes were lost within the City of Sonoma – and the Valley’s losses may pale in comparison to Santa Rosa’s 2,900 homes – the decimation of 652 structures is substantial.

It’s a point that wasn’t lost on many at the Oct. 23 meeting of the Sonoma City Council, when comment after comment from the public focused on the fires’ expected exacerbation of the housing crisis – from overall stock to rising rents to the recently de-housed.

Both the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council are already looking at ways to ease the expected crunch – loosening restrictions on living in vehicles, clamping down on rental price gouging, making allowances for “tiny houses” and granny units on properties within the fire zone.

There are plenty of options for lightening the burden on housing and the Sonoma City Council – whose authority is within the city limits, but whose members often speak about representing the broader Valley – should follow suit.

Former city councilmember Larry Barnett was particularly scathing about an alleged lack of foresight among city leaders regarding what he framed as a long-held certitude that the Valley would eventually need solutions to a housing crisis inflamed by unforeseen calamity.

“The City of Sonoma has squandered an opportunity to build up a (housing) fund” in anticipation of a disaster, Barnett said Monday. “Frankly, the City of Sonoma has done nothing.”

While Barnett’s critique is deservedly pointed, it’s not entirely fair. From its support of the Broadway affordable housing project to last year’s vacation rental moratorium to easing in-law unit restrictions, the city has made some marginal inroads into dealing with the ongoing housing crisis.

But it hasn’t been enough. And it hasn’t been done with enough sense of perspective – a broader view of what Sonoma’s needs may be 10, 20 or 30 years down the line. Rest assured, such topics will weigh heavily on next year’s update of the city Master Plan.

In his terse address to the Council, Barnett described the last month’s disaster as a “black swan event.” That’s a term coined by economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown which refers to an unpredictable event that “carries an extreme impact.” He used the term because for centuries in Europe black swans were thought not to exist because no European had ever seen one. Until, of course, they did. Based on that, Taleb argued it is paramount that, even though its nature is unknown, one must always assume a black swan event is possible – and to act accordingly.

As it happens, some folks around here did adhere to Taleb’s assumption. In fact, just recently in September the I-T’s Kathleen Hill broached the subject with the Sonoma City Council, following such wind-blown disasters in Puerto Rico, Florida and Houston.

On Sept. 21, Hill urged the council to start thinking about disaster preparedness and perhaps revitalize the town’s dormant team of disaster-preparedness volunteers.

“Perhaps we should get this going again so that we will be prepared,” Hill wrote to the Council. “We tend, by nature, to become complacent when we aren’t suffering ourselves.”

And she’s right. One of the crucial conditions of a black swan event, according to Taleb’s theory, is that after an unforeseen calamity, it is human nature to, in hindsight, find signs that show the misfortune was entirely predictable – and that people did see it coming.

And, therefore, we can relax – safe in the expectation that if the signs aren’t alerting us to trouble, it must be far at bay.

And in doing that, Sonoma would guarantee the black swan takes flight over the Valley once again.

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