Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Before I tell you how it feels when there are huge, out-of-control, catastrophic fires burning to the north, south, and east of us, and the Air Quality Index is listed as “hazardous” for days on end, and my friends with asthma are stuck inside their houses, windows sealed, air filters humming, and those of us who do venture outside feel the stifling air burn our throats and sting our eyes, and there’s a thin coating of ash over everything, and the Oakland hills are swathed in a gray-white shawl of smoky haze — before I tell you all of that, I want to tell you about falling in love with California.
I think it happened on my first hike in Redwood Park. It was the late eighties, and I was still very much a Bostonian, out here to visit my mother-in-law with my first husband, who was showing me his hometown.
That day up in the hills, the sky was the richest shade of blue I had ever seen — a delicious, tender, saturated blue; a blue you could fall into and keep falling, happily, forever. The sun really was golden, and the sun-seeking branches of the bay laurel stretched over our path like a canopy. We walked among huge redwoods and eucalyptus trees shedding their bark in curly, pink-tinged ivory scrolls that littered the ground at our feet. The air was perfumed with eucalyptus and other scents I did not recognize but would come to know over time: sage and lavender and the sweet aroma of what a friend calls the “pancakes and syrup tree” — all the intoxicating, pungent smells of a semiarid climate. Each turn of the trail brought us new views of the sparkling bay. Hawks and turkey vultures planed and drifted on the warm thermals. I felt a lightness in my chest, an expansive sense of possibility. It mostly had to do with the sky, I think: that incredible blue with just a few feathery mare’s-tail clouds that didn’t forebode anything but seemed only to promise more freedom and joy.
Not too long after that hike, I found myself back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, packing up our junky ’65 Ford with our worldly possessions (not much) to move across the country. We took the southern route, staying for a week in New Orleans before crossing the state line into California on New Year’s Day 1990.
And even after that marriage fell apart a few years later and I was on my own in a strange place, I stayed — and stayed and stayed. I’ve been taking that same hike, walking those same hills, for thirty years now. In the winter of 1997, when my mother was hooked up to a ventilator in a Massachusetts hospital and I was sitting vigil by her bedside with my sister, that leaf-littered trail winding through redwoods and bay laurels and live oaks rose up into my mind unbidden. I retraced every step of it in my memory as the hospital machines beeped and hummed and a New England blizzard turned day into night outside the windows. The California landscape was alive inside of me.
And now that landscape is on fire. Not the Oakland hills this time, thank God. That inferno happened in October 1991, when I’d been here less than two years. I was washing dishes one day and looked out my window to the east, where a huge plume of smoke darkened half the sky. Concerned, I called 911 and helpfully informed the operator, “I think there’s a fire somewhere near my house.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she answered. “It’s up in the hills. We have engines from six different counties already responding.”
That blaze was quick and devastating. Twenty-five people were killed trying to flee. At the time it seemed to me a freak occurrence. I was still new to the area and didn’t yet know anyone who lived in those hills, along those twisty roads with breathtaking views, in those houses perched atop sheer cliffs, looking as though they would slide off into the canyons below at the first tremble of an earthquake.
Now I have beloved friends who live up there. I’ve sat on their back porch with them, writing letters to disengaged voters in Georgia and Florida. I’ve swung in their hammock and lolled in their hot tub. And I’m terrified for their safety. Every time I drive up those narrow roads in my ancient Honda, I imagine a logjam of desperate people crowding the same roads, trying to escape a galloping fire, and I get anxious. My friends are more sanguine. They know the back ways, they assure me. They’ve thought about escape routes, made a plan, even duplicated important documents and put them somewhere safe. They’ll be fine.
Many people here live like this. They have “go bags” filled with essentials stashed by the door. They sleep lightly during fire season, their dreams full of flames spreading over tawny hills that lie as peaceful as sleeping lions all summer.
Now the lions have awoken with a vengeance. You’ve probably seen the footage: flames moving with tremendous speed; an orange glow on the horizon gaining in intensity until it roars over a town and engulfs it; people who thought they had hours to escape scrambling to their cars and driving through terrifying infernos, the oil-packed eucalyptus trees exploding from the sheer radiant heat all around them.
It seems important at this point to say that fire is not the enemy. The Native people who lived here, and whose descendants live here still — the Miwok and the Ohlone — understood that fire is indigenous to this climate and topography. It seeds the redwoods and helps them propagate. It clears away the old and makes room for new growth. Native tribes used controlled burns to reduce the sort of unpredictable wildfires that have been our lot in recent decades. I have heard that land managers now are soliciting aid from Native elders to help improve fire management.
Fire is not the enemy. We are. By “we” I mean me and the millions like me who were attracted to the West Coast by the big sky and the clear golden light and the promise of freedom and the opportunity to live close to wilderness. Although I live in the urban flatlands, I’m still only a ten-minute drive from those glorious hills. And for years I saw this as an unmitigated advantage, never thinking about the consequences of so many people building houses where there shouldn’t be houses, sucking the groundwater dry, and clogging the freeways with our one-car-for-every-person lifestyles. Yes, I noticed that the traffic was getting worse every year, that I no longer wanted to brave the bridge into San Francisco because bottlenecks had become commonplace, that parking was getting impossible. And I noticed the increasing number of air-quality warnings and the gentrification of the neighborhoods and the rents that rose to unsustainable heights and the exodus of those who could no longer afford the Bay Area.
But the changes seemed to happen slowly, until they snowballed — especially these fires, which have taken an exponential leap from “bigger,” to “unprecedented,” to “apocalyptic.” In late August I was talking with a friend who said that she and her wife were contemplating moving to Oregon because of the congestion and fires in California. Not long after our conversation Oregon was on fire, and the Air Quality Index in Portland was an unimaginable 400, which is pretty much unbreathable. There’s nowhere on the West Coast — nor in much of the West, including Colorado and Montana — where you can escape.
Each year when fire season rages around us, worse than the year before, my friends broach the topic of relocating: especially people with asthma, who endure weeks of being unable to venture out to the grocery store, and especially this year, in the midst of a pandemic, when the isolation has been compounded. But each year, after the fires are harnessed at last and the skies clear, we meet up in those same endangered, beautiful hills to enjoy the autumn sunlight filtering through the trees, and we decide to stay. A few of my friends actually do leave, of course, but the rest of us, who’ve been here for decades, are too deeply rooted to seriously contemplate moving.
Denial is a funny thing. Even if the catastrophe is happening right next to you — or ten short miles away — you can still engage in magical thinking, telling yourself it’s only other people whose lives will be upended. Even though we all breathed the smoke from the destruction of the town of Paradise in 2018 — breathed in their burning cars, homes, animals, and bodies — it was still happening “over there” to “other people.” Even when a student in one of my writing classes lost everything and had to move in with her adult son and his family, I could still maintain my denial. It’s a bit like the denial of death, which most of us indulge in so as not to go crazy. My hair has whitened since I moved here thirty years ago, and my joints have stiffened, and people close to me have died. Nevertheless I’m still surprised when I say my actual age out loud, or when I look in the mirror and see fine lines spiderwebbing my cheeks, or when I calculate how many years I might have left — much fewer than the years behind me. Despite the overwhelming evidence, death still doesn’t seem that real.
It’s the same with climate change. We’re living with it — and yet, and yet. As long as my little house is safe, as long as my street is not on fire, as long as my garden continues to produce tomatoes and peaches and sunflowers, things still seem relatively OK. I’m writing this in mid-October. About a month ago — Was it only a month? I check the date. Yes, September 9, 2020 — we woke to eerie dark-orange skies. It looked like the end of days. The sun never broke through the intense cloud of smoke and ash that covered us. Streetlights were on all day. Cars crawled down avenues with their headlights on at noon. The color was garish, an otherworldly hellscape. The next day the sky was less orange, but clouds of ash still covered the sun, which appeared only as a pale-tangerine disk in a gray-white haze: a nuclear-winter kind of day. It was awful. It was sobering. And then it passed.
It’s in our nature as humans to deny and adapt and forget. When I was young, I used to think this was a bad thing. Now I recognize it as a necessary survival strategy. We Californians can’t live in terror of earthquakes every minute of every day, even though we know all about the fault lines and where they’re located. We still drive on highway overpasses and build homes on the sheer sides of steep hills — they would be called “mountains” in New England — and go about our daily business without imagining the earth might swallow us up.
It’s beautiful out today, although a bit too warm and very dry. Fire season won’t be over till the end of November or the beginning of December, whenever we get our first real soaking rains. Until then, we’re just living our lives, knowing that climate change is not “coming” but has arrived on our doorstep. Meanwhile we need to go to the grocery store. We’ve got e-mails to return, work to attend to, an election to worry about. We text each other with plans to take a socially distanced walk by the bay, the same seaside where the setting sun seemed to make a “golden gate” to the starry-eyed settlers and colonizers who came here 150 years ago seeking gold and opportunity and a fresh start, seeking the promise of a new life.