By Jennifer Liss
There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man.
- N. Scott Momaday
You lean back on your elbows under an ancient oak. Below you, the 101 snakes north. Just west of the highway is the beginning of the entire Pacific Ocean, inky in the end-of-night light. You’ve been stoned for hours, maybe days. You swam in the warm bioluminescent sea, rode your bike up the hill.
What do you know? Hard to say.
You’re just thinking about yourself and the other barefoot kids you run around with in your coastal town. You aren’t thinking about the hills and the creeks and the rivers and the sea and the sky, because it would be like thinking about your own blood, and who does that?
You can’t imagine how fucked it’s all going to be. It’s not because you’re young.
You’re spitting distance from the obvious yet inconceivable outcome of decades of mistakes in a dangerous golden place. You don’t know what you don’t know.
But in 1995, you don’t even know that.
On a single day in 2020, 367 fires burned across California, throwing up enough smoke to be captured by NASA’s Terra Satellite. By the end of the year, 9,917 fires had raged.
Whether they charred meadows, neighborhoods, or vineyards, each was given a name. Those names take up residence in your vocabulary. Creek 5 and Laura 2. Snow, Dome, Sheep, Salt, Rattlesnake. The Lightning Complex fires: CZU, SCU, LNU. Smoketree and Bitterwater.
The Castle Fire was one of those blazes. It extinguished a tenth of the world’s giant sequoias, most of which were thousands of years old.
Less than six months after the 2020 fire season ended, the next began.
It is the season to prepare. If you live up in the hills, you create defensible space around your home. You’ve been at it for months now. Clearing vegetation. Creating fire breaks. Building trenches. Raking and pruning.
In the suburban flats, you focus on fleeing. Gas in the tank. Bags by the door. Shoes, masks, phone chargers, cash, medicine. Dog leash. Your designated evacuation zone.
Plans A, B, and C.
When there is a high wind advisory, you will stay up, windows open, nose raised, lips curled, banking on your animal instinct to sniff it out before the apps blare the alerts.
Your husband will get on a roof with the other men to see what you can already smell. In the dry dark, families will come out, toddlers in arms, adrenaline quickening their midnight shuffle down the driveways. Up and down the street, trunks will pop open to receive passports, birth certificates, grandma’s gold—whatever else has been deemed irreplaceable.
The neighborhood will leave quietly toward the 101, toward Plan A or Plan B, the fire on the ridge a thin, bright line in the rearview mirror. The incoming smoke, a palm poised to slap.
Some events stand in the middle of before and after. The moon landing. The last spike on the transcontinental railroad. Wuhan. When faced with the after, the before seems so naïve, so deprived of imagination.
In 2017, fire sailed out of the Mayacamas on 80-mile-an-hour gusts and charged across the eight-lane 101, as if hopping a narrow creek bed. On the other side, near a beleaguered Kohl’s department store, fire consumed Coffey Park, 1,200 detached single-family homes.
“After Coffey Park” is a sentence starter, used widely to express the understanding that fire is possible anywhere and everywhere—despite whatever you thought before.
Your son is scared to death about fire. He cries in his bed. He begs you to promise you will not forget Snowball. You can’t promise anything. He sleeps with Snowball zipped into his pajamas.
You argue with your husband. How much longer can you live with this? He wants to know. He wants to talk about moving. His attachment is not like yours. He hasn’t been here his whole life. He has practice reinventing himself.
Where will we go? You parrot this question over and over. Maine? Minnesota? You don’t speak the language. You don’t understand.
Where will 40 million people go? You ask this question a lot too.
As if the sheer magnitude of California’s population will stop the destruction, not create more of it.
Is it still a forest if the trees are burnt, jagged stumps? Is it still a forest if the trees grow back as bushier versions of the grand giants they once were? When do we stop calling it a forest?
And then, what do we call it?
Other people’s Harry Potter books, condoms, tires, quilts, motorcycles, bones, watercolor paintings, crackers, couches, pets. When you get back from your Plan A, as ash, it’s all the same.
A shawl of ash on each late summer tomato, ash in the screen holes, on the flip-flops by the doormat, in the crevices of the picnic table, on the smooth leaves of the lemon trees, in your lungs, in your throat, on your tongue.
Smoke, vomit-colored, presses against the windows.
You won’t let the kids out, everyone sweats inside, air filters chug, and you monitor the API with addict-like focus.
How much sleep have you lost, imagining your kids, when grown, asking: Why did we live like that?
Look at the hills. What do you see? Blaze. But they’re not on fire, not now. They’re golden with dead vegetation. Your imagination has other plans for those hills.
What should be done about your imagination? Should you make it stop imagining the hills on fire?
What happens when the hills are actually on fire? Exactly what should your imagination conjure up then?
What have you learned if not to be grateful for the peace of sky-colored sky?
Most days. Repeat, most days. It’s not a peace you’ve earned. But peace, just the same.
On most days, you have the ability to find this peace elsewhere. A tangerine that peels without a problem. A breeze that is neither too cold nor too dry. Mosquitoes that don’t land.
In 1995, this was one place. Now it’s another. Those are the facts.
How much time can you really allow nostalgia to steal from you?
How much time can you really spend imagining the worst, praying for
There’s only so much time, and you must prepare. It’s the season.