Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management California via Flickr.

Creamy yellow-orange light touches down on the lifted diagonals of the shipping cranes down by the port. Though I live on the other side of the lake, though I’d expect the burgeoning construction in downtown to block the view, somehow I can still peer through trees and buildings and across the gap of the lake to the wetlands, the marshlands of West Oakland, the brimming edge where shipping containers that have crossed the wide Pacific–sometimes spilling loads, red-beaked tub ducks bobbing to join the tract of plastic, the eighth continent–dock at the brink of the west coast, unload cargo from carmine-painted containers, shifted by workers’ hands. Light arrives there.

Lately I have become addicted to the dawn. There are brief moments of a part of an early hour when pink daubs the pale buildings and orange anoints the stucco. I love to get up for the painting that, should one turn one’s head, should one fail to look up and out, should one forget to attune the orbs skirted by eyelashes, would be missed as if it had never existed. As if we had never existed.

*

That’s why, by 6:33 a.m. on November 8, 2018, I happen to be watching the sky closely.

After writing for a couple of hours, I get up from the window to heat the tea kettle.

When I return to the glass pane–the frame with its 20s-era curved wooden moldings that my new landlord is replacing with straight-edged vinyl (flouting the city’s historical preservation code)–black billows like tumbleweeds scurry across the pastel horizon, hurrying as if carrying an urgent message of hope. A fire on the other side of the lake?

I assume I know the source of the fire, having followed the pattern of seven Oakland fires in the last two years: a construction site on a lot that was cleared for a high-rise with no or few affordable units. The fire that lights the hand that lights the fire.

I post a thread asking neighbors for the origin of the smoke. Someone says it might be a grass fire that has shut down the 13 up in the Oakland hills. Looks like my assumption was wrong.

I go out and walk the cement tiles. Shadows are yellowed on the ground, and I already can tell that this is the kind of air they tell you not to go around in, but, having heard no official warning yet, and hankering to stretch my legs, I do a loop anyways. The blurry, jaundiced light around the green of leaves is reminiscent of the other times. But for now I consider myself free.

Back home from the walk, I see what my neighbors have linked to: up in Butte county, a fire has spread quickly through the dry November hills (no rain yet in what we used to call the “rainy season”), and officials have called on people to stay indoors to avoid unsafe air.

Anticipating traffic as cars diverted from fire on Highway 13 will clog the other artery, I fumble to get ready to leave for work.

*

Driving the 24 as it leads eastward up to the tunnel, I glance up at the hills above the 13, but observe no flames. The air is a thick gray-yellow, normal enough considering the brush fire, and I take comfort in thinking that, once we’re through the tunnel, the air will clear.

But nosing out from the tunnel, the air doesn’t seem to be much different. Maybe the hills fire is burning on the spine of the ridge, I reason, and that smoke is drifting eastward?

The gray air seems to shrink-wrap us. A darkness of near-evening. Yellowed objects.

News of the shooting of the Thousand Oaks college students.

Windows closed, I gray, like a flower wilted under radiation.

But I drive onward, bound for my own students.

*

When I arrive in class, I find them huddled on one side of the classroom, as if seeking shelter in one another. It is a reduced number, but they are here.

My heart is not—or is too much–disconsolate, adrift. The lesson I had planned—on a group of poems from diverse authors describing their cultural attachment to the earth—I cannot bear to think of. To do so would ask for a level of positivity I can’t seem to summon. Look at this earth, I sob, inside me.

I greet the students, still standing, clutching my coat across my torso, not seeming to be able to let go of it. I have prepared nothing to say, but I know what I can’t say: I can’t say a sentence with “college students,” “guns,” “club,” and “dead” to them. There is no way my shoulders can utter that obscenity.

My eyes edge out through the double-plate-glass windows, the occluding gray. From there, I fetch the most anodyne of phrases.

“Lots of news today,” I say, with a wince. I hope that what I cannot find words for, that crumple of cheeks, twist of lips can somehow hint at.

That makes a space where students can say their words. Avoiding the other subject, they stick to the fire north by Chico whose cinders are flying down to us: I was in Walnut Creek and it was like war. The smoke that clung to them.

At least one student today is an actual veteran, but I ask him nothing, allow him to remain veiled in his own smoke. I flip through the book, searching on the spot for some poem that can match the mood of our air.

I consider and skip,

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was calling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green light, I saw him drowning.

Wilfred Owen’s final trio of gerunds, “guttering, choking, drowning,” stick to me, even while I skitter past them.

Fire and drought poems come to mind, but I can’t bear to crack open any device to scurry through all the awful updates to search for them. Instead, I seek the solace of the blessedly unitary book we all hold on our desks, that cool paper.

I settle on Denise Levertov’s “In California During the Gulf War.” Not identical, of course, to our situation, but maybe somehow close, I think, as I begin to read out loud. From the very first line, “Among the blight-killed eucalyptus,” I feel we are living in the same odor zone. I patter the reading with little interruptions, say, to explain that the eucalyptus are like lanterns of gas, which, when the flames reach them, explode and spatter. Where I’m dowsing this meaning from, whether news articles, videos, or my own incendiary imagination, I can’t tell—I only know that it feels visceral as I flower my hands outward. That gesture (amid rows of desk-chairs) as if performing at minimal decibel level my grief for those who are here but whom we cannot see, only sniffing their scent on the southward-borne, spiraling wind.

I read, “the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,” and all of us in this room know this landscape. Levertov is describing the difficult hold on a joy that others might not have access to, because of you, how even good cheer can become sickening, and the ethical responsibility of realizing oneself luckier than others who are suffering due to the “crimes committed // again, again—in our name; and yes, they return, / year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy / over against the dark glare.” This part needs explaining—What was the Gulf War? I ask the students. Who is the “we”? And then, most challenging for beings unalive when all this began: What were the crimes committed in our names? The students dive willingly into the task, into this other time that somehow echoes our time, as if in this well of misery recalled they find the murk of their own.

In the last lines, if we substitute “fires” for “bombings,” and “drought” or “future fires” for “war,” it could seem to be directly speaking to the present and prospects of a California whose conflagrations only grow in size, duration, and destructiveness every year. Each year, more trees burn, and since they hold moisture in their roots and branches, contributing to the water cycle of evapotranspiration, when there are fewer trees the next year to offer moisture and regulate climate, the days without rain lengthen, the spring comes earlier, and the summer lasts far into fall–so that the fabled “winter rains,” which in the past were a point of seasonal reference, now mid-November have not arrived, not one drop of precipitation, and when the fires arrive, as they just have now, they find trees and bushes with almost zero moisture in their branches, so they are fast fuel, terrible tinder, and then, consumptive as us, the body of the flame races like a bullet train. But I don’t tell my students any of that. I just read these last lines aloud in the dimmed classroom in which we’ve only temporarily sheltered:

 

[…] –and the bombings are, were,

no doubt will be: that quiet, that huge cacophony

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms

were no doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed

the war had ended, it had not ended.

 

*

Paradise, a town nestled in a canyon in the foothills of the Sierra mountain range. When people tried to leave, cars bottlenecked, so some left their vehicles behind. Later, bulldozers had to be organized to clear off cars’ burned shells so others could exit by that road. Surrounded by flames, some died sheltered in their cars, bodies not recognizable except by anthropologists who were brought in to identify bones. Some people didn’t own cars and fled by foot, a detail that makes my body move into their footfalls. But their feet were slower than the pace of the fire, which leapt an acre per second. I see a photo of a pair of people sitting on a curb, poor and ailing, their home burned up and nowhere to go, and I dive into their defeated postures, wondering what will happen to them now. (To be roofless in a state of rooves.) A man in his thirties says that, having been raised in the mountains, and not having a town to return to, he can’t fathom how to live now. I envision a mountain goat, caged in a city. It strikes me how his and their way of life—lived half among trees, many existing not by virtue of steel sheaths, dependent on flesh, toe to heel–is distinctly different from mine in the metropolis of the wider San Francisco Bay Area. And at least in this one location of tens of thousands of residents, the structures of this way of life have just disappeared–another, underground loss.

*

The next day, Friday, a sudden bout of tendonitis makes any stride painful and keeps me home, along with the sheltering smoke. Some neighbors flee for breezier oxygen—but where is that—is it in our reach? The gray starfish visible from space, covering most of the state. The air quality index map shows Oakland and Berkeley and surrounding areas as Red—for Unhealthy—but it looks like you have to drive what I consider to be quite a distance to get to the Orange band—for Moderately Unhealthy. You’d have to drive to Napa to get to the Yellow band, but I can’t picture myself sitting in what’s sure to be heavy Veteran’s Day weekend traffic, hiding behind glass through the Red zone’s smoke, spewing carbon in the air all the way, and for what—a half day of my somewhat cleaner air? I’d feel selfish. I stay put indoors, not driving, though of course any intelligent fool could tell me the outside air is sifting in. There is no away.

*

The doctor says I have to go to the hospital to get a cam boot to immobilize the limb, which will promote healing. Discarding dignity, I put my bottom on the apartment building’s carpeted stairs and bump down the three flights. I drive very slowly, gingerly, the injured foot uncomfortable on the gas pedal. Instead of parking blocks away and walking as I usually do, I drive up to the entrance. I marvel at the unmasked walkers in the cindered air. As my doctor advised, I ask the parking attendant to please park my car because I can’t walk on my right leg—pointing down at the one trying to hold down the brake pedal–and, though I don’t have the proper pass, he is kind and agrees. I hop only on my left foot toward the sliding glass doors, about forty feet away, and passing through them, I hear, Whoa! Hold up! A man in his forties, muscular and handsome in a black canvas jacket, comes up beside my bouncing self and asks, his voice full of tenderness and a bit of alarm at my ping-ponging figure, Can I please help you? Yes! I bounce, and he leans in, and as naturally as if he were an old college friend, I put my arm on his shoulder, and we hop and walk together. Where are you going? he asks. To podiatry, but maybe just to that counter there, I can rest? And we stride toward the information desk. Thank you! I call, breathless from the exertion, and he disappears, those six seconds of levitation a kind of blessing, the gift of the stranger. I am touched, and that will be my gas mask to fend off the days to come.

Since I’m almost out of groceries and anticipate being housebound for a few days, I drive from the hospital to the neighborhood grocery store. I get lucky with a parking space not far from the back door. Trying to lever myself out of the driver’s seat onto my cam boot, using the cane they’ve given me as a further assist, I stand up and raise my head in the smoky air. There’s a strange normalcy amid the eerie darkness, the magenta sun like a bullet hole through the gray shroud of sky. The unusually smooth, symmetrical sun has had its spiraling rays robbed. I’ve never seen a sky like this, as if I’m a character in one of those movies where she looks up and sees evidence that the aliens are arriving, though no one else has noticed, the descending ship both alarming yet somehow sublimely and ghastly beautiful. At the same time, the memories of past fires in my molecules, there is a strange anti-concern in me, the sense that I have done this before, the first panic of prospect of singed lungs having faded. And I peg my cane and fork myself forward.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter to me, the pureness of this one body, next to the thought of those people burned out of their homes. With 6,500 houses burned up in Paradise (a number that will more than double), my mind wanders, calculating—tens of thousands of newly homeless people. I wish for their protection and wonder what will become of them. I want to feel hopeful that they’ll be cared for. I feel how precarious it is for these people cast out of Paradise. The ones turned away from the inn, the hay of the manger also catching fire.

*

On Saturday, Nov. 10, I’m at my little table by the window, listening to the radio, a thin pane of glass separating my air from the smoke outdoors. I listen to the local updates on the fires raging throughout the state—the fires out of control down by Thousand Oaks and Malibu, which will grow 40 miles to Ventura, with the Santa Ana winds only lengthening them. The scorched bodies recovered in the Camp Fire. Horrified, not able to keep listening to information that is a variation on the previous update, I switch over to listen to the jazz station, 91.1 KCSM. Sonny Buxton is saying, Roy Hargrove, trumpeter, a week ago took his leave, too soon. That’s right, I think, he was forty-nine years old, remembering back to last weekend, which feels like a month ago, as if separated by a smoky fog from this now. As if to convince himself, Sonny’s gravelly, expressive voice persists, Roy Hargrove, gone. A long pause as if he can’t form the words that live in that absence, that silencing of future notes. Then, just, Sorry to see him gone. And the music cues. The notes from the dead, so alive, etch themselves on air.

*

On Monday, Veterans’ Day, I awaken and pad into the kitchen. It’s getting easier for me to put weight on my right foot. I’ve been doing the exercises, pointing and scrunching and bringing the toes back toward my shin; I’ve been warned the motions would hurt, and this caution allows me to feel the pain and persist through it. Every day seems a little better. I go to fetch juice from the fridge, which is right by the window, along with my little table. I start coughing. Maybe it’s just psychosomatic, I think, hopefully. I go back to the sink to wash dishes, and stop coughing; to get milk for tea, I go back toward the window, and begin coughing.

I inspect the old window. It’s next to the vinyl one the landlord had put in as a replacement last month, after eight months of emailing them (and only because my email once again suggested that glass shards, no longer secured by the buckling, rotten-through wood, could at any moment plummet down upon the head of a passerby). The 20s-era molding of the window they didn’t replace has all sorts of 100-year old gaps in it. I put my hand to them and feel the drafts coming in. Why hadn’t I noticed that days ago? I chide myself. How naïve I was to not have thought of that, composing my little lines by the table below it, oblivious. I start taping over the gaps with masking tape. It should be duct tape, but oh well. I apply many layers in a non-systematic, arts and crafts kind of approach. I move on to the bedroom, raising the blinds and laying down tape.

Something occurs to me. I go back to the kitchen, raise the blinds fully so as to see the top of the window. There is a centimeter-wide gap between the wood of the upper pane and the upper crossbar of the wooden frame. The air from outdoors, that gray chaos, is simply streaming in, and has done so for three days. I get a step stool and put my hand to the gap; paradoxically, the air still rated as Unhealthy—Air Quality Index 150 when the top level of “Safe” is down at AQI 49– feels cool and fresh to the touch in comparison to what’s inside. I can’t believe I forgot about this gap, I reprove myself. I start mentally composing an email to the landlord—and yet, eight months ago I’d already pointed out how warped and buckled the wood was, so why should they respond now?

I tape up the gap at the top of the window. The day the fire started, I’d ordered a cheap air purifier, though it won’t arrive until Thursday, three more days away. Still, alas, there will be more days like these. I tape up all the edges, sealing in the particulate that’s already entered, and wait. For some reason, I keep thinking of Sylvia Plath, as I’ve just read an article about how, once she’d discovered Ted’s infidelity with a shared friend—his knowledge of new sexual positions only one of the clues—she relocated to a new apartment she gushed home about. (The mail went to Wellesley, a hometown that Sylvia and I inhabited in different eras.) And yet not long after that cheery letter, she’d sealed off the room with tape and tea towels—the phrasing so quaint to my ears—and she’d opened the heated oven and laid her tormented head upon it as if it were the downiest pillow.

I recheck the window for air entering and find more spots of seep. As I rip the tape pieces off the roll, I grow angry again, arguing the logic in my head. How could her action of taping up the edges, so clearly showing her consciousness of her one and two-year-old—of their welfare—square with the action of taking her exit so soon, inconsiderate of their need of her care? How could she at once have protected that lively spark of their vulnerability and yet be insensate to their call on her, their vivid lambness no longer able to draw the mother sheep to suckle? How embrace her cease?

*

There are now hundreds of thousands of evacuees from the Woolsey Fire in the southland. The fire is moving from canyon to canyon, Liberty to Calabasas and on. Residents wait with their bags, ready for the order to leave immediately. Magdalena posts that there is nuclear waste that the fire will soon light aflame. Later we’ll learn that the fire started at the Santa Susana Field Lab, where Boeing, Rocketdyne, and Atomic International had conducted rocket engine testing. In that atomic era, four partial or total meltdowns of the nuclear reactor core occurred. One was the fourth largest release of radioactive iodine in the history of the world. Even though an agreement was finally reached in 2010 requiring clean-up, the decontamination never began. All that radioactive waste was still there—and in surrounding communities such as Simi Valley where nuclear releases had been carried by the wind–when at 2:22 p.m. on Nov. 8, the Southern California Edison transmission grid was damaged at the Chatsworth substation on the Santa Susana Field Lab site. The Woolsey fire began there at 2:24 p.m. Similarly, in the north, an outage by Pacific Gas & Electric, which has a near-monopoly in the state, preceded the Camp Fire. PG&E noticed damage to the Caribou-Palermo transmission line near the town of Pulga fifteen minutes before flames started there; a little while later, a PG&E distribution line malfunctioned, igniting a second fire that, together with the first source, would become the deadliest fire in California’s history. In the week leading up to that day, CalFire had issued daily red flag warnings, which put people on alert for weather conditions that could easily spark a fire—in this case, extremely strong winds coupled with lack of rain. Despite the 50-mph winds and red flag warnings, despite the fire that was reported at 6:33 a.m. on the morning of November 8, at midday PG&E published its official decision to not shut off power to the area where two fires had just begun.

My governor states the obvious–that climate change is a contributing cause of these fires. The fire marshal in Paradise points out that that Paradise has not had any rain for 200 days. Thus, the moisture level in trees and bushes has been at an extremely low level, which is one of the factors that has allowed and is allowing the fire tongue to lick and eat dry limbs with such rapidity and flux and ease.

*

Veterans’ Day. The president evades two ceremonies that are to honor those who fought and died in World War I. One in Arlington Cemetery stateside, another in Aisne-Marne Cemetery in France. The shame of it. Of him. The French president at the Arc de Triomphe gives a speech stating that nationalism—my nation above others—is a distortion of true patriotism. The camera pans to the world dignitaries with their earbuds in to hear the simultaneous translation of the French of the speech into their own language. Then the camera rolls onto my overcoated cretin, ears bare, looking dully up in space, perhaps training his eyes onto the regiments of cupped flowers in the underside of the arch, or perhaps onto the gold of the military decorations, yearning for his own parade in chaossed columns.

*

At least, the French and German leaders stand to honor the signing, one hundred years ago exactly, of the armistice to end the war. Their smiles, their relief—as if the war had just happened, as if they were just ending it in one another’s arms, sinking into the embrace of peace—is palpable. Hovering above the planet as if travelling in a satellite, I regard the crinkles in their faces, lodge my body into that crease.

*

I begin coughing uncontrollably, a wave of it crests, and then stops. I touch the tape on the windows.

*

The poem I finally find in the anthology to read to the students–on the first day of the fires, and one day in a series of massacres of young people–is “Thrombosis in the Veins of Petroleum” by Taha Muhammad Ali. The speaker in the poem starts off declaring himself an insignificant obstacle in war motivated by oil. He is traveling through a landscape pocked by hidden devices that are detonated underneath their feet: “one of my habits is running / into battalions of mines / along the border, / as my songs / and the days of my youth / are dispersed: / here a flower, / there a scream; / and yet, / I do not die!” The tone of macabre irony mixed with resilience seems something, at least, to offer my students as a question, a provocation. The poem finishes, “I’ll remain — / a blood stain / the size of a cloud / on the shirt of this world!” One of the students, Mohammed from Qatar, gestures to his wrist, the cuff: “It’s something invisible, that others don’t want to see”—and soft-spoken Molly points upward, as if the cloud of blood were hanging right over our heads, and continues, “But it’s becoming visible,” and her friend Nhat concludes, “So no one can ignore it.” And we look up together at the glowering sky.

*

On the morning of November 15, the air quality worsens precipitously, hour by hour. It is now in the purple zone: Dangerous. Whereas 49 AQI is the uppermost cap that’s still healthy, we are at a 289 AQI. The cheap purifier I bought gets delivered by a maskless delivery man. I plug it in, and the light sensor turns red to register my indoor air definitively as polluted. But after letting it run an hour, I feel very nauseated, perhaps due to chemicals used by the purifier, and have to power it off. I stay put again, write and translate behind the gray glass. I wipe it clean and look out and tell myself that the daylight looks better, my brain unable to square my eyesight with the numbers I’ve read. Dozens of colleges and universities in our region cancel classes. I check my campus mail, where someone on the executive board has written an email to cancel their meeting today due to unhealthy air quality, but notes that college classes will continue as scheduled, and in that soppy but in this case entirely synthetic Use good self-care tone, writes, “But you are free to use a sick day and cancel classes.” Well, isn’t that generous? It takes repeated reminders to myself that I need a job to not write back to shout the illogic of his hypocrisy. I do write the students to cancel class, but on principle, I don’t call in sick because I am not sick—not that I can tell.

A friend in Berkeley with two children writes a long post: “In the Bay Area we are in crisis,” noting that India is the only place on the planet with an equivalent AQI. The particulate matter has edged up from the Unhealthy red zone to the Dangerous purple zone, and is a genuine health concern. Bits of plastic and flown-away homes tuck inside the folds of our lungs. And yet I can’t help thinking that the thousands of people in Paradise who were burned out of their homes and are sleeping in parking lots are in crisis much more than me. The people who are waiting for their relatives to emerge from the ashes—86 people dead and 3 missing as of this writing–are in crisis. Fishermen and farmers the world over affected by increasing hurricanes and cyclones that take out fishing villages and inundate cropland with salt water are in a food crisis. I can think of millions of people on the planet who are in more of a crisis than us and, unlike many in this generally more affluent area, do not have the means to bounce back. We in the city have had a week of poor air quality, but we know that once the winds shift, our air will clear. In India, their toxic air won’t blow over so fast. I wonder if there is some surprise that we in Northern California would have to cast in our lot with the masses in the Global South and on the coastal edges and Pacific Islands where we’ve read sea level rise is hitting first. Are we shocked that we, made of Silicon, have no force field to shield ourselves against floating particulate, our true interconnectedness, taught even in corporate wellness seminars, made palpable in every breath we take? Another friend posts the global air quality map and writes tenderly, Look who we’re connected with.

*

And then, coughing in the closed apartment, spitting up mucus, prickly twinges in my stomach, and spasms around my heart, I obsessively scan four air quality maps, cross-checking and correlating their slightly different data. Early the next morning, with only a day pack I board the Amtrak south (so as not to emit a car’s additional carbon), not knowing how many days I’ll be gone, the white-gray vistas opening up their closed landscapes, bound for an illusory away, where we all can breathe.

Tiffany Higgins

Tiffany Higgins is a poet, translator, and journalist. She is the author of And Aeneas Stares into her Helmet, on the Iraq War from a citizen’s perspective, The Apparition at Fort Bragg, which explores whether trees look back at us, and the translator of Alice Sant’anna’s selected poetry collection, Tail of the Whale. She is translating the writing of Lívia Natália and Itamar Vieira Junior of Bahia. Her reportage in Granta describes the Munduruku people’s fight to demarcate their territory in the face of proliferating hydroelectric dams in Brazil. In 2017 she was a resident in the Banff Centre’s Frontline Environmental Reportage residency.

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