Have Wildfires Ruined California’s Magic?

Billboards beckon us to Miami. Fantasy communes bloom in Maine. For those of us who are committed to it, our relationship mission is to make peace with the smoke. (I must say this exercise isn’t for everyone. A recent study found that one month of moderate to severe wildfire smoke — what much of California has experienced in the past few years — increases the risk of preterm birth by 20 percent. One of the study’s authors told me: “Wildfire makes it completely unsafe to get pregnant in California.”)

One afternoon in August, I lay on the deck of my friend Kevin’s cabin east of the Sierra Nevada, not far from Mono Lake, and told myself I could love in a place deeply flawed but beautiful. kintsugi road, ash-paste air. Kevin’s cottage was perfect – perfect. In the sage, far from the dirt road, by a stream surrounded by aspen trees in the high desert, the cabin has everything and nothing: no electricity, no running water. A room just 10 meters by 12 meters with a sliding glass door that opens up to the epic mountain sky. Every summer—usually a few times a summer—my family drove through Tioga Pass, crossed the cattle ranger into Lundy Canyon, scrambled off the rock near the swimming hole, plunged into the melting snow, and came out, happy and clean. The light shone through aspen leaves like God’s own disco ball. We felt rich every time we came.

This year, after jumping in, I told myself I still felt refreshed despite the smoke. It was a lie. The next day we set out to Twenty Lakes Basin, where you can cliff dive and swim in the glacier melt. The world here wasn’t feeling good either. The meadows looked dull green from drought and ashen. This wasn’t the first California I got married, but to be honest, I’m not the same person. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by anxiety, alertness, and loss?

Eager and eager to escape my own boring depressive thoughts, I met climate futurist Alex Steffen on the back porch of a Berkeley bar. Steffen, 53, a mountain of a man with a crystal ball bald pate, hosts a podcast and publishes a newsletter called “The Snap Forward.” The idea behind both is that the climate crisis is causing us to get lost in time and space; we need to pull ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it is. As he explained to me with his confident baritone, yes, California and the world are in bad shape. However, the situation is not as hopeless as we thought. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we hoped for, or it’s apocalyptic, it’s the end of everything, and neither is true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “All of us, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can get up in the morning and go to work, you’re not in the apocalypse, are you?”

A more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we are ‘post-apocalyptic’. We are in the midst of an ongoing crisis, or a series of truly connected crises, and we need to learn to be ‘native to the present’. Our lives – or, indeed, already (the desire to continue talking about the present, as the future is intense) – will be defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities”, floods, dry wells, fires. And no giving up. What does it mean?

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