It is the summer of 2021, and I am out west for what was meant to be a short stay. But I have decided to linger. I need to see where all the smoke is coming from.
Smoke is everywhere, and people are wary. As with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when the clouds of dust blew all the way from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C., the smoke from this summer’s disasters has blown across the interior, all the way to Massachusetts. By late July, the National Interagency Fire Center’s situation report will have listed a total of 37,009 wildfires across the country, burning almost 3.4 million acres.
Originally, Salt Lake City was my westernmost destination, but I decide to keep pushing it, following the smoke, the region a hazy blur as I drive. A new phrase, heat dome, is on everyone’s lips. This basically describes what happens when warm oceanic air becomes trapped in Earth’s atmosphere by high pressure, but perhaps it is easier to picture a lid being placed over a piece of meat cooking on a kettle grill. We, and the land, are the meat. People keep saying it has never been so hot, and that subjective impression is backed up by the facts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that over “a six-day period during the middle of June 2021, a dome of hot air languished over the western United States, causing temperatures to skyrocket. From June 15–20, all-time maximum temperature records fell at locations in seven different states (CA, AZ, NM, UT, CO, WY, MT). In Phoenix, Arizona, the high temperature was over 115 degrees for a record-setting six consecutive days, topping out at 118 degrees on June 17.”
Though extreme, heat in Phoenix is to be expected. But records are also being set in Salt Lake City, where it hit 107 degrees, and in Billings, Montana, where high temperatures averaged 100 degrees for six straight days, reaching a record 108 degrees. There is no relief by the ocean either. During Canada’s record-breaking heat wave, tens of thousands of dead clams, mussels, sea stars, and snails are found on a beach in Vancouver. In the Pacific Northwest, Portland breaks all records, and Seattle, which from 1894 to the present had only three days on record when the temperature reached 100, now reports three days in a row of hitting triple digits. Glaciers are melting atop Mount Rainier, where summer temperatures are normally near freezing, and where the thermostat atop the 14,411-foot peak will register 73 degrees.
The other day, before reaching Salt Lake, I took a hike along the Escalante River. I ran into no one and enjoyed the freedom of wandering by the water while staring up at the great battlements of stone. Above me swooped swallows feasting on insects. I took a break from the apocalypse to birdwatch under the giant gnarled cottonwoods. More swallows, and woodpeckers, towhees, rufus hummingbirds, and a chickadee-size bird I couldn’t identify. They were all that mattered for the moment.
That was what I needed. For a couple of hours, I could believe there were Edens left on Earth, and both this knowledge and the experience itself buoyed me.
But. The inevitable but.
When I was back on the road, the feeling quickly faded. As I headed toward the town of Escalante, the reality of the burning summer reintroduced itself. I sensed it in my nose first, then my eyes. Down by the river, I had been able to ignore the smoke, but coming into Escalante was like driving into a San Francisco fog. In that famously scenic place, with buttes and mesas in the distance, I couldn’t see more than 50 feet ahead. A blurry world. Ghostly, with the oranges and yellows of striated rock visible but not the rock walls themselves.
My experience during recent trips through the American West is conflicted. A deep delight in the places where I find myself and in many of the people whom I meet, an anger at the despoiling of these places, and a deeper sadness about the climatic future. The miracle is how often, despite everything, delight wins out. But this trip is different, and on the morning of July 16, I head toward a state that looks, perhaps more than any other, like the landscape many scientists imagine in our arid future. Forty-two years from today, my daughter, Hadley, will be the age I am now. If you want to know the kind of world she will inherit, you could do worse than visit Nevada.
As anyone who has ever traveled west along Route 80 from northern Utah into Nevada knows, you must first pass through a world of salt. Not just the lake that gives Utah’s capital city its name, but the clumped white mountains alongside the road. I pass the Morton Salt factory, imprinted with the giant logo of the girl with her tilting umbrella, and then, as I near the border between the two states, the Bonneville Salt Flats, stretching out forever like a field of drifting snow. Salt is one thing we should still have a surplus of in the future, and here, where the ocean used to be, it is everywhere.
I have always found Nevada’s beauty to be underrated, but what I see now is less than beautiful, the smoke rendering the mountains mere shadows of themselves. Shimmering, glassy blue mirages rise on the road ahead as I point my rental van toward the great smoky wall of California. After hours and hours of driving through the brown of Nevada, passing too many dust devils, too many signs that read “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers, Correctional Facility Ahead,” I finally begin to curl upward along the Truckee River toward Reno. Two sunsets glow in front of me. An actual one and something else, farther south, the reds and purples and swirling blacks like a great bruise—the reflection of a fire. Lit up below it, the whole landscape is crisp and brown and friable, despite the green of the cottonwoods along the river.
It is getting dark by the time I climb the Sierra and come over Donner Pass and down into California, so I pull over in some national forest land. It is quiet when I arrive, but when I lay out my pad, headlights come shafting through the trees. I have a neighbor. A rapist? A murderer? A friend and fellow nature lover? I consider sleeping in the back of the van, but it is too hot, so instead I dig out a bottle of Xanax and eat half a tab. If my neighbor decides to kill me, I won’t put up much of a fight. I sleep like a (drugged) baby, blanketless on the duff below the Douglas firs. It is worth it. I wake at first light below the towering firs: a morning of such stunning beauty that it almost makes up for the lack of coffee. I wave to my sweet-faced nonmurderous neighbor and his golden retriever on my way out of the forest.
Westward I go through the burnt golden fields of California until the land starts to rise again, like the ridge of a stegosaurus’s back. The ridge leads to Paradise.
Paradise, California, the scene of the devastating Camp Fire of 2018 (the deadliest and most destructive in the history of the state), is again under threat of evacuation, this time from the nearby Dixie Fire. I can taste smoke on my tongue as I drive the Skyway, the same road along which families fled three years ago. On a parallel ridge, to the east of town, runs a ghost forest of blackened trees. The town looks abandoned this morning. Empty lot after empty lot. A hand-painted sign advertises “Stump Grinding,” and it occurs to me that this must be a popular business here. Three years after the fire, there are few healthy trees but still plenty of stumps and brush piles on every lot.
Nothing looks open, and I am hungry. I pull into a food mart at a gas station.
When I pay for my iced tea, I ask the woman behind the counter if there is anywhere to get breakfast.
“There used to be lots of stores and lots of places to have breakfast, before the fire,” she says. “Now there’s just one.”
I hadn’t planned on asking directly about the fire, but she’s the one who brings it up. She tells me matter-of-factly how she watched her house burn down and how all that remains is its black outline on the ground. She says she now lives in a motor home, on an adjacent plot of land.
She gives me directions to Debbie’s Restaurant.
When I get there, I take a seat at the counter and order a plate of ham and eggs. Only one other person sits at the counter, three stools down, a man in work overalls who looks like a bespectacled version of Dusty Hill, the bassist for ZZ Top. We both keep silent at first, just sipping our coffee, waiting for our food, though it seems obvious we will soon enough start chatting.
I mention the smoke.
“Oh, this isn’t bad,” he says. “When it’s dark in the daytime, that’s when you know it’s bad.”
I ask about the current level of nervousness in town.
“It all depends on the wind,” he says. “Right now, it’s blowing northeast.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Good for us. Not so good for the folks up in Almanor.” He takes a sip of coffee and continues without prompting. “Last year, we had a fire break out 25 miles east of Oroville. And they were watching it, saying it was under control. Then the east wind came in again and damn near burnt out Oroville. A 40-mile-per-hour wind. When it’s still, like today, sure, you can get it under control. But when that wind kicks up, it suddenly moves. They say that during the Camp Fire, it was traveling four football fields a minute.”
It all depends on the wind. Think of that. For so many of us these days, believing we are safe in our modern, virtual lives, it is true. We make our plans, but the elemental lurks.
I teach at the university in Wilmington, North Carolina, and am lucky enough to have my summers off. I spend most of those summers in the West. But I am smart enough to know to run home by mid-August. Why? Not just because school will start soon, but because the season is starting.
Isabel was my first.
When my wife, Nina, and I moved to Wilmington, we rented an apartment near the ocean. We had barely settled, barely unpacked really, when we heard that the Big One was heading toward us. We were the bull’s-eye, and the proof of that was that the dashing Weather Channel reporter had set up shop on the pier near our house. Hadley was just four months old, and we had no idea what to do. Soon, however, we learned that the Big One would hit elsewhere. The Weather Channel reporter charged off to another pier farther north.
But we still felt Isabel’s lash. On September 18, 2003, I decided, perhaps foolishly, that I wanted to see the storm from the shore. After I’d tucked Nina and Hadley safely in a Holiday Inn in town, I drove back out, ostensibly to check on our apartment. I am not a thrill seeker, or at least not an extreme one, but I like to watch big storms come in over the water. There is pleasure in all that force, at least until it crosses a certain line.
That day I learned that the surfers out at Wrightsville Beach will always keep riding the great swells to the very last minute, until that final moment when wild delight becomes real danger. The philosopher William James, who happened to be in San Francisco for the earthquake and fire of 1906, would later write of the devastation to the city, the horror, the tragedy. But he also mentioned the “wild Olympian joy” he felt right after surviving the event itself. If my joy was not yet quite Olympian, I could feel something rising. Phone lines bobbed wildly, and street signs looked like they were being slapped around. Water spilled over the causeway. Once the last of the surfers and most of the weather reporters had left, I had the beach, and the hurricane, to myself. Sand lashed my back, and water too, the rain falling almost parallel to the ground.
After a while, I walked inland, toward the houses, and noticed a human energy that almost matched nature’s, the few people still outside moving with purpose, intent on their last-ditch efforts to board up, tie down, and get out. I remembered the feeling from childhood, when I spent summers next to a harbor on Cape Cod, the hurricane fear but also the hurricane excitement—the sense of a community readying, a community in danger, but a community that was never more a community than at that moment, as neighbor helped neighbor prepare for the storm.
And what is this force that can destroy your house, leave your world in a shambles, this force that is so much larger than you and all your life’s concerns? It is the wind. Wind, the mere movement of Earth’s air. Often irrelevant in our lives, mostly benign. But as it rises off the water and hurtles toward you, it is about to show you that it is not irrelevant, far from it. Coming into town like a great gusting bully, rattling those street signs and plucking telephone wires like they were guitar strings, the wind will show you that it is in fact very, very relevant. It is about to blow your little piggy house down, no matter how many bricks you pile up. And as it comes charging in, bursting in, blowing in, gushing in, storming in, the ocean spits forth foam as if rabid, and then builds up with a great humpbacked power. People rush this way and that, as if boarding up some windows will stop this wild thing. But they have to do something—anything—if only to reassert some small degree of control.
The same story everywhere. For some, water. For others, fire, which the wind might swirl into a tornado. Doesn’t it feel like we are in the midst of an elemental comeuppance? During my travels, I keep having the strange sense that I am living in the future, the same future that was predicted by scientists when I was younger but one that has arrived much faster than many of us expected. Time is strange; then becomes now. After years of debating climate change, of considering in a theoretical way the possibility of an altered future, we find ourselves in its midst. For Hadley, who is now starting college, and for many of my students, there is nothing theoretical about facing a world where the elements—water, wind, fire—have turned against us.
Until today, most of what I know about Paradise has come from news clips and YouTube videos, one of a man and his daughter escaping town while driving on a road where fire kicked up and spat from both sides of the highway. Now, at the counter of Debbie’s Restaurant, I get an education from my bearded neighbor, who introduces himself as Doug Hays.
The Skyway (the road taken by those who fled) runs right outside Debbie’s along the ridge. Eighty-five people died. Doug lost his house and wasn’t allowed to go see his property for three months.
Since the fire, Doug says, he has been staying with a family in nearby Chico while he rebuilds his house on the same property where it burned. The family has been incredibly generous. But, he adds, there are plenty of people up in Chico who are less so.
“Survivor’s guilt is a real thing,” he says.
I nod. People all deal with disaster in their own ways. Sometimes the responses are complicated.
Doug mentions that his new house, almost completed now, is being threatened by the Dixie Fire, which started just three days ago. As we sit there eating breakfast, we don’t know that it will burn 963,309 acres and won’t be fully contained until October, that it will be the largest single wildfire in United States history.
Another diner takes a seat nearby and soon joins our conversation. He could be Doug’s fellow ZZ Top band member, sporting a look that has become increasingly popular during the pandemic. His name is Phil, and he lives close to the Dixie Fire. He evacuated two days ago.
I no longer feel bad talking about fire. I tell them the story of my friend Ken Sleight. Ken was the model for the Mormon cowboy environmentalist Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. For 35 years, he has lived at the foot of the La Sal Mountains in Utah, in a place called Pack Creek above Moab. On June 9, 2021, a fire that started at a campsite came ripping down from the mountains. It paused for a day and was declared officially extinguished before the wind shifted and doubled in strength, reigniting it. Then it ripped back up the mountain, destroying several homes and taking out Ken’s Quonset hut.
“I lost everything,” Ken would later tell me. But of course, he had not really lost everything. He still had his life, unlike the 85 individuals who had perished in Paradise. One thing the survivors did lose, along with all the property damaged and houses destroyed, was any sense of certainty about a place that had seemed a paradise. And what Ken had lost, his neighbors told me, was the spirit to fight on. Ken had been a kind of archivist, and losing all the paper and photos that constituted his memories was like losing his past.
Doug looks up from his eggs and nods in recognition.
“That’s what I was in my family, too,” he says. “The archivist. I still do it, still collect everything, even though I know it means nothing and can go away. You can’t control it in the end; it means nothing.”
I am not sure what it is, but I don’t ask.
“I lost everything,” he says. “Even my guns.”
He had kept his rifles in a safe, and when the fire heated up, they shot off and put holes in the metal. Then, after the fire, the rains came and rendered his guns useless.
I mention the waterproof safe that I bought for hurricanes. Doug doubts it would really work.
“Nothing is safe,” he says and then laughs at the pun and revises his sentence. “Nothing is anything-proof in the end.”
A couple of months before fire tore through Paradise in 2018, Hurricane Florence landed in Wilmington. By then, I had been living in North Carolina and studying climate change and sea-level rise for almost two decades, but I was about to get a less theoretical lesson. I had experienced a dozen or more storms since moving south. But this one, we were told, was going to be different.
It’s coming, they said a few days before. It’s coming. No, no, it’s really coming this time.
My fellow residents and I were not so sure. We were old pros, and for many years, living on our spur of the southern North Carolina coast, we had been fooled by the Cantore who cried wolf. We fell for it every time. The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore stood out there on the sand below our piers, warning us of the peril to come. He and his ilk foretold our doom, though their stern warnings were slightly subverted by the sight of the surfers trotting out to the water behind them, waving to the camera. Once—and I swear this is true—just as our local Jim Cantore wannabe was telling a TV camera that No one should go out in the storm, I saw a woman behind him pushing a stroller. As you can imagine, this somewhat undermined the point the reporter was so emphatically trying to make.
What I’m saying is that in Wilmington, North Carolina, we were a different breed of skeptic. We were the bull’s-eye that was never hit. The land of close calls but always misses. So we regarded all the warnings with a grain or two of sand. We would board up, we would evacuate, we would pack, we would panic, and then … pfft.
On September 11, 2018, two days before the first bands of Florence hit, I was busy bringing everything inside, boxing books and papers in plastic containers, carting more books and papers and Hadley’s baby photos to my office at the university. It is a strange business, leaving your life behind. There is only so much you can carry in a car or pack in places you pray are safe. I jammed everything I could into closets and nailed them shut.
It was midmorning the next day when I evacuated. Hadley and Nina were already at my sister’s house in Durham. I expected massive traffic jams, but most of my neighbors had already left, and our yellow Lab, Missy, and I flew up I-40 with only a few delays. The journalist in me felt guilty. Wasn’t it a dereliction of duty to be driving away from a storm and not toward it? There was virtually no traffic going in the other direction, east toward Wilmington, but I imagined the few cars I saw belonged to my fellow writers, journalists, filmmakers, and photographers. That should be me, I thought.
We all assumed we were coming back. But we didn’t know we were. And we didn’t know what we’d find when we did. More and more often, people across this country and across the world come back to find that their homes, because of water, wind, or fire, are not there.
“Firm ground is not available ground,” wrote the poet A. R. Ammons.
After my breakfast at Debbie’s Restaurant, I follow Doug’s directions and drive up the Skyway. This is where the fire climbed the ridge, and it is hard to drive this road without thinking of the videos from that night. The woman praying out loud with her family as the flames licked and blew toward her car from the road’s edge. The brave father driving through the same flames and telling his young daughter in a calm voice: “We’re not going to catch fire. We’re going to get out of here.” And then the relief when they make it out and the girl yells, “You did it!” before her father corrects her: “We did it.”
That day, in addition to the loss of 85 lives, approximately 18,000 buildings burned. The fire moved so fast that there was no way for some to evacuate. It blew up the ridge from the base of a dry hill, uphill being the fastest way for a fire to travel. But even before the fire proper reached town, the winds had blown a thousand sparks, and those sparks had started a thousand spot fires.
I drive north toward the next town, Magalia, and pull over on a dirt road. To the east of the ridge that Magalia and Paradise sit atop, the land dives steeply down to the west branch of the Feather River before climbing again to the next ridge. I hike down through a corridor of still-blackened trees. A large rabbit with reddish ears goes bounding off along the path, and a deer stands up on the burned ridge above me. It is still a beautiful world—will it ever not smell charred? I come upon two burned-out cars and a landscape of shattered glass and trash, and follow the burn scar down through the spindly trees. Blueish smoke rises from the valley. The smell of the new fire to the east mixes with the char of the old. Farther down the hazy canyon, I watch two acorn woodpeckers carrying on with their daily business despite the smoke, working together, drilling into the pale fleshy wound near the top of a pine tree.
Back in the car, I continue north into Magalia. I see an elderly couple out walking, and I roll down my window. I ask where the lake is, and the man points down the road and says it is very low. Soon we are chatting, and before long, as with the men in the restaurant, we turn to the obvious topic.
“We didn’t even have a chance to fight it,” the man says. “We were running for our lives. We stayed until 1:30 in the morning. We could see it coming. We went down through Paradise on Clark Road. Until we got there, I hadn’t realized the whole town had burned up. I could barely get under the downed power lines in my pickup. There were burnt cars in the road and along the side of the road. Fires still burning everywhere. Our daughter and son-in-law lived in Paradise, and we had no way to communicate with them, to know if they were okay. My son lives over on the other side, in the Pines, and we couldn’t communicate with him for five days. My mother, who was 90—her home burned, a neighbor helped her get out, but she lost everything.”
They have lived here, or close to here, their whole lives. They say it isn’t like it used to be. There is no rest from the fires.
The power stayed off in Wilmington long after the storm. When it came back on, my neighbor sent me a picture of the lake that was our back yard. Trees had come crashing down and were floating in the water, though so far none of them had hit our house. The shack where I used to write was lifted off its base and then drowned, but that was nothing, really. We breathed a sigh of relief.
Others were not so lucky. A former student of mine, David Howell, evacuated with his wife and children to Charlotte, four hours inland, on the Tuesday before the storm. A tree had cracked open the roof of their house, and the storm had come inside. After five days of sheer panic, they finally made their way back, zigging and zagging through North Carolina, avoiding the many flooded roads. They dropped their kids off with a friend and went over to walk through the house. A possum had entered with the storm and had urinated and defecated everywhere. The walls were wet and dripping.
“We just lost it,” David said.
They called their friends and coworkers and, in just two and a half days, cleared out of a house they had lived in for six years. They’d lost most of their stuff, including everything their daughter owned. All of their belongings were piled up on the street along with the trash and the tree limbs.
At least they had their lives.
The story on everyone’s mind was that of a woman who, holding her baby tight, was crushed when a tree fell through her roof. They both died immediately, but her husband survived. He was bawling when the ambulance, somehow making its way through a forest of downed trees, arrived. Rushed to the hospital in critical condition, he had truly lost everything—wife, daughter, home—thanks to one burst of wind, one falling tree.
The rain wouldn’t stop. Some people thought they had made it safely through the storm, but then they saw the water rising toward their doorsteps. The storm dumped 10 inches of rain, then 20, but still it kept going. In some places, more than 30 inches of rain would fall, and for the first time on record, our annual total would top 100 inches. The world was drenched through. Permeated. We could not return home because Wilmington was an island and the highway had become a river. Meanwhile, the actual river, the Cape Fear, was spilling over its bank and moving as fast as a train, taking out houses as it rumbled toward the sea.
After the winds and days of rain, the humidity returned, the blazing heat. Even under normal circumstances, Wilmington in September is your town on the hottest day of the year. Food rotted in powerless fridges. People were hungry, unbathed, uninformed. Some had not had power for days, and there was no word when it would return. Primitive times. The few stores and restaurants that were open became neighborhood commons. People needed to get out of their stifling, leaking houses. People needed to see other people. People needed to tell their stories. Stories of disaster: the tree that fell right through the living room, that split the house. Stories of near misses: the man who decided at the last minute not to sleep in the room he deemed safest and woke up to find that an oak tree had bisected his bed.
The people on TV always talk about rebuilding. The flames have barely been put out, the water has barely receded, and there they go, desperately jabbering.
And of course, I understand. Every place that faces disaster has to bolster itself with pep talks of resilience. Paradise Strong. Wilmington Strong.
Back in Magalia, the man and woman I’d met on the road tell me their story.
“It’s easier when you are younger,” the woman says, then points to her husband. “He says, ‘If I was only 40 years old, it would be no big deal. I could do this and do that and get everything back to where it was.’ But when you’re this old …”
Her husband nods. There is no getting that back.
“I retired, and I had a passion for fishing,” he says. “I had boats and a nice setup on the Salmon River, and I was pretty happy. Now that the fire came and burned all that up, I don’t even have the energy to start again. To buy new boats, re-rig everything.”
“To recommit with passion,” I suggest.
We have been talking through my car window, but I finally get out and introduce myself. The man’s name is Richard Tarrano. His wife, Joanie, now says something that will stick with me: “Each disaster is that person’s experience.” That, I think, is what we often fail to understand as the camera crews rush from one disaster to the next, or when we spew statistics about lives lost and wind speeds and wave swells. We need stories from these places where disaster has struck, not statistics. So far, our literature of climate has fallen short. How will people look back on the literature of our time if it does not address our major existential issue? By literature I don’t mean propaganda, nor do I mean fact-spewing book reports that read like television punditry. In most of the writing about the climate crisis, the sentences are not sloppy enough. They are too uncomplicated. And they are not big enough. The language does not rise to the challenge. Literature is not policy.
We have long written about global warming in one way: as a warning. But maybe we should stop thinking of the warning as something to heed in the traditional sense. Perhaps we should start thinking in terms of Winston Churchill’s warnings about Germany before World War II. It is too late to avert war. The war has started, the bombs are dropping. Time to arm ourselves.
The road back east from Paradise is steep and winding, through the Plumas National Forest along Route 70 and along the Feather River. I pass a couple dozen green trucks belonging to the Plumas Hotshots, firefighting crews that are tackling the Dixie Fire, which is not yet the monster it will become. I can see fire burning on the ridge, the flames kicking up and leaving behind burned trees like sticks, the red of the flames reflected in the clouds above it, showers of sparks. A few hours later, I pass the site of another major blaze, the Beckwourth Complex Fire, where a sign reading “Ground Support” leads down a road to where nine helicopters rest at the foot of a denuded range of purple-black mountains.
Who will keep their homes this time? Who will lose them?
So much depends on the wind.
I head back to Salt Lake, then cut north and drive through Wyoming to Boulder, Colorado. I have always clung to a romantic vision of Boulder: it is where I got healthy again after a bout with cancer, where I met Nina, where we spent our first years together in the mountains north of town, where I wrote my first book. Nina loved it there, and so did I, and we always talked about moving back. After we’d moved to the hurricane coast of Carolina in 2003, that talk intensified. It seemed like a safe place to get back to. It was a dream we had. But when we talked recently about where we might want to move once we retire, I was surprised that Nina didn’t like the idea of Boulder anymore. It was too dangerous, she said.
Coming down into the valley of my former home, I see that something is indeed different. The distinctive foothills called the Flatirons are nowhere to be seen, hiding behind a noxious veil of smoke that obscures the Rockies behind them, too.
Before we moved to North Carolina, it didn’t occur to me that I should be nervous about hurricanes. Nor did I quite understand that we were moving to the coast right in the middle of hurricane season. We would soon get used to the growing anxiety as the calendar turned to July and the ocean waters heated up. It is a feeling so common down there that we barely mention it to one another. It is a feeling those west of the Mississippi know all too well. And it’s a feeling that those living in the northeastern United States will soon know. As both hurricane and fire seasons expand, there are fewer parts of the year we deem “safe.” Nothing feels anything-proof.
The past four years have seen tropical storms consistently forming before the start of hurricane season, three of the strongest hurricanes on record, a historic heat wave in the West, and a period of drought in the Intermountain West that, according to climatologists studying tree rings, rivaled and perhaps surpassed the Great Drought of the 1200s. The so-called natural disasters have come so fast and furious that there’s barely been time to take a breath. But it is the expansion of fire season, creeping even into the winter months, that will truly open eyes. Driving down into Boulder, I don’t yet know it, but no snow, and only an inch of rain, will fall on the front range of the Rockies from now until well into December—it will be the latest first snowfall on record. Thousands of buildings near Boulder will start burning two days before New Year’s, making the fire the most destructive in the state’s history. Two months later, it will be in the high 60s in the Arctic and a chunk of ice the size of Los Angeles will break off Antarctica. In March, another fire, below the Flatirons, will burn in the foothills above Boulder.
Back in town, depressed, I try to make sense of what I have seen on my trip. I feel changed, but more than that, I feel as if the world we lived in has changed. I know I am not alone in this sentiment. I write an email to Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book, The End of the Nature, was the first warning of the coming climate disaster written for a general audience. In the three decades since its publication, Bill has worked tirelessly to get the word out about climate change, balancing dire warnings with the hopeful message that we can change.
As it turns out, Bill has also been out West.
“We’re definitely moving into something new,” he writes back. “So hot, so dry. And now the smoke has reached Vermont and turned our sky an eerie ash. The world seems febrile, and so do I.”
Bill has always tried to keep his message positive, upbeat. But perhaps the days of hopeful messages are over.
It is almost too much. All this occurring in front of our eyes with no one, least of all governments, seeming to listen. Studies show that if you bring up climate change at a dinner party, someone will quickly change the topic. We are all at that dinner party now.
The phrase I’ve heard so often in my travels—“losing everything”—just might have a new meaning. What we are losing may be something much larger than our personal possessions or our homes or even our individual lives. What we may be losing is Earth itself, the way it has long been, the way we imagine it will still be, and the way we have lived on it.
It is hard to see in your own time when a change occurs. Seismic shifts may feel like regular life just continuing on. But perhaps we really are in a new world. Perhaps we really are in the future that the old books imagined. Perhaps it is happening now.
I have always resisted the apocalyptic, resisted the grandiose. But what if we really have entered a new world? What if there is no hopeful plot twist at the end?
What if we really can lose everything?
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