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A Silent Desert Again

The morning of our second day backpacking in Yosemite, R commented that the day seemed a "sinister" one.

It was something to do with the quality of the light, he said, and the smoke. Or maybe it was the clouds. I wasn't paying much attention, distracted by the blister on my little toe, the soreness in my legs, and general fatigue from a poor night's sleep on hard ground.

Of course we didn't know it at the time, but sinister later seemed an eerily prescient depiction.


That afternoon, we were resting by an alpine lake after completing the day's climb when the sky began to take on an odd cast. First the sun started flashing an intermittent, ominous orange. Then shades of pink appeared on the horizon, a strange and disconcerting sight for the middle of the day. As thunder began to rumble, we set off for our campsite, and soon after came upon what seemed like a scene from a nightmare.

The air in the distance was black with smoke. To our right, the sky was a deep, burnt orange—a shade neither of us had ever encountered before. We rushed back to our campsite only to find everything we'd left behind covered in a fine layer of ash. Flecks of it were floating in the water on the lake, landing thickly on our packs and heads, stinging our eyes.

We got out as fast as we could. It took nearly seven hours, the last few in darkness, to get back to our car. We didn't encounter any flames, but on the drive back to our Airbnb, we learnt that the Creek Fire, as it had been named, was raging only a few miles away. It had started on Friday evening, and, less than a day later, had already grown to 45,000 acres. We packed up our stuff in a hurry and evacuated to a motel an hour or so away, following a line of cars presumably doing the same.


For days afterward, I couldn't stop thinking about the color of that sky. It had been like a scene from hell, or the apocalypse. R tracked the fire obsessively on half a dozen different sites. Every so often he would turn to me with updates: "They've issued evacuation orders for North Fork." (The town we had been staying in). "It's now 135,000 acres." I didn't ask him to stop.


Fires are nothing new for California, I know. Even before our trip to the Sierras, fires had been raging around the Bay—wild, unprecedented fires sparked by a freak late summer lightning storm. Nearly two and a half million acres have burned in California already this year, beating the previous record (set in 2018) by more than half a million acres, an area nearly three times the size of New York City. And wildfire season has barely even begun.


The day after our escape from the fire, record temperatures were reported across California. In Modesto, the Central Valley city where we'd fled to a hotel with a pool, it reached 44 degrees. Merely being outdoors was uncomfortable.


2020, it seems, is shaping up to be a year for setting records.

I am getting pretty tired of the word "record."

But mostly I am terrified that these records will not be records for long—that next year and the year after and the years that follow will be worse, and even worse, and worse yet again.


Shortly after moving to California, I picked up a copy of Mark Arax's The Dreamt Land and devoured it in a span of days. Besides the sheer implausibility of settling—and establishing a mammoth agricultural industry—in a land as vast and (mostly) dry as California, what stuck with me most was a quote from the author J.B. Priestly. He wrote, according to Arax, that "there is something disturbing about this corner of America, a sinister suggestion of transience. There is a quality hostile to men in the very earth and air here. As if we were not meant to make our homes in this enervating sunshine. California will be a silent desert again. It is all as impermanent and brittle as a reel of film."

It's true that living in California often feels like a dream—the endless sunshine, mild climate, and natural beauty all seemingly hallucinations of a pleasantly fevered mind. If that's so, then these crises must be calls to reality—nature begging for us to wake up to the damage. The places where the ground has sunk by more than 30 feet because of all the water we've sucked out of it. The millions of trees killed by drought and extreme heat, waiting to be consumed as tinder. The ever-growing fires, often sparked by people living in areas meant to be wild.

That the climate is changing is undeniable. So is the fact that climate change will uproot millions, perhaps billions, of lives and livelihoods. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether that's the price of our hubris—of thinking that the world was ours to remake, that there would be no consequences for our pillaging. I don't mean that we shouldn't try to avoid it—it's a heavy price to pay, and will, as ever, be borne primarily by those least equipped to pay it—only that perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge that some places are fated to be silent deserts—impermanent; brittle; hostile to—and unsullied by—man.

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