As America goes to the polls, New Zealand writer Anna Rankin reports from the infernos of California
It was August, dry, blazing. Grotesque and airless. We were beneath a canopy of eucalyptus trees ridging a plateau high above the labyrinthine tangle of freeways and housing and asphalt industrial zones hemming the dried concrete snake of what, during certain seasons, cradles the Los Angeles river. The thickening grey sky above signalled the approach of the annual fire season; a sense of foreboding coated the atmosphere. We looked out over the scene to the purple silhouette of the hills in the far distance, reduced in such low visibility to a silhouetted mirage. A plume of smoke from the north-west gathered into a mass, spread, and rose, lifting over the range.
The sharp, clear scent of eucalyptus oil spiked the air. Thin strips of papery bark peeled from trunks, or curled as shards on the ground. The oil permeated, a liquid ambience seeping into our pores and soaking the earth. I once read that early colonial settlers of this land made the ill-considered decision to plant these trees for their soft wood and propensity for quick growth: such malleable and fertile timber was presumed ideal for crafting fence-posts to stake out and fortify territory. It was not, presumably, realised that the oil in these trees was functionally lighter fluid—sparking flames onto native species and roaring over the land.
Because I live in a shoebox apartment, a suffocating oven, with a view that gazes upon the neighbouring wall in a clogged concrete neighbourhood absent of trees and haven’t left LA since November last year each time I’m outdoors I am reminded of weather, the presence of weather, and its hold over my life. Weather is, for me, indicative of an unconscious knowing, a meta-text for memory, a blueprint of associations, a home. I have never sought to live in a place bereft of weather nor shifting seasons and the according tableau of passage. Of the very real sense of time passing as embodied in the crisp turning of leaves, the veil of fog, in thinning sun, the icy condensation on window panes, grey drizzle shrouding sky-scrapers, burned grasses, chill in silvery morning air, the cavernous silence of falling snow.
Fire is ensconced in the Los Angeles imagination. The city has its weather but it’s the weather of doom, of extremes, of looming approach, or it is the very inverse of weather which is to say its absence. It is weather so interminably predictable in its sun and warmth that you either do not notice let alone sense nor feel it; it is weather you cannot prepare for—the city lacking adequate infrastructure to withstand seasonal heavy rain, the excessive heat incapacitating for those without air-conditioning and for those with such cooling there is the grim knowledge that the power grid cannot and will not withstand such state-wide overload.
That afternoon in the hot late August was the first I recall of the greying skies and the burned sun. Record-breaking temperatures broke out across the state. Mid-August saw a siege of lightning storms that set the state alight. There, at Elysian Park, we read in the eerie light, walked through tobacco plants, ragged sage and desert scrubs and pale cactus studded with vivid red blooms. It had been several months since I had been close to untamed trees, land, a sense of earth.
The breeze carried the faintest curl of smoke. Stoic cypress pointed skyward. A brown mole burrowed in a hole emerged, dipped down, emerged. The rattlesnakes I saw several months ago now visible only by soft trails winding in the sand, preparing for winter hibernation. Iridescent lizards crawled inside the crevasses stamped out by horse-hoof imprints. Falcons shuddered their wings, perched in high trees. Dark vultures turned graceful arcs; their wings cutting the air. Enormous ravens and crows were watchful. When we left, driving eastward, the usually cloudless sky was streaked in white. It was as though we were underwater, looking upwards at the surface, our eyes open to powdery lines of variegated sea-foam across blue, grey encroaching from the edges.
All that week the heat spiked into the triple digits. Late August through early October is the season of fires, of surging heatwaves and sullied smog; statistical inevitabilities. One evening at Zuma Beach that week we watched the most violently brilliant and strange sunset I’ve seen. The crowded beach fell into hushed silence at the witnessing of what appeared as an unearthly miracle. That the sun can be relied upon to rise, falter and sink is a revelation.
Earlier in the day the sky was a glaze of violet and glacier blue. What at first appeared as mist settled on the surface of the sea to the north, and the ocean became pale green cut glass. The heat rose and I stayed swimming in the sea for hours. The sky turned under. A darker blue, purple velvet. As twilight fell the sun yet seemed to rise, glowering and expanding in size and intensity. Its radiance beamed and throbbed like a swollen gland in the sky. Four rays of orange light shaped a radiating cross slowly turned, and with it the colors. Orange, then crimson. It spread its rays as though wings lifting across the sea, flooding the surface with its shifting movements of light, a glittering path. In the distance the shadow of smoke draped leaden on the horizon but the sun was a fierce dome, white hot in the centre, burning the sky. It refused to sink, hung defiant, the sky molten.
The sun burned electric pink, brighter and more rousing than felt-pen fluorescent. It appeared to take hours to recede, until it succumbed and dragged itself down to earth with the rest of us. By then, everyone who hadn’t been watching had stopped, seized by awe, and the air was quite suddenly muted other than the lapping of the sea. It seemed we were collectively aware of our witnessing a specter of magic from another world, and it encircled us and silenced our speech.
Despite such perihelion there is yet an unmistakable chill that radiates ice-cold in this city. In recent months I’ve stood out on the stoop with my landlady on certain afternoons where the overall tone of the day feels curiously slant. Some preternatural timbre. We peer up into the dome of the sky, into its ominous shade. Earthquake weather? We ask one another and shrug.
September was an inferno; satanic levels of scorching heat, sustained heat waves, 107, 109, 116. Even hotter in East Los Angeles where I live where, like other lower-income neighborhoods, the congestion, lack of green space and trees and high density of housing and concrete industrial sites equates to searing temperatures and toxic air, deemed ‘hazardous’ on the air quality index app I check daily. The days the air quality was marked as ‘very unhealthy’ were the days I left the house for necessities despite the crushing heat and toxic air and during that period I became very unwell, along with many in my building. The lack of air-conditioning was sweltering, and in the mornings I would wake with a raspy throat, coughing, the sour smell and taste of smoke dry in my mouth. The smell is a lingering campfire, sour and feculent the morning after.
Those few with air conditioners paid higher rent which never seemed worth it on account of the fact they had to be shut off during extreme heat. Thus there was a choice between the hot airlessness of closed windows in the interests of avoiding Covid spread and smoke, or an open window for the slightest hope of air—but the smoke saturated the atmosphere. You simply couldn’t escape it.
Being outside, masked, was nightmarish in that the smoke clogged your passageways, and sweat poured behind the fabric. People got sick—with the dangerous air quality and weakened immunity more contracted Covid. My lungs felt filled with liquid for weeks, I couldn’t inhale a full breath and chronic headaches and nausea were the refrain, day and night. My knuckles turned red, arthritis seized my joints. At night I lay sleepless, tasting acrid smoke on my tongue. My bones would seize and ache, numbness would shoot through my limbs. Mornings I would wake from a few scattered hours of sleep to throbbing pain and welts, and have to peel back each finger to unclench its fused clasp.
For days you couldn’t see the sun, only its murky suggestion behind sinister skies that spread forth as a thin muslin veil of remnant smoke. It was strange to only sense a sky, a world, behind the smoke pall and yet, it endured despite its visible absence. During those days it seemed as though the very sun was in agony, its faint white glow interpolating a violent hole through the filthy haze. The days were grey and bleak and the sky so peculiar it presided over the land with a silvery, menacing edge.
From downtown, looking east over my neighborhood, the skies were blanketed in soft mauve, turning dark with the spread. The neighborhood differences were stark. One late afternoon, I stepped outside into a world cast in faint grey and pink—I looked up for the sun and saw a burning, electric-pink ball hanging in the shroud. I glanced around, bewildered, as though I had fallen into some cursed galaxy where there is no sun, only an evil replica; shrinking, fierce and hateful. A trite analogy but this remains the most abstract, science-fiction encounter with, and on a planet, that I have had. I have never felt so far from earth as I see and feel it, so alienated from this watery globe we are entrusted with. I watched the eye of the sun until it receded. I looked at the fuchsia circle glaring down upon us and thought—it is likely I will live through a time where we only remember the sun.
These eerie skies continued for weeks. It became its own particular shade of normal. I accepted there were no longer blue skies, no golden sun; only a grey stain with variant shades of vermillion, peach, orange. The sun was enormous, or it was the size of a marble in the sky. It glowed orange and receded behind the skyline of the city. I now scroll through my photos of that period and it feels as though some great act of cruelty were committed against the very atmosphere, inflicting a pain as tender as a bruise.
I woke most mornings to the sound of clacking helicopters, the low, eerie whir of sirens. The way the sun is intermittently, for a brief moment, blocked by the shadow of an airplane passing across its circumference. I lay in bed and feel its shadow pass over my eyes. The helicopters, too, block the sun and pass over my face. I woke at dawn to burning rubber one morning, the smell caustic and choking. It lingered for days and clasped the throat. Or I wake one night to smoke at the window and the wailing of sirens—across the street the cavernous laundromat is ablaze, the power in the neighborhood cut off as fire snakes across the wires of powerlines and sets the night alight. Plumes of flames reach up into the awning of stars in the dark sky.
On the days the grid is overloaded the power in the building is halted, the internet spotty. I consider the significant number of people on dialysis, of the (more fortunate than many) schoolchildren attending school online during surging energy demand where the state thus imposes blackouts. The water dispensary on the corner block where I fill a gallon a day given the water in the building is undrinkable is dry. My assumption is that this is related to power, but I’m unsure. Generally, it accepts a quarter to fill a gallon, but the nation-wide coin shortage means no stores—those that are even open—administer cash back. Naturally this affects coin-operated laundry, too, and I think of those mothers and those workers in every apartment building in the neighborhood.
I read that a fire lights up a town with such pace that deputies drive through the streets, screaming for residents to leave; I read that a blaze was slowed only by a rare snowstorm. How there is a convergence of these two phenomena that belong to presumably different seasons is beyond my understanding. I read about the prison populace who have, for decades, been deployed to fight fires yet this year, due to Covid, the numbers are greatly declined. I read that the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, is praised for his allowing released prisoners to work as fire-fighters; in exchange for a wiped record and with an otherwise severe lack of options one of the only choices is thus to work life-endangering work to address a phenomena created and sanctioned by those who set the structural conditions of the carceral industrial complex.
I read of economic incentives driving the development of rural areas: if local governments don’t build the requisite amount of housing they wager losing state funding, effectively punishing a town for mitigating the risk of fire by refusing to build in undeveloped land in a danger zone. I read that many of these fires are ignited by electrical wires that spark and incinerate. But shutting down the grid is not an effective long-term solution. These are places not made for housing development. American sentimentalism in the west is premised on confused notions of ‘space’, of ‘freedom’ and yet there remain very good reasons for wanting to live in California. But the housing crisis fused with climate change as it stands is an untenable paradigm. Homelessness and housing costs surge in unison.
I read that in 2017 and 2018 insurance companies paid out such exorbitant sums a quarter of a century of profits were lost; consequently, they cut home owners in wildfire zones which resulted in the state of California enforcing a one-year ban on such a practice. Yet this is no permanent solution and merely the beginning of such a phenomenon under climate change, and it’s not relegated solely to fires, it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and the solution is plainly not to rebuild in these areas but I can’t imagine telling that to a homeowner who just lost everything. In some instances these sites were offered to buyers with incentives by the government due to over-population or unaffordability in certain areas. A mass of uninsurable homes equals a collapsed housing market and the death of an entire community, yet so often these are the only affordable places left for many. Where do they go—if they’re not bankrupt.
Late afternoon on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the Days of Awe, I was in my neighborhood bookstore, shopping for a gift. It was hot and stuffy inside the store despite its open expanse. Kneeling to reach a low wooden shelf for a poetry collection of Celan’s I received a push-notification that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. The timing, though not exactly unexpected given her age, was nevertheless foreboding. I announced it to whoever was in earshot, with no real reason other than it seemed news one might speak aloud. The store owner paused from stacking books. “Fuck”, he said, and adjusted his clear-framed glasses slipping on the sweat of his nose as he peered into his phone. “I know”, I said. “I know”, he said, and we just kind of…winced.
I stood outside on Cesar Chavez, staring into the evening sun. For a moment, the world seemed to tilt on its axis. I was quite suddenly struck with a disorienting dizziness that the world, both the outward and inner, as I had observed it on at least a subconscious plane, was spinning away from markers I had understood as denoting some mode of sense, into a sphere of mere floating signifiers.
That night, reading at the table, just before midnight my apartment lurched to the side—as though seized by the hands of God and yanked. Initially I assumed a truck had crashed into the building, but the table continued to shake, objects fell from the shelves and I realised it was an earthquake—its duration sustained and more violent than any I’ve yet experienced. I deduced, all things considered, it was the mythic Big One. Crouched under the heavy oak dining table as books dropped around me and the earth groaned and trembled I thought: I feel ya.
Fires and heat waves, earthquakes and pandemics and political upheavals and housing unaffordability and bio-warfare and hurricanes and so forth are not extant as solely external expressions of a fiercely altering planet—their symptoms are inwardly manifest in our bodies and have been felt by many for untold generations and perhaps we are now coming to terms with what that might mean.