Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days” and “The Forage House.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. This is an updated version of an op-ed that ran originally in response to earlier fires this past August. View more opinion articles on CNN.
This morning, by the time I woke up, the sun was already an eerie red. As they have for days, friends had already posted pictures to Instagram of the eerie sky out over the San Francisco Bay: a hazy blanket, all the hills and bridge obscured.
Outside, it’s smoky and cold. As I went out to get the paper I could feel a familiar, phlegmy rattle in my lungs – the low-level irritation of living with bad air. What’s more, I recognized all these things from last year at this time. As I packed the kids’ lunch, I called to my husband about items we need to put in the go box.
The air purifier has been running for days. The kids have been going to school but hunkering inside – no recess for a week. My daughter has a rattly cough. Our ER is full of kids in respiratory distress. Every time we go out, we have to weigh whether or not, and how much, it will hurt. When I run errands, each day, I can see that our dashboard is covered in a fine sheet of pale ash.
It is indeed fire season again, and although right now none of the fires are close to us, the smoke is drifting over us from so many directions – from the Camp Fire, from the Woolsey Fire. So much of California is up in smoke, and rain a ways off yet. The air quality maps show bad air for hundreds of miles in each direction. There’s no wind. There are predictions of rain on the horizon – we scour the weather sites, hopefully, but for now the chilly air is poison and stagnant.
Where we live, we aren’t scared for ourselves – not actively, at least not compared to last year, when we were just downwind of the Sonoma fires. Our friends lost homes and we all inhaled thick smoke for weeks, aware that because we live near a chain of refineries, in the wrong circumstances our area could become unlivable in a matter of hours. Over the years, we have turned that terror into a kind of preparedness: we’ve researched air masks, bought and stored canned food, packed a box of things to grab, and labeled even that box with what last minute items (computers and some kids toys and passports) we’d throw in if we had time to spare. All of this is to say, I’m not surprised the air is bad, or that it’s fire season. This is not an essay about being startled by the apocalyptic.
But this year’s apocalypse has gone on for a week and is predicted to go on at least a week longer. I do want to note that. I do want to say to anyone listening: this year’s apocalypse is worse than last year’s apocalypse. And what I recognized in myself this year – even as this past week of bad air has passed – has been a strange, terrible, low-level resignation, rattling around in me like the low burning in my lungs. It was a sad thought; this is how it is now, and that in fact, the fire seasons of this year and years to come are likely to get worse as the climate warms, as we go on having summer after summer of record heat.
Meanwhile, there’s no help coming from on high: we’re breathing wave after wave of smoke-filled air just as at a moment when the Trump administration ignores dire climate reports arriving on his desk – promising us only air that is more polluted, more full of carbon. Air, that is, which will keep warming the planet further, which in turn will leave us more and more prone to fires like the ones raging around us..
We’ve had fires in California forever, of course – the Native Americans here did controlled burns to manage our dry hills, and the old growth redwood trees we live near are formed and scarred in fire. The seeds of the mighty sequoia trees that people flock from around the world to see won’t even germinate unless a wildfire comes through to clear the forest floor.
What’s changing though, is the annual scale and intensity of these fires from any seasons of our lifetime. And what’s changed as well is the sense that the people in power are managing our ecosystem with any thought or care for our well-being.
This year’s fires despoil cities and towns and animal habitat and send huge dark plumes into the air even as Trump administration uses phony logic to roll back emissions standards on freeway vehicles, and uses phony economic studies to justify mining and logging in national monument lands. We breathe in the bad air in an era in which we are daily subjected to nonexistent, farcical, or inane environmental policy. Coughing, I thought of the line from the Auden poem, “The Shield of Achilles”: “they were small/ and could not hope for help and no help came.”
It’s not of course that hope or help are impossible. I just read a piece about a waste-to-energy facility in the Netherlands, one that makes leaps forward in both generating clean energy and getting carbon out of the atmosphere. I took comfort in the idea that somewhere on the planet people are putting in place the kind of real and practical solutions to climate change and pollution that maybe, one day, with some luck, we in the United States may be able to implement.
Meanwhile, for this year, I feel grimly resigned to the apocalyptic nature of these hotter, longer and more frequent fires. For the foreseeable future, no help is coming, not from the top; nor from an EPA or an Interior Department that would strip us of national lands for logging and mining, not from an administration that rolls back even the simplest protection for bees; for marine sanctuaries; for air and water standards; that seems content to let corporations poison us, if it would make them richer.
An administration, that is, set on the short-term goal of removing any regulation that might stop a few rich people from padding their pockets – all at the expense of the rest of us. It was a sad, lonely realization, one that people, say, in Flint, Michigan, must have had about their state government a long time ago.
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As I thought about it this morning, I realized I’m angry, but also aware – for now, for this year, the challenge is just to keep remembering that we deserve so much better. I said to my husband: “It’s only going to get worse for a while, so doublecheck the air masks.” Listening to myself, I couldn’t help but consider that it felt like a small metaphor for surviving the Trump era. I dusted the ash off our car, and took my daughter to school.