malibu-fire via nbc news

Letter from Southern California: Packing Books as the Woolsey Fire Approaches

When I woke up Sunday morning, I breathed in the homes of my neighbors. Particles of beach cottages and tract homes landed as ash on my patio. They were blown from the west, from Thousand Oaks, Calabasas, Oak Park, and Malibu. Dozens, maybe hundreds of homes, reduced to heat and carbon, lifted into the lower atmosphere by the winds that brought the fires in the first place; they entered my mouth and nose, descended through my trachea, lodged in my lungs, and are now, as I write this, circulating in my bloodstream.


Kitchen tables where brunch should have been served. Sofas from which football should have been watched. The televisions themselves. All incinerated, melted, blackened, and vaporized. All sent into the heavens above Santa Monica Bay.


I scanned my bookshelf this morning to decide what books to pack. My flight for Dubai left at 3:35 p.m. I am not sure whether my share of the fuel and exhaust required to move an A380 8,800 miles is monstrous or trivial. For a moment, I reached out for Song for the Blue Ocean, Carl Safina’s beloved 1998 homage to the waters of our planet and the life that resides within them.


I bought it years ago, eager to add it to my roster of nature books. I’ve read many of the classics: Desert Solitaire, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Sand County Almanac, a few by E.O. Wilson, a few by Bill McKibben, a few by John McPhee, and, of course, Silent Spring, among others. It’s been a while since I’ve added to that list. I plowed through most of them in my 20’s—as good a time as any, I figure, to have developed my appreciation for plants, critters, water, and landscape. It was great time to grow enraged by their destruction while holding on to hope for their renewal.


I didn’t commit myself to environmentalism. I chose urbanism instead. Building and rebuilding cities seemed, for whatever reason, a more exciting pursuit. Of course, they’re two sides of the same coin. The development of great cities equals the preservation of great landscapes. The more people we can fit into cities, the less land we have to pave over. The more attractive, functional, and equitable we can make cities, the less people will want to imprison themselves in suburban cell blocks. The closer we live together, the less fuel we need to burn in order to enjoy each other’s company and profit from each other’s work.


Every planner should appreciate the McPhees, the Carsons, and every other part of the environmental canon, if only to be reminded of the unseen places that will have a fighting chance if they do their jobs well.


Twenty years ago, I felt equal parts hope and indignation. I hoped that more acres would be preserved. I hoped that the development of alternative energy would quicken. I hoped that everyone else reading the same books I was would coalesce into a majority, supporting and demanding national and global action. It seemed daunting but possible back then.


Many of those hopes have been realized. Coal has given way to gas. Windmills are turning and solar panels are angled just so. Every third car on my local roads is a Tesla. Suburban development has slowed down, and many master-planned communities are less oblivious to ecological havoc than they used to be. Planners in California, whether know Ed Abby from Abby Road, must abide by Senate Bill 375, the country’s first major law – adopted in 2008 – to mandate denser development and coordination of development and transportation for the express purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


And then Malibu goes up in flames.


The past two years—you know what, and who, I’m referring to—haven’t just been bad. They’ve been perverse. For all the atrocities humankind has committed against itself and its planet, breakthroughs are within our grasp. Some of them are technological, and the technology has arrived. Many of them are political. With some motivation and goodwill, they could be instituted tomorrow. But they won’t be. Not for years, if ever. So many things were going so well before November 2016.


If you thought Ed Abby was angry then, imagine his fury today.


I pulled my hand away from Song for the Blue Ocean like it was a hot ember. Not because its 450 oversize pages and would have added formidably to my payload. I couldn’t read it because, well, I’m not sure I have any appetite left for hope, at least not today. I don’t think I can read about the fish, the coral, and the bobbing, darting, singing, breaching, luminous things in that blue ocean because I know that many of them no longer exist, and many of them will cease to exist before humanity has corrected its course. From 35,000 feet above Greenland, I just can’t handle any more despair. I can’t handle any more powerlessness.


I’ll watch Portlandia reruns instead.


The fires are the most pungent and, for me, most proximate reminder enough of how bad things have gotten. If the greenest state in the country cannot protect—let’s face it—it’s wealthiest enclave, I’m not sure what chance we have. We can pray for rain just like we pray for the victims of the fires, and of the shooting before it. We can atone for past planning sins and keep houses away from wild lands. We can and should do as much as we can while powers greater than us do the opposite.


But, as molecules that might have belonged to a friend’s home settle deeper into my lungs, as I speed eastward with 15 hours of ignorance, not knowing what else has burned and not knowing what news will greet me when I land, the tender sentiments of Safina, or Wilson, or Leopold, or Dillard can bring me no solace. Someday they will again, I hope. Someday, after enough voting, donating, joining, shouting, and pleading I will visit the forests, deserts, beaches, and reefs that complement the human experience so essentially, and I will look to those writers to help me articulate my joy. But not right now.


Having started ten miles inland, the Woolsey fire nearly reached Pacific Coast Highway on its first night. At least we can take comfort knowing that the ocean cannot burn. 


Featured image via NBC News.



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