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Fire and Rain

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring uprush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the miscegenated, racist, fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or socialist, frankly) doxa.

I am reminded of the late, great Douglas Adams’ little parable about the first humans: how they decided they needed a currency in order to build civilization and chose to make leaves their currency because of how easy they were to collect and exchange and then in turn saw that the unending regeneration and proliferation of leaves made the currency almost worthless, and so set out to burn down the trees en masse to increase the value of the leaf…

Here in San Francisco under an unprecedented heatwave tamped down inside a pall of smoke from massive fires to the north and south, on Labor Day, what did we do? Go to the park and incinerate chunks of already burned trees to cook our meat with friends and loved ones. Can you hear those heads on Easter Island speaking to you yet?

I am also reminded of a poem I read in junior high school that sent shivers of timelessness down my spine, Robert W. Service’s “The Pines:”

We surge in a host from the sullen coast, and we sing in the ocean blast;
From empire of sea to empire of snow, we grip our empire fast… 

To us was the Northland given, ours to stronghold and defend;
Ours till the world be riven in the crash of the utter end.

Not so a century on, all bets on eternity are off; those timeless legions could fall before the firestorm and the insect hordes in less than an eyeblink of geological time. They could be gone before we are…

Meanwhile in the east and south as summer culminates they are watching the shore, the gray line of hissing waves, the blank horizon. Somewhere beyond it, still invisible, that shape you can only really grasp from above, in the abstract realm of the weather map: a hundred-mile-wide cloud vortex rotating and growing like, yes, like a living thing as it speeds across the ocean, its course as unpredictable as child’s spinning herself faster and faster through a room, until – presto, change-o! – there it is on your town’s doorstep, everything turned in moments to whirling water, no more up or down, just the unified roaring of wind, surging waves, downpour, all one single moving mass the force of which turns houses to matchsticks, walls to rubble.

And then the rain. More water than you thought possible coming out of just one piece of sky, but not a biblical deluge by a long chalk, because after all they are still roasting in the bone-dry heat a few hundred miles to the west, so how can this be happening over your head? Fifty inches of rain burying your elevated off-ramps in water, not just the dirt tracks of all those impoverished millions Somewhere Else, whose similar and simultaneous plight barely raises your news channel’s equivalent of an eyebrow, but your freeways, your marvels of engineering and sheer amount of concrete coverage, your center of can-do, charge ahead, build-baby-build culture. All this in a floodplain, on the shores of a rising sea. Where would the water go?

Last summer the fires incinerated a northern oil city, this summer the rains inundated a southern oil city, but we don’t dig the symbolism, you know; it’s tacky and retrograde to mention it. Keep your fable-filled mouth shut and keep on admiring the non-existent drapery on that guy wearing the crown, much easier.

Yes, we humans may lurch onward through alternately drenched and smoke-filled landscapes, billions of the poor in constant forced migration from war or famine or genocide, the bourgeoisie cutting out the middle man in the delivery system and simply melding themselves with machines, killing off any remnants of the mythological in their cybernetic psyches because in that was contained what they would otherwise have to understand as self-fulfilling prophecy: the lost Golden Age, the lost Eden. Which we were once taught was a poetic reference to a mythical past, but was actually our civilization’s symbolic roadmap to its own future. Will their pseudo-intelligent implanted daemons save those future elites from realizing what some long-since exterminated peoples had conceptualized without technical assistance ages before: that what we experience as time is neither a one-dimensional line in a four-dimensional block, nor a closed loop of eternal return, but more like an infinite manifold of zero dimensions in which all times equally exist? And thus, began their mythic stories with: “Once upon a time, in the future…”

Beyond all the immediate drama is the resiliency of life and the dispensability of individual species, and the foretold outcome when they begin to gnaw away at life’s negentropic feedback loops, its relentless climbs up the chain of complexity. Something will probably survive us here, if and when all our thrashing fails. What will it be? Don’t you wish you could know? But “it” will be made by circumstances that aren’t knowable in advance. There’s no better proof that time is real than the existence of the living world, no matter what our relativistic physical equations purport to say in their lifeless abstractions of it.

Beyond even this planet’s little story is the near infinity of worlds, each one likely unique as a snowflake or fingerprint. You come from one irreplaceable, fabulously life-filled place, and you, a uniquely self-aware being there, make that place uninhabitable – I can’t know this of course, but I imagine that does something to you, something that’s not eradicable, cannot be superseded. Turns you into a kind of monster. Are we then to be imperialists and colonizers in perpetuity, throughout the universe? To become the saurian or cybernetic aggressors whose behavior we’ve projected onto other “races” in our space-opera fantasias? Is it cowboys and Indians in space, forever? There is no more nihilistic thought, and I say that with all the regret of a one-time Star Trek fan.

But I’m betting (well, actually, I’m hoping, bets are foolish), pace Mr. Hawking and Mr. Musk, that we don’t make it off the runway. We may manage to rocket Wall-E to Mars to trundle for generations over the lonely rocks while overshoot sends us zinging past critical slowing down into catabolic collapse, but I can’t countenance a full-on Blade Runner outcome here. My utopian alternative – that we come to love our home above all else, and shape ourselves to please it – might not pass the laugh test either, but the beauty of time is its creativity, and the enormity of its span.

Pre-conditions humans are currently establishing will not have linear outcomes. Our species retains the ability to evolve into something more than an unprecedented annihilator of biodiversity and sower of a geological layer of plastic detritus, but here’s the catch – only if we can shed what we call civilization, which is as much an evolutionary dead-end as the line of dinosaurs whose decomposition currently powers it. We did without it for a long, long time, in many places – was that life really just nasty, brutish and short? I don’t think the Haudenosaunee would have said so, or the Arawak. (Which doesn’t mean a future non-civilization would look anything like that.) Of course, you and I, and all the bourgeois typists would no longer be possible, but – small price to pay, no? Once upon a time, in the future…

Meanwhile, summer is changing, the skies are filling with fire and rain. Our long national 1950s is disintegrating before our eyes. Our empire that never dared to speak its name is in lock step with all previous empires that did, as they crumbled. We can keep turning away from the firestorm and the flood, but they will be with us now, close as our own shadows, as will all the other ways we are failing to thrive, whether we turn to face them or not.