Burn Lands

At dawn, and again at sundown, the cloud scudded winter skies over the foothills of Southern California’s Sant Ynez mountains have been flushed recently with pinks and violets, shadowed with undertones of browns and grays. In the early mornings, the charred skeletons of laurel sumac, chamise, and ceanothus are silhouetted against the blazing firmament above these burn lands. The flame and drought plagued mountains are a grey-brown, newly studded with pale sandstone, exposed by the Thomas Fire. The foothills look as though they are covered with the mottled skin of some bottom-dwelling sea-creature.

The flesh of the chaparral, that biotic fuzz that drapes itself over so much of California, is fire-changed. Beneath its erstwhile canopy the matrix of sandstone and thin soil is now revealed as though a new volcanic age is upon us, the mantle still writhing from some recent uplift of magma. It’s not new of course, this growing medium has been weathering down for many eons, derived from sediment laid down in the Eocene, perhaps fifty million years ago. The plants of the chaparral emerged more recently, just twenty million years ago, and organized themselves into chaparralian assemblages just as soon as some semblance of a Mediterranean climate (wet winters, long, dry summers) emerged mid-Miocene, about ten million years ago. The florid, crepuscular skies that glow on the horizon at either end of winter days are a characteristic of that climate, of moisture laden skies that both diffract and reflect the near-horizontal rays of the sun.

I can only comprehend the strange images that the local hills present as simile. So, their surface look likes the camouflaged skin of a giant cuttlefish recumbent on the sea-floor. What remains of the chaparral is spiked with skeletal limbs awaiting miracles of stump-sprouting or obligate re-seeding. These burn lands have spread over storied territories of Southern California such as Malibu, Calabasas and Ojai. Absent the drama of flame and smoke, the ancient plant communities now mutely regenerate.

Far below this landscape, plankton and tiny sea creatures rich in stored solar energy, have been compressed, over the geologic ages, beneath dank swamps and shallow seas underlayers of sea-bottom sediment and metamorphized into oil through the influence of pressure and heat.  As the earth has moved and folded, seams of this fossil biomass have puddled beneath the land. Where it has pooled, it has been assiduously extracted since 1865, although California has mercifully seen a fall in oil production of over 50% since 1985.

Southern California expresses itself geographically as ocean, off-shore Islands, beaches, sand dunes and wetlands, mostly transverse mountains (running west to east), coastal sage-scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands – sometimes mixed with juniper and pinyon – and desert. Freeways thread through and between sprawling conurbations, suburbs and exurbs. The burn lands (either consummated or awaiting a random, probably anthropogenic, ignition source) exist throughout the natural landscape but especially at the Wildland-Urban-Interface. Something approaching half a million acres burned in SoCal in 2018 while the State saw a record year of almost two million charred acres. It is now a land of wildfire and oil (where 40% of carbon emissions come from gasoline-burning public and private transportation).  It is a land that burns both living and fossil biomass. It is a land that is making good on this burn-notice by its carbon contributions to an atmosphere now infused with over 400 ppm of CO2, a level that likelyrepresentsplanetary ecocide.

As this remarkable year ends, I have sought to sketch a geological, botanical and topographical survey of Southern California. It has been a year significant, I think, for the raw physicality of exposition that has attended the fires in California. None here can now doubt the conflation of global warming and its deadly terrestrial consequences. This may be considered as the revenge of the Carboniferous, a sixty million year period that concluded three hundred million years agoduring which the formation of oil began, but did not end. Its characteristic geological strata were first mined for coal and it was the combination of this fuel and the invention of the steam engine that would propel the Industrial Revolution in Britain, a revolution whose global momentum is, even today, not quite spent.

Historically, the recent increased levels of CO2in the atmosphere date to the middle of the nineteenth century and have been greatly advanced over the last one hundred and seventy years. This phenomenon has led to what the geologist Marcia Bjornerud (in Timefulness, 2018) calls the “wreckage of long-evolving biogeochemical cycles”. More generally, the civilization enabled by fossil-capital has also destroyed ancient ecosystems and caused extinction rates to spike by a factor of somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 above background rates. These issues, together with vastly increased human-caused erosion and sedimentation, ocean acidification and sea level rise are taken, by most of the world’s scientific community, to validate the notion of a new epoch in the geologic timescale, the Anthropocene.

While the connection between the increase of CO2in the atmosphere and global warming is widely accepted, less understood is the connection between atmospheric carbon dioxide and the five other mass extinctions that are used to mark geologic periods. Bjornerud notes that the concept of a species driven epoch, such as the Anthropocene, fundamentally challenges the continuity of processes established by the founders of Geology, Hutton and Lyell. Yet there is a chemical thread that links all but one of the mass extinctions that demark the geologic timescale – all were partially initiated by quantum increases in atmospheric CO2. The exception is the Cretaceous extinction event that ended the reign of the dinosaur. It was caused by the impact of a meteor in the Yucatan which kicked up rock dust rich in acids and sulfur. This shroud of rock particles blocked photosynthesis and led to a kind of nuclear winter. All five extinctions then, were precipitated by abrupt changes in the climate attributable to an alteration of the atmosphere.

Southern California is uniquely entwined in global warming. It has produced vast quantities of oil and shown the world’s peoples how it could be used in the private automobile to enrich their lives, both by the example of Los Angeles, the first city to be shaped by the needs of the car, and through Hollywood’s cultural colonialism. Its over three hundred miles of highly developed coastline from San Diego to Morro Bay, which harbor many oil production facilities along the way, are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its dominant plant community is chaparral, whose drought-stressed shrublands reach deep into suburban and exurban enclaves and which are chronically subject to wildfires. The desire of its wealthier inhabitants to site their homes in the foothills amidst these fire-prone landscapes and drainages vulnerable to flood and debris-flows exacerbates the intrinsic connection between Southern California and what Mike Davis calls an Ecology of Fear. For many of us, the shorthand for these myriad real and potential disasters is, quite simply, global warming.

Even in the burn lands, the beauty of the hills, valleys, canyons and distant mountains remains. Bathed in the soft glow of early morning and evening light, it is transfixing. Scoured by cold north-easterly Santa Ana winds (in other seasons, the fire wind) the atmosphere is preternaturally clear, the landscape stunningly chromatic. Yet as the year turns, and we enter another millionth sliver of geologic time, it is apparent that although we humans are often individually long-lived, as a species we will die young.

What remains is to negotiate the precise terms of our extinction.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org