In his 1998 book, Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis, the late California muckraker and self-proclaimed Marxist environmentalist, made the case for “letting Malibu burn.” He pointed out that the city of Los Angeles devoted more resources to dealing with the wildfires that rage in the wealthy enclave of Malibu than to the ones that break out in downtown tenements. And yet, Malibu’s very design ensures the return of fire. “The Malibu nouveaux riches built higher and higher in the mountain chamise with scant regard for the inevitable fiery consequences,” he writes. Why not return to the wisdom of native Californians, who knew that small, controlled fires were necessary for preventing bigger ones?
I was in Los Angeles on one of the occasions when Malibu burned, in the 2018 Woolsey Fire. More than 30 miles away, in West Hollywood, not knowing any better, I went about my day, like everybody else, walking, shopping, doing errands, even as white ash fell onto our heads, as gently as snow. I thought about that day as I read Manjula Martin’s memoir, The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History. And I thought about everything we have learned and haven’t learned since, over the past five painful years of fire and smoke.
“I wanted to continue to be an exception to the consequences of climate change,” Martin tells us. Formerly the managing editor of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story, Martin doesn’t get her longed-for exemption. On the contrary, when it comes to our altered environment, she’s in the thick of it, living in the woods of Sonoma County with her partner, a labor organizer named Max. The book she has written is the record of her reckoning with what climate change—by now that blandest of phrases—actually means, day to day, sometimes hour to hour. She reveals all the ways it will inevitably reach down into even the most personal recesses of her life, and our lives as well.
Martin grew up in nearby Santa Cruz, where she was born in a trailer next to a geodesic dome. Her father, the horticulturalist and writer Orin Martin, delivered her. She was given the name Manjula by the family’s guru, an Indian monk. She is a product of this land. When she’s away, “I often felt a deficiency in my lungs that I suspected might correspond to the oxygen output of a redwood tree,” she writes. It might seem surprising at first that a person this attuned to her natural environment would think that she could avoid its catastrophes.
As the book opens, she and Max are preparing to evacuate. It is August 2020. COVID is raging, vaccines are nowhere in sight, and what will turn out to be possibly the worst fire season in California’s history is just beginning. It’s 4:30 in the morning, and lightning, the most common cause of naturally occurring wildfire, is striking the drought-primed land nearby. Martin gets their go bags in order.
Over the next few months, she is perpetually on the run from flames, or preparing to be; any hope of remaining the “exception” is shattered. But on her way, and through her eyes, we experience California’s heart-stopping grandeur and occasional horror. Martin’s evocations of the landscape are the book’s strongest point. On one day when the sun appeared not to rise in Northern California, Martin captures the uncanny atmosphere of the inferno before her. “The red sky was a sight that might only make sense in a world of wrathful gods, or maybe a world of no gods,” she writes. “This was a Dante, Odyssey, war-begotten red, like dust storms over a burning oil well in Kuwait. It was a color to put people in our place, inside history.”
Climate change, “the biggest, most obvious thing ever to happen on this planet,” should be the subject of more literature and art. So said Amitav Ghosh in his 2016 book, The Great Derangement. This could be Martin’s mission statement: to do as Ghosh said, to make culture about climate. And also “staying within the trouble,” as the feminist scholar and historian Donna Haraway, another inspiration to Martin, phrases it—“to fully feel” the catastrophe we are living through. Martin’s memoir is the first one I’ve read that centers this mission, these feelings and thoughts, this struggle with the great climate catastrophe of our time. I’m certain that it won’t be the last.
Martin engages with the past and present of “good fire,” the use of controlled small burns that reduce flammable vegetation. This, she tells us, was a practice that Indigenous Californians implemented, until their stewardship of the land was broken by theft and genocide. Now the American West is more vulnerable to the megafires that blaze out of control, destroying whole towns and beyond. This notion isn’t new, and Martin is not the first to say it. Most recently, good fire was the subject of Ignition, by M. R. O’Connor. But Martin argues that to bring back good fire at scale would require a total rethinking of our relationship to the land, an acknowledgment that we don’t and can’t control nature: “If people not native to this land allowed fire to return, we would have to allow for the fact that the land was not ours.”
She tries to prompt Max into a conversation about moving, confronting the reality that how and where they live might not be sustainable. He won’t discuss it. They see what’s coming, what has already come. But they also want their dream life among the redwoods of Sonoma, where their neighbors console themselves with thoughts like: Fire stays on the other side of the river. Or: Redwoods don’t burn. (Redwoods are more fire resistant than other trees, but they are not fireproof.) It’s a version of the split consciousness so many of us feel as we go about our days, dine with friends, conceive babies. We don’t know what to do with the horror except live. But Martin and Max have a shorthand for their own approach: “Stay and fight.” She wrestles with the implications of this: “To truly love a place, a person needed to take responsibility for her involvement with it, not only feel feelings.” They are in California and of California, and its fate is their fate too.
Meanwhile, Martin is determined to offer a kind of challenge to the existing state historiography, as she sees it. Passing through a place called Hangtown, she stops in a used bookstore and wanders to the California section. “These literatures of California told the usual lies of cowboys and Indians, wildness and new frontiers,” she writes. “I was sick of them all. What did I know about this state that was actually true, I thought as I browsed.”
Her musings brought to mind for me the long-simmering tension between two of California’s most accomplished chroniclers, unmentioned by Martin yet powerfully influential: Mike Davis and Kevin Starr. In many ways, they had competing visions of the Golden State. Davis, best known for his 1990 City of Quartz, exposed a darker history of power and corruption in Southern California, whereas Starr—over the course of his highly enjoyable series of books about the history of the state—offered up a glorious parade of humans who helped define California as we know it. In Davis’s rendering, California could seem like hell; for Starr, it was much more often an earthly kind of heaven. Yet at the end of his life, writing his final volume of history during the first years of our current century, even Starr, the great champion of the Golden State, expressed his doubts. Plagued by ecological disaster and social inequities, California, he wrote, now gave him pause: “I had extended, enhanced, even shored up, my personal identity by projecting my own hopes, dreams, and aspirations onto California. Had I made a terrible mistake?” It’s a startling sentence—and one with which Martin might identify—in an opus that presented California as a land of endless possibility: By the turn of the millennium, Starr finally had to address himself to the vulnerabilities his beloved state faced, and still faces today.
He’s hardly the only one to do so. They may not have been on the shelves of the bookstore Martin visited in Hangtown, but Starr and Davis, as well as Carey McWilliams, Louis Adamic, and, more recently, Malcolm Harris, among others, have all written about California’s painful and checkered history, its ecologically unsound decisions, its land theft and racism. Yet standing in that bookstore, Martin ultimately concludes that “the only thing about the West that I knew to be a fixed truth was that this was where the sun touched the land last, every day.” She seems to want to supplant the histories that have come before, whether because they are too boosterish or too stereotypical, or because they were written by the wrong people: “The authors appeared to be white.”
In fact, Martin’s pieties can grate. The first time she is preparing to evacuate her house, she emails her dad a poem by Gary Snyder, a Beat poet, who is now 93 years old. But she feels she must assure us that “if I’d googled harder in my pre-evacuation frenzy, I might have been reminded of the fact that Snyder, a white man, had been criticized, most notably by author Leslie Marmon Silko, for appropriating Indigenous and Asian philosophies in his work.” When her partner buys a Torah, it isn’t just any Torah, but one “annotated with progressive commentary by women rabbis.” In the market for a trailer, they refuse to purchase one in part because the owner is a cop, and “Max, an anarcho-syndicalist, and I were both reluctant to hand over our savings to an agent of the prison-industrial complex.” When it comes to the natural world, we get vivid specificity, but when it comes to human beings, we more often get generalized, racialized labels that seem to carry an implicit value judgment—but of what? This language of irreproachability held me at a distance when I so badly wanted to find a deep sense of connection on a subject with the highest possible stakes.
We are living these stakes. Just this past summer, wildfire smoke from Canada engulfed the Northeast for days. In New York City, a place that has seen its fair share of disasters, this was something new: The Statue of Liberty disappeared in the thick yellow haze. It was a humbling week, a rude awakening to the truth that smoke cannot be contained, and that fire is not just a California story, or a story of the American West. We are all a version of Martin, wanting so much to somehow be the exception—and knowing already that we aren’t. For Martin, the solution isn’t about hope—not exactly. “I found hope to be even more rigid a standard than strength. It felt fake,” she writes. “There was no redemption here, only an ongoing act of livingness, a refusal to stop tending to a life.” Where she arrives is at a willingness to look straight at the flames, and tell about it.
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