This is the seventh post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
The deer were bounding like blown leaves“Fire on the Hills” by Robinson Jeffers
Under the smoke in front the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.
When I lived in Berkeley for a few months in 2019, I was confounded by the contrast in what I saw in the landscapes and imaginaries around me. Steps away from the Berkeley Rose Garden, my temporary home in the Hills would often be visited by deer. I had moved to California in February 2019, first to suburban Irvine, then to Berkeley, with the intention of studying how fire ecologists, operating out of California’s universities and federal and state agencies approached the study of wildfires. I often joke that my research interest in fires has been driven by the fact that I was feeling quite overwhelmed with the supposed promises doctoral education that lay before me as it came time for me to commit to a dissertation topic. Fires seemed to be, at the time, a topic that would enable me to spread myself out spatially and temporally while not being wholly committed to a geographically constrained space. They would allow me to immerse myself in environments and narratives that did not necessarily coalesce into one clean, singular story. My life up until that point resisted in many ways the proverbial dangers of the singular story, and in the years of political and creative radicalization that ensued in response to the events of the early 20th century, from the war in Iraq to the global rise in fascism, I felt even greater urgency to scatter myself away from narratives of singularity, and in turn, containment.
Yet, despite my best efforts to get in touch with several fire ecologists based at different sites and countries around the world, only one scientist and institution in northern California welcomed me to be privy to their ongoing activities. In following this fateful thread, I would move from Toronto, Canada, to the dry, chapparal laden suburban settings of Orange County.
In Orange County, I rented a room in a house that was part of the faculty housing development of the University of California, Irvine. Irvine was a strange city to me from the get-go. Originally inhabited by the Tongva people, what we call Irvine today later became part of Mexico, and then changed hands to Irvine Company under occupation by the American state that would go onto develop the area into what it has now become. Irvine sits between multiple points of confluence and disruption – close to fault lines that create large-scale earthquakes and in a delicate region in southern California’s wildland-urban interface region. Local myths about the development of UC-Irvine, at the heart of the Republican country that is Orange County during the political upheaval of the 1960s were abound. The construction of the campus of UC-Irvine in a way to prevent public assembly, as student protests grew prominent and widespread around the United States in the 1960s, was cited as the reason so much of Irvine felt sterile and hostile to fun and anything beyond a carefully created, and surveilled suburbia. The lack of public transportation in the region was particularly palpable – and I found myself taking rideshares just to get groceries. The Orange County lifestyle necessitated excess that went far beyond and was at odds with what the landscape wanted to give. Subconsciously, I think many people were cognisant of the violence done in favour of maintaining the fiction of prosperity that exemplified much of Southern California, and partial awareness of this history, created many small portals into its own special brands of idiosyncrasies, fixations, bigotries, and magical thinking.
From the relative monotony of Irvine, I moved to Berkeley where I was welcomed into a co-operative house. The contrast in the atmosphere from the concealed, wholesome-seeming decadence of Orange County to the apparent radicalism of Berkeley was in some ways a welcome change. Northern California itself was also far more abundant in trees, whose collective presence I missed dearly while in Southern California. Away from the arid expanses of the south, and the smell of oil refineries that used to circulate the air, I found new resonances with the intermittent rains and the views of the bay from the hills. I started thinking about and with the idea of pyriscence – the phenomenon ever-present in much of California where certain species of plants require the presence of heat generated by seasonal wildfires to germinate. Pyriscence reverberated all around me in the California plant species that had evolved alongside human-mediated fire for millennia. If plants evolved their life cycles around the presence of fires, what does pyriscence look like for humans, the human psyche? – I found myself wondering often. The answers led me to my own ancestral lineage.
In a now defunct Hindu custom, women who were widowed were often “encouraged” or sometimes, with (and often without) the help of mind-altering substances, coerced into being burnt alive in the funeral pyres of their husbands. The practice, known as sati, was outlawed in the early 19th century. However, the patriarchal values it promoted, namely, the self-sacrifice of women within heterosexual relationships, denial of property rights, and renunciation of sexual autonomy, continues to leave traces across the South Asian psyche. As I learned about pyriscence in California’s plant life and began to entrain my senses towards the presence of fire in the landscape, the spectre of women being set on fire animated my dreams. As I learned about methods of seeing fiery landscapes through satellite imagery, my mind began to speculate about an alternative reality where one could take the satellite technology of today to past centuries and map out all the fires that was patriarchy dotted across the landscape; whether sati burnings of South Asia, or witch burnings of Europe. If pyriscence entrains trees to program their seeds to germinate after contact with fire and heat, what does the collective memory of fire as patriarchal threat mean for the inherited imaginaries of women and femmes, cis, trans and nonbinary, in the environment?
I live in London now – in the southeast corner of the city, a few minutes away from Thames and a few miles from some ancient woodlands which are unlikely to have seen many fires. Woodlands have a complicated legacy in Britain. With the advent of laws criminalizing poor, landless and vagrant peoples, and the formalization of enclosure of common lands in the early modern period, places deemed “wild” are often seen as necessarily at odds with the project of civilization. If not outright dangerous in the British social imaginary, nature can also be the realm of wastelands, where the productive capacity of the ecosystem have not been put to correct use in a way that makes it legible to capitalist logics. Yet these are the same wildlands and wastelands that are so animated by stories, folklore and myth about more-than-humans and supernatural beings that show a way of being beyond the rigid hierarchies of a class-based society.
Recently, the commons close to where I stay has caught fire several times. Three times, in a span of two weeks, to be exact. As the heat wave brings to mind health concerns for many, another faction of British society seems to be more interested in making the most of a new time with no COVID-19 restrictions. Starting with the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, celebrations pour out into the streets of London, while elsewhere the slow spread of fire across the woodlands and grasslands of the country, even in London, create a strange juxtaposition. They are unravelling a different story, for those that see, smell, and move with fire.
I used to identify it before as “burnout” or as simply a form of writer’s block. Ever since I started my fieldwork in California, I’ve felt haunted by a spectre of wordlessness. Last week, a mere fifteen-minute walk away from my London place I observed parched, burnt landscapes like the ones that once kept me up at night in California.
These fires and what they leave in their wake bring me to a place beyond words. I don’t know if it’s just my pre-verbal brain somatizing environments that are far removed from what I’m accustomed to. In my confoundment, I asked again and again of the land, the grass, and the plants when they had last seen such a sight. Once more, met by their wordlessness, I wandered away, as off in the distance, in the heath itself, faint echoes of carnival music from the local fun fair rippled through the air; not far from sights of billboards, portending new property developments.
I’m wordless because this is too much for one body to take, and because the almost karmic poetry of a climate change-driven grassfires to come for the commons in the lands that first legitimized enclosures and criminalizing the poor. I’m wordless because I cannot say anything to put a nice bow on a tapestry of places and thought forms intermingling and unraveling for the last five hundred years, at war with our bodies and the land itself.