It seems so silly. Trying to stay fit when you know you’re ultimately only killing yourself by breathing in this air. Like some part of you is trying to deny what’s going on by “acting naturally.” But there is nothing natural about what’s happening. What will continue to happen unless society completely changes, which, of course, it will not. There are too many pockets lined for anyone to be motivated to steer the ship in an about-face direction. We’re down this strait for good, and it’s dire. Yet, it’s only noticeably dire for some at this point in time.
As we all know, if it’s happening to someone else, a person doesn’t actually care. Sure they’ll say something barely conciliatory, like, “Oh bummer.” But they don’t even mean that. What they’re really thinking is some combination of, “Sucks to be you” and “Damn, I’m glad that’s not happening to me.” The extent of human selfishness is matched only by the extent of the naïve belief in the propensity for human kindness. Which ceases to exist if it’s pushed “to the limit”—that is to say, in any way overly inconveniences the person with “something to give.” Nature herself is overly inconvenienced at this time. Hence, she fills the air with her smoky plumage. Some might call it nothing more than Gaia’s gas suffocating us with her scent and sound. But how come no one felt obliged to stop and ask why she wanted to suffocate us so badly? Right off her very face. It was the only way she might be able to breathe again—by preventing us from doing the very same.
The fire began, like most, abruptly. It could have been an errant spark or maybe someone deliberately started it (for whatever reason, California played host to many residents with a fetish for arson). Even a combination of both factors coalescing into one. It didn’t matter, really. The point was, it started. And once it was set in motion, the flames couldn’t be quelled. They were like some kind of fierce stripper who only seemed to get more turned on and invigorated when water was splashed against them à la Flashdance. The firefighters were tossing what seemed like nothing but dollar bills at the stripper flames to motivate them all the more to keep dancing, to keep setting the night on fire. The impact of it was making its way many counties over, all the way to Leah’s modest, barely-there county of Sierra, situated between the tinderboxes of Plumas National Forest and Tahoe National Forest. Sierra was touted as California’s “second-least populous county,” and Leah lived in the only real “city” there, Loyalton. An all too apropos name, as one had to be extremely loyal in order to stick around in a place like that. And Leah was. Whenever someone asked her why she bothered trying to live in such a “shithole,” she replied that it was her home. She couldn’t explain it any better than that. Those who lived in hurricane or mudslide-prone areas surely understood where Leah was coming from in her quest to remain here, in any and all environmental circumstances that might befall Loyalton. Yet even she could never have imagined it would get this bad, the ashy air quality enveloping her from all angles the second she stepped outside for her bike ride. First, one for exercise, then one for transportational functionality (a.k.a. biking to work).
Everyone else seemed so blasé, so utterly nonchalant about the whole thing as she rode past in her, for all intents and purposes, “gas mask.” The children kept playing amid the smoke-filled air, the Republican-voting bumpkins kept walking joyfully with their purebred dogs. How could they not see it? She felt like she was going crazy because everyone else had normalized that which is abnormal, and they looked at her funny because she decided to tie a wet dishcloth around her face to mitigate the smoke’s ability to enter her lungs. She reckoned it didn’t do much good other than to conjure the vitriol of any passerby (whether on foot, bike or in car). And the last thing she needed was more vitriol, to stick out like a sore thumb any further than she already did in that county. Yet she would not “become one of them” at the peril of her own individuality, let alone fucking up her lungs. So she kept putting on the wet dish towel, and continued risking life and lungs to go outside. For what purpose she could no longer really say. It’s not as though we hadn’t all seen for ourselves that the outside world was no longer “the way, the light, the truth.” Nor was it any longer something that would have made the grade in Emerson or Thoreau’s transcendentalist philosophy. One does tend to wonder what those dendrophiliacs would have made of all this. How they would have seen quite quickly that their stance on nature would be impossible to “retrofit” in the current climate, particularly California’s.
Leah whizzed through the smoke-filled streets to get to her post at the Gilded Drifter Inn. There would be no visitors. There hadn’t been anyone staying at the inn since the fire broke out, weeks ago now. Except one regular, Mr. Morandi, who brought his mistress there. Everyone knew about their affair, including the wife, but they still needed an alternate location in which to…fornicate. They always chose the Wilde Room, and no doubt, its namesake, Oscar, would have approved of the debauchery, though he likely would have preferred some homo action instead. There wasn’t much of that in Loyalton, and if there was, it occurred in a “Brokeback Mountain” sort of fashion out in the woods. Leah had happened upon such goings-on more than once in her townie life. She wondered where any same sex-oriented men would fuck now, with the woods burning. She also wondered what she was even doing—bothering to go through the motions of carrying out her job when it didn’t matter. The things that did matter to people, however, were precisely this. Continuing to “make ends meet,” to bend over in service of Capital even as the very effects of that system caused the horrific consequences they saw all around them—that was what mattered to people. And they would keep doing it and doing it until the final moments, until the flames consumed them whole. Capital exists only to consume itself in the end, which it will when all consumers are dead. Loyalton wasn’t going to evade that fate. Nor was any other burning town in the state, soon to be the world.
Biking back to her modest abode not too far from the inn (she had left early, telling Mr. Morandi to see himself out before he went up to the room with his tart), the dish towel felt particularly oppressive. Surely not more oppressive than the smoke itself, but oppressive nonetheless. Would we be expected to go on living like this forever, or would an exodus be forced? Leah couldn’t think about it, all she could focus on was breathing—or rather, breathing as minimally as possible. Although she knew it was probably a fool move, she decided to stop for a “frozen dairy dessert” at Rhonda’s Lil’ Frosty. You know, because why not? Maybe the combination of smokiness and coldness would fuck up her lungs all the more, but, as it is said, “Yolo.” She hoped that was true, because if there was a next life to get to, she imagined it would be a totally inhospitable Earth by then. Granted, she had to ask what was so hospitable about it now. Then again, life did so love the challenge/taunt of being asked how it could get much worse.
Sitting outside, she looked around her, taking in all the other patrons who were happily lapping up their “sweet treats” like dumb dogs. Except actual dogs were shrewd enough to stay inside right now. Their owners, in contrast, couldn’t have cared less about the dystopia around them. Unignorable, yet somehow, they managed to ignore it. Staring at her melting confection, Leah slowly lifted the towel up from the bottom half of her face to sample the chocolate and vanilla flavor. A mouthful of smoke crept in to choke her before the taste of anything like a “frosty.” And she sat there like that, with the rest of them, lifting her towel up and down with each new bite.