Good Air

Wildfire smoke turns the sky orange over Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, CA. (Photo via Sterling Lanier)

Today, for the first time in almost a month, the air quality meter I have become accustomed to checking every morning (and afternoon, and evening), read ‘Good’. Good! It was an almost unbelievable surprise, after weeks and weeks of ‘Unhealthy’, or the slightly less toxic ‘Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups’, and ‘Moderate’ at best. I couldn’t open my shutters–and my window–fast enough. Once before, during the Tubbs fire that burned through Santa Rosa, two hours north of here, we had a weeklong stretch where we couldn’t open any windows, but this time it has been so much worse. For three weeks, I’ve been staring out my closed window each morning like an animal in a zoo, my room a stale chamber of held breath, looking out at a world that I can’t reach. But now, at last, a reprieve.

It’s amazing what a little non-toxic air can do for your spirits. I want to hop and prance around my yard like the little cottontails who hide under our ceanothus bushes, but like those cottontails, I feel a sense of foreboding even in my excitement. There’s a part of me that’s on constant alert now, no matter how blue the sky looks, a part of me that thinks it would probably be safer to sit perfectly still in the shadow of a curved branch, not moving a whisker until I know for sure that the coast is clear. The human narrative says that I should seize the day, and take this as a chance to reflect, to be grateful for simple, elemental things like sky and air. But the more ancient part of my being, the part that is solely concerned with keeping me from dying, knows that when a single glimpse of clear sky seems like a miracle, you’re probably not out of the woods yet.

So, it’s a mix of emotions today, Good Air Day. Thankfulness, a sense of marvel, of wonder and levity. But also, weariness, heartbreak for all that has been lost and will be lost, and the 1,000-pound mental weight of knowing that we are not going to overcome a raging wildfire season to return to normal, a raging wildfire season is now normal. A few years ago I joked that Autumn should be renamed to Fire Time, All The Time, but today my shoulders drop as I realize how utterly appropriate and un-funny that really is. In California, and much of the West, it really is fire time, all the time–anytime it’s not actively raining, a fire could begin in some corner of our critically dry terrain. Every landscape is now a fire-prone landscape, even the fog-wreathed redwood coast. Last month my family embarked on a short trip to Timber Cove, a rocky oceanside hideaway in Sonoma County, in desperate need for a temporary escape from the monotony of COVID isolation. Shortly after we arrived at our rental, the landlord informed us that the stretch of coastline we had driven up only hours before was now on fire. The fire burned almost all the way down to the beach. The beach! My brain has not caught up to the reality of wildfires that burn straight down to the ocean. I pictured myself swimming out into the Pacific for safety, looking back at the land, helpless, adrift. I thought of all the animals and other creatures around the globe whose brains and instincts can’t keep up either, who are struggling to stay alive for one more generation, let alone another one after that, as they try to figure out how to manage the breakneck pace of disaster. Then today, as I looked up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture wobbling in wide circles above me, black feathered fingers splayed, I sensed that the vulture was as happy to see the ground from up high as I was to see the heights from down on the ground. I sent up a mental hello. Hello, hello, nice day, isn’t it? Let’s just hope it lasts.