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Have Wildfires Ruined California’s Magic?

Billboards beckon us to Miami. Fantasy communes blossom in Maine. For those of us committed to sticking it out, our relationship task is making peace with smoke. (I should say this exercise is not for everyone. A recent study found that a month of medium-to-heavy wildfire smoke — what much of California experienced over the last few years — increases the risk of preterm birth by 20 percent. As one of the study’s authors told me, “Wildfire is literally making it unsafe to be pregnant in California.”)

One afternoon in August I lay on the deck of my friend Kevin’s cabin not far from Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and told myself that I could love, in some deeply-flawed-but-beautiful kintsugi way, the ash-paste air. Kevin’s cabin is perfect — was perfect. Out in the sagebrush, off a dirt road, next to an aspen-lined creek in the high desert, the cabin has everything and nothing: no electricity, no running water. Just one 10-foot-by-12-foot room with a sliding-glass door onto the epic mountain sky. Each summer — often several times a summer — my family drove over Tioga Pass, crossed the cattle guard up into Lundy Canyon, stripped on the rock beside the swimming hole, plunged into the snowmelt and emerged, elated and cleansed. The light shimmered off the aspen leaves like God’s own disco ball. We felt rich every time we arrived.

This year, after I jumped in, I told myself I still felt renewed despite the smoke. That was a lie. The next day we hiked up into Twenty Lakes Basin, where you could cliff-dive and bathe in glacial melt. The world here, too, did not feel OK. The meadows looked dull green from drought and ash. This was not the California I first married, but to be honest, I’m not the same person, either. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?

Aching and eager to escape my own boring loop of depressive thoughts, I met with Alex Steffen, a climate futurist, on the back patio of a bar in Berkeley. Steffen, a 53-year-old mountain of a man with a crystal-ball-bald pate, hosts a podcast and publishes a newsletter called “The Snap Forward.” The idea behind both is that the climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?”

The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re “trans-apocalyptic.” We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be “native to now.” Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities,” floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean?

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