Lord it’s hot here in Central Florida. Every summer has its dog days, the Breath of Set roasting wheat in the sheaves, forces of light and death duking it out to wrest harvest from the underworld. in Florida the humidity keeps rising all summer so that by now, a 94-degree day can easily feel like 115 degrees. It can sure sump a Sunday migraine, which is what my wife are both suffering today. I haven’t had as many migraines lately so I’m not really complaining, but my wife just got her second Covid shot (finally, thank god) and naturally she reacted badly to it with a worst-ever headache for two days that cleared just in time for us to both eat something (we suspect) to land us with … this. She’s raging.
My wife says she only got the booster so she could see her father in memory care, a pretty useless exercise now since all the restrictions are back up and her father besides is so far gone. He made a bundle selling high tech during NASA’s Apollo and space shuttle eras, really high-flying stuff. He was also the most organized person on Earth, as we now discover cleaning out his office. I mean, who keeps a library of VCRs from shows recorded on TV back in the 90s, with an elaborate log of them to boot? But two falls off ladders he should never been up on resulted in head injuries and a decade-long memory dump lead him into to the vacancies, soil and rages of Alzheimer’s. Memory care plus long shifts of caregivers (he’s falling a lot these days) is fast eating up his nest egg assembled from all those years of piling dimes and logging every penny. The guy swapped batteries in Lockheed F-104 Starfighters during the Korean War, hunkered down behind blast walls in Huntsville in the first rocket tests, helped gird the Saturn IV rocket with sensors and sold film recorders for the space shuttle … Now his cockpit is a wheelchair and Depends.
It’s brilliant out, mid-afternoon, so bright it’s hurtful, mercilessly so with this migraine. I can’t say it pars with heat elsewhere (and it is merciless in Greece and Japan and Idaho and Iran), but the force f it is astonishing for my 30 years of living here. A fucking hot time, when High Noon falls short of a descriptor. Awesome and awful at once, that’s the Anthropocene Sublime …
* * *
In 1881, fire broke out on Main Street in the town of Greenville, Calif. All of the buildings on the street burned. The printing press of The Greenville Bulletin was dragged from the burning building that housed the hamlet’s newspaper, and shopkeepers up and down the street threw their wares out windows before the fire clawed down. Fortunately the wind was fairly calm so it didn’t spread to residential areas. Four days later, the Bulletin published again. The town rebuilt.
140 years later, the 300,000-acre Dixie Fire consumed the little town of Greenville California. Winds were high, whipping down off the mountain, and everything was dry from high heat and drought. Main Street burned, with its collection of historic saloons, general stores and banks. Some houses of the town’s 800 residents were saved, but everything else was gutted. “We lost Greenville tonight,” said U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area. “There’s just no words.” The Dixie Fire burns on, now at 440,000 acres the 3d-largest fire in California history, behind Mendocino Complex (July 2018, 460,000 acres) and the August Complex (August 2020, 1 million acres).
The current moment is a brilliant reminder that we are caught up in a magnitude human mastery created, cannot stop and has few ideas how to slow.
Elsewhere, wildfire rages in Turkey, Greece and northeastern Russia, where 10 million acres of boreal forest burned this summer. In the Amazon, deforestation, wildfires and drier weather are resulting in conditions where in some areas of the forest, more carbon is being released than are being absorbed. David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at Australia’s University of Tasmania, put it this way: “If the Amazon and boreal forests are irreversibly damaged, it would mean you have lost control of the climate. If [climate change is] a nuclear reactor, we’re a bit like the folk in Chernobyl where we’re doing some stress testing that may actually escape our control. That’s the problem.” (Washington Post)
A mastery we have no control over … If you’re weary of wildfire stories, we were doused this week with news that the ocean’s circulation has dramatically slowed. We’ve heard edges of this in recent years, but now scientists now say that Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—of which the Gulf Stream is part— has over the past century almost completely lost its stability. Exactly when strong-circulation conditions transition to weak ones is not sure. Such a collapse would result in fast sea level rise, more extreme winters in Western Europe and damage to the tropical monsoon season. Cascading effects of the change could alter weather patterns worldwide, destabilizing the Antarctic ice sheet and Amazon rainforest.
The scenario is frighteningly close to the 2004 cli-fi film The Day After Tomorrow, where a breakdown of the AMOC resulted in global weather catastrophes—city-devouring tornado packs, the Statue of Liberty inundated, a hard freeze over the Northern Hemisphere. In the movie, a scientist saw it coming and no one believed him or that it was coming so fast.
This moment is one to pause and wonder.
In her earlier book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert looked with an unblinking eye at the evidence of a spreading mass extinction event on Earth so great it equals the crushing effect of the Chicxulub meteor 66 million years ago or volcanic activity 450 million years ago, now at unparalleled speed. In her new book Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Kolbert examines humanity’s attempts to reverse its damage and the dubious effects most of those attempts have had.
The results are sometimes comical, like the fishermen desperately trying to empty Midwestern river waters of Asian carp. In what then seemed a more humane response than the use of pesticides Rachel Carson decried in Silent Spring, the carp were imported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to slow the spread of algae in the Illinois River. The carp have overrun their boundaries and threaten to eat up the Mississippi River basin as well as the Great Lakes.
Other “solutions” are more ominous, like the proposal to spray light-reflective particles into the atmosphere a way to offset the lost refractive capabilities of melted ice caps (“the white sky” in the title). As a project director at the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (guess what they do) said: “We live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.”
But to imagine that “dimming the fucking sun” could be less dangerous than not dimming it, you have to imagine not only that the technology will work according to plan but also that it will be deployed according to plan. And that’s a lot of imagining … Scientists can only make recommendations; implementation is a political decision. you might hope that such a decision would be made equitably with respect to those alive today and to future generations, both human and nonhuman. But let’s just say the record here isn’t strong. (See, for example, climate change.) (200-1)
Kolbert notes that humankind has directly altered the landscape of more than half the ice-free land on the earth, indirectly the other half. We have altered or destroyed vast ecosystems, emitted more carbon dioxide than the worst volcanoes and, and along with our primary food source of livestock, outweigh all vertebrates combined excepting fish.
“Humans are producing no-analogue climates, no-analogue ecosystems, a whole no-analogue future,” she writes. “At this point it might be prudent to scale back our commitments and reduce our impacts. But there are so many of us — as of this writing nearly eight billion — and we are stepped in so far, return seems impracticable.” (7-8)
We have to do something, it seems, but the scales aren’t pretty: doing nothing is catastrophic and something — anything — fraught with catastrophic risk.
This was nowhere more fully on display than in the unearthly silence of the Olympics. The world’s best athletes competed for honors dating back to ancient Greece in grandly empty ampitheaters due to the rampant spread of the Delta variant of COVID. The very mastery which gave rise to easy international travel is the very thing which has made fighting this epidemic so difficult. (It doesn’t help either that wires of the internet have made it supremely easy to spread misinformation and doubt about the vaccine which could make mass events possible. And it was hot in Japan — a torture for the games — making human mastery for bronze, silver and gold seem a rather Pyrrhic victory.
So here we are, not sensing a change but in the naked blast of it, with options limited and dubious and hopes radically diminished. How do we as poets embrace this? What bodies of evidence can we preserve of the moment, its magnitude, the ways we raged and grieved and accepted and changed? Are these documents dumps of dead-end failure? Songs of grief and hope? Paeans of awfulness and awesomeness? Oracles of welcome and despair?
You tell me. For this challenge, write poems about TRUTH IN A WORLD ON FIRE.
A word from the doctor. In her recent New York Times essay, “What To Do With Our COVID Rage,” Sarah Smarsh faces this strange moment of massive COVID resurgence (in my country, Florida is the worst) due to the Delta variant and the unwillingness of many to get the vaccine. (In other places of the planet, too many are simply unable to get it yet.) “Fatigue and outrage are appropriate emotions,” she writes, “considering all that has been lost to Covid-19: lives, jobs, experiences, money, physical and mental health. But those feelings, if not properly channeled, can themselves take a heavy toll. What do we do with our anger?” It’s like fury at the creators of climate change: it stays heavy in the gut and will make you sick. Smarsh suggests a different attitude: “Remember how you felt last spring, at a city stadium or a suburban pharmacy or a rural community building, when you got a shot. How will you remember its blessing? What will you do with the life that it saved?” We are chosen by fate to be witnesses to this moment. What are we to do with this rare and precious opportunity?