In quiet moments between rage, anxiety, heat exhaustion, and respiratory ailments, when I’m alone with smoke of 131 wildfires burning our forests and winding through the mountains and valleys to our front doors or fish camps or trailheads, I’ve been having this feeling. It’s a calm nostalgia, a wistful sense of the person I was, once, before I knew things I know now.
I first came to Alaska to work at Denali the summer of 2004, which was, as many will recall, a record-breaking wildfire year. I’ve written about that summer before and left out the smoke, the chronic coughs and glazed eyes, the fact that, on my first bus trip into the park, I didn’t see anything but the hint of a distant horizon, and beelined with a stranger into the cold water of Wonder Lake because we couldn’t stand the thought of another minute coated in the hot dust of the park road with no chance of rain. Memory is selective, and what I remembered best was the magic.
But senses are a bit of magic too, and a scent memory will hold you. Last week on the front steps of a friend’s cabin in Fairbanks, a full breath of smoky air brought me back to my early twenties, to something of the unrecognized/unrecognizable possibility that life stage held for me, and to my unabashed trial and error style of moving through the world. It happened again yesterday in my garden, late evening when it was cool enough to work.
I laughed at it. I knew better. People are evacuating their homes. I must be delirious. I haven’t slept right in days because it’s so hot. Ash fell from the sky. My every action is impeded and second-guessed by paralyzing anxiety. Who am I to fondly remember skipping down a river bar in this unworldly golden light born of other peoples’ forests burning?
Here’s a short list, first, of what I knew in 2004, to give my younger self some credit:
— Wildfire is an essential part of any forest’s ecology (I was raised by wild-land firefighters. That I grew up averse to or inept at (open to interpretation) physical labor is not their fault, but rest assured, I played fireline more than house as a child and I know the ecological and spiritual value of regeneration.)
— The world was warming. Al Gore said so.
— Pollutants, including smoke, travel. I was more caught up in the mystique of Siberia than the Steese Highway, but my body absorbed the carbon of both.
— Oxygen deprivation can make you a little loopy.
The list of what I didn’t know is longer and well-trodden in the memoirs of every white lady who travels north and thinks she’s found something. Fill in the gaps. Some highlights:
— The actual realities of the places the fires burned. I only saw the smoke, not the flame. The places, like any places, were full of people and politics and dogs and bird eggs and tiny intricate mosses that might not even be named.
— The political fixation with oil runs deep here, deeper than I could understand even hailing from another red state during the second start of the endless war for oil. I hadn’t really recognized the way extraction resembles religion.
— I didn’t really get fireweed. Like, I got it, but I didn’t really get it, you know? The way it signals time, the way it tells you the land has been through something and is blooming, the way years and the months speed up, and suddenly you’re talking mortality when you only meant to talk forest cycles and that is what this damn flower can do to a conversation.
More than six million acres burned that summer. (I had to Google it. And I’m spelling it out for you so those words can turn around in your mouth too, in case you, like me, don’t really know what to make of a long string of zeroes.) It set records that this summer isn’t yet near breaking, even as others are plowed down: the hottest days, the least snow, the earliest bloom, the most emails received asking for a legislative override of a governor’s budget.
There’s a lot of zeroes in that budget too, and there are plenty of smart people laying out what each one means, whose lives and livelihoods are hanging in each vetoed digit. Look those up. I’m just here to figure out what to do with the smell of smoke.
There’s a lot to be said for those years, the George W. years, the No Blood For Oil years, for my first view of hazy hills above treeline obscured by the ghosts of distant trees. If the smell brings me back there, what is it offering for now?
I’ve found myself turning to a lot of poetry about fire, which, unsurprisingly, is often also about politics, and, like fireweed, about death. And since the 2016 election, I’ve returned often to Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who documented the Stalinist years in stark verse that’s felt pretty resonant of late. Last night, Googling fire poems again, I found one that I’d skipped or forgotten in the haze of recent years, titled July 1914:
“All month a smell of burning, a dry peat
smoldering in the bogs.
Even the birds have stopped singing,
the aspen does not tremble.”
The next stanzas tell of a prophecy of terrible times, of violence and disaster, and then the prophet says:
“’But our land will not be divided
by the enemy at his pleasure…’”
In another poem, one I’ve read more often, speaking of many of her contemporaries’ exile from Russia and her own choice to stay despite persecution, Akhmatova writes:
“I am not one of those who left the land
to the mercy of its enemies.
Their flattery leaves me cold,
my songs are not for them to praise.”
And maybe in these lines, and the countless other poems, songs, and prayers that urge us to draw rage, heat, and creation from fire, I hear the lessons from the land and those who have long been its caretakers. I hear them urging us to stick it out.
And if the smell of the burning brings you someplace that draws out a bit of contradictory joy, let yourself have it. That’s yours too.