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Kindling

Stephanie Pushaw


What’s civilized is certain: mapped and plotted, every inch of it pinned down by the neutral precision of coordinates. Its contours are exhaustively interrogated, its once-anonymous tracts assigned the names of saints and wives and monarchs. Its cities, some with ruined walls still crumbling along their ancient borders, are gridlocked along gridlines, the pragmatic enumeration of their streets precluding the dangerous possibility of getting lost. In wilderness, though we may look to compasses, to the GPS cursor glowing blank and anchorless on the screen of our dying phone, to the stars in their ancient patterns studding the sky, we abandon these manmade geometries. Our brains tend to guide us in circles absent proper navigation; we plod, like yoked oxen, through concentric repetitions, stumbling perhaps over our own fresh footprints and deceiving ourselves into thinking we’ve found, through following another’s tracks, a way out. The wilderness is all uncertainty. Its labyrinthine silence blunts our navigation systems, scatters our reason, activates the amygdala and puts that little triangular-brained pilot in control: we choose fight, flight, or freeze; we are on edge, listening for scurries in the woods that might be breeze or grizzly, nut-stashing squirrel or snake with venom lubricating its accordioned jaws.


Most of what wilderness remains upon our planet is, naturally conquered: surveyors both human and robotic have, over centuries, perfected our knowledge of its distant wastelands, its crevasses and prairies and swamps. A drawerful of terrain maps, with latitudes and longitudes painstakingly recorded in browning ink, could offer salvation from even the densest forest, the most wind-whipped foreign summit whose chameleonic weather can stagger and destroy the hardiest mountaineer; how many of us, though, can read those maps, or bother to acquire them? Even were we capable of memorizing the paths devised by animals to sources of water, or the particular direction in which to move to stumble finally, thumbs out, upon a blessed freeway flush with logging trucks, the wilderness contains the kind of pitfalls no one can predict: a blithe and lethal interposition between a mother and her young, an ersatz bridge of fallen tree, straddling boiling rapids, whose rotting insides stay concealed until your boots plunge through them.


We hashtag our cravings for wanderlust, for adventure, for escaping the cuboid grimness of the city and getting back to nature; then we jitter and jones in the achingly quiet night of the woods, longing for our phones to snatch some wisp of WiFi from the silent sky, for fireworks or gunshots or raucous laughter, for the squeal of a car overturning or the dismal rhythmic songs of sirens on their way to some fresh emergency. Marooned in the impassive darkness of the wild, miles from DoorDash, Uber, Tinder, Gmail, 911, we crave what, just recently, we sought to reject: the stifling connectivity of cities, the dopamine hits we’ve trained our brains to crave from likes and the little ding! of incoming texts, all that overwhelming, incessant information over which we fruitlessly strive to gain control.


What we tend to forget is that these borders are inherently false. What could be more natural than a city, whose contours arise from the minds and hands of humankind? Their locations, after all, are chosen deliberately for their proximity to those wild features that predated our squabbling, raucous civilizations by millennia: bays upon which to unload our ships, ships whose hulls were made first of knocked-down forests, later of metal summoned from the strata of the Earth. Valleys of fertility in which we engineered the alchemy of turning crops to cash, rivers along whose shining bends we set adrift our trunk-hewn canoes, our steam-driven boats, our kayaks made of plastic sourced from tropical trees?


To glamorize the wild as a place of hallowed purity is to ignore its ancient underpinnings in our cities, both geographical and physical. Commodities, in whatever form they take, were at their earliest points plucked directly from the earth. And, despite our keening need to elevate ourselves above our animal colleagues, we’re as natural as it gets; though we may gild our human motivations with the poetic justifications of consciousness, they boil down to the root of things: to eat, to sleep, to procreate. What could be more animalistic than instant gratification, the satiation of certain immediate needs without regard for consequences made trivial by their soothing distance? The glorious upheaval of industry and manufacturing hammers home this point; we mechanized production, marshaled the products of the world into more convenient shapes, and accidentally set in motion our own molasses-slow destruction, whose course we’re now hastening, perhaps too late in the day, to reverse.


What remains of wilderness, at least that deemed accessible, is sanctioned: bordered by resort towns in whose chic cocktail bars the profits of fifteen-dollar martinis trickle, eventually, into the continued maintenance of wild lands. Our cars line up to inch the roads of federally-protected parks, our polycarbonate cameras flashing from rolled-down windows to capture scenes of raw and wild glory, which we then swipe through in the dim light of our trammeled indoor fires, busy transforming wood to ash, ushering smoke safely through a chimney made of stone. To believe in some distinct line between civilization and wilderness is to be fundamentally misinformed about the wildness of all things.


I grew up in a Southern Californian town bleached in constant sunshine, a beacon for celebrities and reclusive royals, a town clogged every summer by hundreds of thousands of sunburnt tourists swinging around the canyon curves in white vans whose side reads Starline Tours, aching for a glimpse of a hedge-hidden home owned by that month’s starlet darling. Its name, stolen from its indigenous inhabitants, has become shorthand for a specific, Western brand of sparkling luxury. Not the skyscrapered high-rise luxury of Dubai, say, or the giddy opulence of certain Eastern enclaves; billionaires’ homes do not spike through the landscape but are shrouded in it, tucked into canyons and under the lips of cliffs, their vast grounds cloaked with thick, rough-hewn hedges. Only from above, in an LAX-directed airplane beginning its long landing, say, can you glimpse their moneyed frameworks. It is an undeniably gorgeous place: wildflower-studded green cliffs shearing into the Pacific, the sweep of moonlit water at night glimmering in its smug certitude that here, at last, is the end of the continent. It is also a place fraught with danger, tormented yearly by the grim tide of wildfires whose paths, unpredictable, burn million-dollar homes to their smoldering blueprints, smother too-late evacuees in their cars a mile from sushi restaurants whose offerings start at two hundred dollars per meal.


If aging is a kind of wilderness, a necessary surrender to the vagaries of time, here we have commodified the art of civilizing it in sterile clinics: injecting toxic bacteria in sub-lethal quantities into our foreheads, sucking out clumps of unwanted fat through plastic tubes. We eat organic, salute the sun, play at pagan-lite with gentle, sanitized incursions into the mystical. We spend a lot of time online, designing ourselves. Our fingernails, liquid-glossed with a color somewhere between caramel and creme, sliding down the yawning screen: women whose faces are a quarter lips, women with cheekbones caverned out by masters. Slink down to the hollows where the neck might earn a tuck or two; skitter to the sides of the square photograph, where the shoulders exist as angular slabs upon which drapes some material, linen or silk, anything whose breathy specificity allows it to huddle and pool around the contours of one’s body. Collarbones tightened by unseen screws; weak-willed, jiggling flesh of the abdomen sucked out in clots of white fat and red blood through secret tubes. Heaps and mounds abundant, supplanting the aerobic frame attained through deprivation. Lasered, hairless pores moisturized into submission. The aseptic slit of genitals, near-invisible, slivered and tucked into an inoffensive simulation. The toenails, then, finally, buffed to a bizarre and sinister shine, glossed over with a neon beige, silent and shrill as a defunct smoke alarm awakening, too late, to its purpose, as a ratty apartment begins to fill with smoke. We tame, with money and desire, the prickly uncertainties that characterize this occupation of a body which remains stubbornly mortal; until the very instant death’s path aligns with ours, we can remain as beautiful and architected as those marble-kitchened mansions with their manicured lawns, at least until the latest fire breaks over a distant ridge.


Wilderness, formed as wildfire, encroaches with the mute impunity of nature as it chooses. A type of collective amnesia descends in the intervals between fires; we return to our clear-skied beaches, stake our claim in athleisure and Instagram posts across the labyrinthine miles of hiking trails that breach the chaparral-coated canyon walls; half-submerged in infinity pools, we drink champagne and gin and watch the orange-pink dazzle of the sunset like it’s a blockbuster filmed just for us. But the cycle never ends; around each season’s pivot point lurks the stoking of the fires that are never quite extinguished, but rather emerge every so often from a patient hibernation. Our hills, however green or drought-bleached, stay tinder-dry.


Every wildfire feels the same. In the beginning, menacing clouds of smoke drifting over hot mountains, blocking out the glare of a red sun; at the end, whatever is left, stinking of wet ash. It begins with a night of whipping Santa Ana winds, their ferocity remarkable, their howls as they tear through brush and sandstone pockets otherworldly and profane. There is a bit of ESP in everyone, those pre-fire evenings. People, pets, pools, sports cars gleaming in their waxy, geometric perfection on the sweeping white driveways: everything hovers, edgy, on the verge of combustion. All briefly turned insomniac, we stay up as though in vigil, dry-throated despite sucking down full Brita filters every hour, splashing cold sink water on our faces when the heat becomes unbearable. The winds scream unhelpfully. Trees bend horizontal until their branches tear off and clatter onto cars, splintering BMW windshields, scratching new paintjobs. Opening a window in the vain hope of fresh air backfires: the wind blasts in, hot and wild, a palpable anxiety riding on the currents that carry through canyons from the Inland Empire to the coast.


It was never a surprise when the calls came to evacuate, often before dawn, as the winds reached their crescendos and everyone’s phones rang simultaneously in darkened bedrooms. The sunrise was always wild and pink on those fire days, the ocean flat as glass from the top of the hill, an eerie contrast to the winds that had whipped the waves into froth all night. We’d see the fire as a blooming pile of smoke, huge billowing pillars blackening a bright blue sky, maybe thirty miles away but brought chokingly close by the winds. Or three miles away and moving towards us fast, as brushfires do, devouring chaparral and sage by the acre, the dehydrated land as welcoming a canvas for flames as a splash of water is for watercolor paint.

The last big wildfire, the southern neighbor to the ones that consumed an entire town, seven hours north and dubiously named Paradise, cut through my town in a loud, red stripe, its path of hot destruction crawling through the canyons, million-dollar houses reduced to ashes in hours, the endless kindling of the scrub and chaparral hastening its smoky spread across what is, at the end of the day, a desert. Rattlesnakes were charred alive, their skeletons left in haunting contortions to be tipped over by designer sneakers in the long rainy sigh of the fire’s aftermath, as people returned to survey what little was left.

My father and I got the call to evacuate at six a.m., then spent seven hours in a parking lot just outside of town, seeking some sign of favorably changing winds to brush the black billows backwards and return us to safety. It became clear this was not in the cards. We got in the car and sat in traffic for hours as the smoke spread dull across the water, like some strange emblem of an ancient eruption. The PCH was a parking lot, so we could actually see the houses we usually zipped by unnoticed in our endless commutes: their owners long-fled to their mountain houses, leaving workers dragging massive armoires and dining sets through heavy black doors propped open by kettlebells; men shouldering sheet-shrouded Picassos and Rauschenbergs into the back of U-Hauls, stacking them carefully so that the interior of the truck was full of gray slabs, under each of which was a painting that ought to have been hanging in a dim-lit hall of the Louvre or the Uffizi but instead hung perpetually unseen over exercise bikes in mirror-walled home gyms and adding pops of color to guest bathrooms.

My mother was stacking goats and rabbits in the back of a large van, evacuating them from the rescue ranch at which she spent most of her days, soothing the wild-eyed, panicked animals as the fire crept down the hill to within a few feet of the horses’ paddocks. Eventually, as always happened, we made it to somewhere else, a place reprieved of fire for the moment. We waited for eleven days in guest rooms lent by friends by the sweep of the ocean, where we watched the news all day and all night, waiting to see our condo complex enveloped in flames. Then, once the fire burned itself to the sea and extinguished itself in the waves, we were released: our home safe for another year, the homes of those we’d grown up with smoldering rubble on a cliff overlooking the sea. In certain online forums, a malicious glee simmered at the thought of the richest zip code in America being gutted by flames.

We came back to the residue. Ash-choked streets, sports cars burned to their axles in long, serpentine driveways. Priceless, cathedral-quality stained glass melted into twisted, dark bouquets. The fires were almost always followed by rains, which happened this time, too; the liquefying air stirred up the smell of burnt plastic and metal and married it with that sweet, bitter earthiness of petrichor, so that I walked around nauseous all the time, sweating through a tank top, mud perennially coating the bottom of my boots. The rains also loosened the top layer of the mountains from the rest of the mountain, ushering in mudslides that buried houses, sometimes towns, and splayed out in a dirty delta across certain beaches until the mud and plants were far enough out to sea they just became more sea.

Still, it’s beautiful there, isn’t it? We cling to our cliffsides, building cities on top of fault lines, watching the ocean erode our fiercely guarded beachfront properties until it laps with bitter salt against our wooden stilts all night. We name cocktails after celebrities and children after cocktails. We talk about the movies. We crave the hush between the dimming of the lights and the opening credits, that brief eternity where nothing is expected of us but to exist in the dark.

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