I knew that moving back to California this summer would be a funeral, but living the funeral is another thing entirely. Not long after I arrived in this homesteader cabin-cum-Airbnb in the Mojave Desert, my grandmother Mary Lou died. The mountains around me have been erased by wildfire smoke. I receive dispatches from friends tear-gassed by the state. Here in the desert there are protests in front of the gas stations. In Joshua Tree someone’s dressed as a Joshua tree, demanding protection. In Twentynine Palms, near the military base, a dozen or so people stand to say Black Lives Matter, White Silence Is Violence.
We are mourning the land as we knew it, though we hardly knew it. I load my car with water and nonperishables. I check various maps and apps, mesmerized by the fires in almost every direction. I remember something Colson Whitehead wrote about the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001: “I never got a chance to say goodbye.” Sometimes I think I have been saying goodbye to this land my whole life. I wake to the smell of smoke. I have come home to grieve, an attempt to fathom the losses I can’t fathom. I try and fail to grasp the scale of this colossal pain rippling across the world.
This region’s amnesiac narrative has long erased its native people and with them any wisdom we might have gleaned from the land’s long memory, where fire is something to live with rather than war against. The existential irony of the West Coast is that if we are to stay here, we must get good at leaving. The lucky will live long enough to watch California burn, Oregon burn, Washington burn, Idaho burn, Nevada burn, Arizona burn, New Mexico burn, Colorado burn, Wyoming burn, Montana burn, Alaska burn. The question is how. We must radically reexamine every given—from housing and private property to health care, policing, transportation, work, and money—until all people have access to the tools of adaptability and resilience enjoyed by the moneyed, among them multiple homes and borderless movement.
We cannot “fight” climate collapse with the same methods of extraction and exploitation that caused it, the warmonger’s logic that doubles down on climate profiteering, hardens borders, and militarizes the police to protect industry and property over people and planet. In this manner catastrophe will continue to compound, making a few people very rich while the rest of us succumb to the cascade effect. As “my” mountains burn, may the myths of the American West burn too: the rugged individual conquering nature; manifest destiny, that genocidal, ecocidal land grab disguised as national and spiritual wholeness.
I’m getting my bearings, learning my landmarks. The erased mountain range to the south is Joshua Tree National Park, worthy land, set aside and preserved, “managed.” The range to the north is a sacrifice zone, less worthy land surrendered to the Marines for bombing. I hear the bombs. On still days, I feel them. While I wonder where my home falls on this spectrum of American worthiness, this much is clear: the park is a decision. The base is a decision. The US military could be refashioned as a peaceful climate corps tomorrow if we want it. This is mostly a prayer—that we might walk the potentially slightly less brutal path on which Joe Biden is elected and the West burns anyway. The strongest case for a Biden presidency, aside from the long catalog of the obvious, is that he might, if mightily pressed, follow through on his “Biden Plan” for a “Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” (essentially a rebrand of the Green New Deal). The second-strongest case, inextricable from the first, is that a Biden administration might allow America to grieve, that a President Biden might name the dead and fight like hell for the living, though he seems more likely to tell us to knock off the malarkey and get back to work.
Still, I believe it’s possible that, if we can bring ourselves to truly feel this long moment of suffering, we can collectively make a series of better decisions. We could create not a social safety net but a social canopy in the land once called the American West. We could build a society that does this land justice, honors it, maybe even gives it rights. We need this land to live, and today young people want to live so badly they have persuasively demanded a complete rebuilding of our society into one of universal care, one that covers the cities with solar panels, cancels debt and rent, insists on truth and reconciliation, accountability, repair, and democracy. Such supposedly wild-eyed notions may be what it will take for us to become as free as our myths have long claimed us to be.