Dreaming in the Pyrocene

By Suzanne Roberts

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The Caldor Fire, August 2021
 

Excerpted from Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties by Suzanne Roberts, 2021, University of Nebraska Press. Reprinted with permission of University of Nebraska Press and the author.

Animal Bodies, by Suzanne Roberts

How do we reckon with our losses? In Animal Bodies Suzanne Roberts explores the link between death and desire and what it means to accept our own animal natures, the parts we most often hide, deny, or consider only with shame—our taboo desires and our grief. With lyricism, insight, honesty, and dark humor, these essays illuminate the sometimes terrible beauty of what it means to be human, deepening the conversation on death and grief, sexuality, and the shame that comes from surviving the world in a female body with all of its complexities.

Learn more and purchase the book.

Green: Good. 0 to 50. Air quality is satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.

You are in what looks like a war-torn building, with burned blackened walls and the sky lurching through holes in the roof. You climb to the top floor, looking for your mother. You call out the same refrain you shouted when you found her dead: “Mom, Mom, Mom!” You hear her laugh. It is weak, more a tittering. She is a corpse on a bed, the wind and rain and dark night coming in sideways. You go to hug her emaciated body, and she says, “Stop doing this to me.” Before you can ask what she means, she says, “I won’t come to you anymore. You must stop this.”

The next day you tell your husband your dream, and he asks what you think it means. You tell him you have to let her go. “So let her go,” he says. You laugh, the same kind of titter from your dream. Then you look at him and say, “I don’t know how.”

 

Yellow: Moderate. 51 to 100. Air quality is acceptable. However, there may be a risk for some people, particularly those who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.

You are back at work in Tahoe, staying in the dorms with your graduate students. You wake early to a white sky, a pinprick pink sun burning through. Another fire, 752 acres. Underneath the pall of smoke, the students are masked, lining up for COVID tests. You join them for your nose swab.

Your husband is in Canada and leaving for a canoe trip that afternoon, and you won’t hear from him for ten days, not even a text. You tell him a new fire has started and you’re worried. He says, “Yes, there’s a lot of fuel to burn.” By fuel he means forest, and you cannot stop the tears.

Later you learn the fire has reached areas affected by the large blowdown event last winter. This is often described as interacting forest disturbances, resulting in unexpected fire behavior.

 

Orange: Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. 101 to 150. Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is less likely to be affected.

You dream your dorm room is burning. You wake up, choking on the smoke, think, “It really is on fire.” You run to switch on the light. You close your window, grab your phone to look up the air quality index. It isn’t a fire inside, you tell yourself. It is the world outside that’s burning.

Steep drainages and canyons in the region have continued to aid erratic winds and hamper control efforts. The fire has grown to 22,919 acres. Containment is at 0 percent.

 

Red: Unhealthy. 151 to 200. Some members of the general public may experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.

Despite the smoke, your students still want to hold class outdoors so they don’t have to wear their masks. Your eyes are stinging and your lungs are aching, but you agree.

During class a bewildered bear cub wanders by. You tell your students to ignore it. “But what about the mama?” one of the student asks. You can tell there is no mama, know there’s nothing to be done, and don’t want to reveal the sad facts to your students. 43,858 acres.

After class you scroll through the reports, a new lexicon of fire: candling, creeping, spotting, torching, extreme fire behavior.

 

Purple: Very Unhealthy. 201 to 300. Health alert: The risk of health effects is increased for everyone.

Your house is in the path of the fire. But here at the college you are on the other side of the lake. Even though there is no immediate danger where you are, some of your colleagues flee the smoke. One by one they board airplanes. The students cannot afford to do the same. In extreme fire conditions, predictability is difficult because such fires often exercise some degree of influence on their environments and behave erratically, sometimes dangerously.

You finish your teaching duties, head back to your house to rescue things. But what things? What would your husband want? You walk around the house, wondering what you can live without. Everything. Nothing. You call your sister-in-law, wander room to room, distracted. You ask her what your husband might want. She says, “Just take what matters to you and go.”

You pull some art from the walls, a few of your husband’s favorite flannels, a Moroccan rug you paid too much for in Marrakech.

Before leaving, you water your plants. “It’s not your fault,” you tell them. “You shouldn’t have to suffer too.”

You thank your house and then walk out into the raining ash, the brown sky. You drive north, nearly throw up on yourself in the car, sick from the smoke.

Highway 50, the road into your hometown, is closed both ways. 104,309 acres.

 

Maroon: Hazardous. 301 and higher. Health warning of emergency conditions: Everyone is more likely to be affected.

You do not know how this story will end, so you flee now at 149,684 acres, before the mandatory evacuation orders come. Head to the coast, breathe in the clean foggy air, walk along the beach with your friend Nancy. Her phone buzzes. She glances down at it and says, “Oh no. Uncle Wes has died of COVID.”

“I’m so sorry,” you say. “We’re living in Crisisland.”

Nancy nods. You walk on together, avoiding the purplish jellyfish that have washed onto shore. You breathe in the sweet rot at the ocean’s edge, watch the lacy foam bubble on the sand and disappear.

But then you spot a rafter of wild turkeys under the eucalyptus trees. You both stop to watch them, listen to their strange and soft cooing. For a moment there is no fire and no pandemic, just the brown striated miracle of these large birds.

That night, you dream you’re at a party and your mother comes to the door. She is part woman, part old dog, and she leans up against you because she is too weak to stand. You help her in, seat her in a recliner next to your friend Andy, who is eating popcorn from a blue ceramic bowl.

You say to your mother, “I thought you weren’t going to come back to me. That I wouldn’t see you again.” She looks up at you from her lounge chair and says, “I know. I wasn’t going to, but I’m addicted.” Before you can ask what she means, even though you already know, she turns into a pile of kindling.

You reach for a piece of her and wake up, your hair still smelling of smoke.

 

 

Suzanne RobertsSuzanne Roberts is the author of Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties (March 2022), the award-winning travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno, teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada University, and lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.

Read more by Suzanne Roberts appearing in Terrain.org: “Women Writers in the Wild,” Lilace Mellin Guignard and Suzanne Roberts in Conversation; Letter to America; and two poems.

Header photo, Caldor Fire sends smoke into the air over the tree covered mountains at Jenkinson Lake, by Trevor Bexon, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Suzanne Roberts by Lauren Lindley.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.