I hate slipping in a doomsday, I-told-you-so mentality. The role of Cassandra, whether from atop the walls at Troy or on a cliff overlooking Zuma Beach in Malibu, ain't no fun. Too many empathetic projections into possible futures wear me out and wound the psyche. Besides, those projections (or extrapolations) are subtly inaccurate. The hardest-headed convictions melt or burn on the lathe of Reality--something T. S. Eliot, for one, said mankind cannot stand very much of.
On this smoky morning with brush fires devouring Southern California, it seems the height of arrogance and ignorance to have ever even attempted to take on Cassandra's role. Something in me has been scorched by these wild fires, and I ask with William Blake about "The Tyger": "What the hammer? What the chain?/ In what furnace was thy brain?"
Long a discipline of Trappist monks, maintaining silence in the here and now becomes at least a strategy to tell people what they would prefer hearing. Or maybe that statement should be reversed: a strategy not to tell people what they don't want to hear. Thanks to Sir Thomas More, I am aware that, in the absence of other data, silence implies affirmation or consent. So when you seem to have allied yourself too comfortably with a party, a school of philosophy, or a prevailing paradigm, a back burn of enforced silences may be the antidote to aid re-entry into your local community. The values of family and home remain conservative because, no matter how free the mind is, catastrophes, or nearly missed catastrophes, remind us that our sentient intelligence cannot forever sustain all-mindedness alone. We must also try at such times, and maybe more frequently, to beat with "one human heart."
If there was anything prophetic in my recent essays--certain railings against improvable conditions of life and a longing for storms to relieve the drought here--I confess that my prophetic powers rate well below average on the Cassandra scale. Though concerned with potential firestorms this year, no amount of empathetic gloom could project me forward to the shock of this last week. In fact, I confess to wanting to recant everything and state that explanations are always inaccurate (including this one?). How can bleak prophecies do anything but depress us? Like the central character in The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West, I feel absurdly redundant trying to work on a painting called "The Burning of Los Angeles," especially now that the worst fires in California history have come and go on.
Of course, Los Angeles itself isn't burning. In fact, the architects are "fiddling" with the acoustics for the opening of the new Disney Concert Hall while this conflagration rages at the fringes of our megalopolis. And there are M.T.A. (Metropolitan Transit Authority) and supermarket-chain-store labor strikes proceeding unabated. Talk of fragmentation. We also find ourselves with two governors, or at least two men playing the role of Governor--one a real-live Hollywood actor Republican, and the other a less charismatic and roundly recalled Democrat. And it somehow seems fitting and necessary that all these things happen the way they have. But I wonder if I have now become an arch-conservative in my acquiescence? So much so that I don't even bother to gather my important papers together just in case we are warned to evacuate with only five minutes to flee, as others not so very far away from us were last night.
On Saturday, October 25th I went to my morning class at Moorpark College and, because students were reporting on chapters from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, I spent a lot of time talking about the era of the Dust Bowl, Route 66, and California dreaming. Already the winds from the desert were blowing outside our classroom, and a fire had started over the mountains near Lake Piru. Only a thin cloud of smoke trailed overhead and not at a dangerous elevation or proximity.
By evening I was back in Thousand Oaks with my son, Ben, intending to return for the evening football game at the college, but the smoke was getting blacker and blacker, lower and lower, the winds stronger and hotter, and a thick gray ash was falling out of the sky. On the way to the game via the freeway, we noticed flames forming "walls of fire" on the crest of the hills, and the police were directing all traffic off the freeway. No football game that night. No cheerleader drills (Ben's major interest). When I returned on Monday to an empty college, there was a ring of blackened fields and hills nearly surrounding the campus. Firefighters must have been quite active that night and on Sunday morning because the only signs of fire on the campus itself were scorched and singed trees in far-flung areas of the parking lots. You could make out the likely spots where the firefighters and college groundskeepers had made valiant stands against the flames.
The greatest danger to my son and me was on Saturday night and Sunday morning. The winds kept blowing from the northeast all night and remained hot and dry. By Sunday when I drove him down to Santa Monica and came back, the breeze already had begun shifting, but smoke lay in the valleys and over the mountains in a heavy dark, ash-laden pall. In fact, the worst of the fires' destruction was yet to come as the flames moved mostly to the east and up the mountains. The heroic firefighters who saved our campus were not necessarily the same ones who tried to protect Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County or the old gold-mining town of Julian in San Diego County, but they all fit into a single type that proves the Ancient Greeks were right to hypothesize demi-godlike status for their heroes. No longer a campaign issues, a "car tax" suddenly seemed a very small price to pay for rapid and efficient response in a crisis.
And the bombings and chaos in Baghdad didn't seem important to me anymore either. I had to switch off that news for a while to get local reports of interviews with people at the front lines of disaster near at hand. We may try to think globally, but in a pinch, we feel locally--whether we act or not.
Furthermore, it seems likely that more than one of these fires were started by arsonists. So, along with the heroes and victims, we also predictably find villains. Just a day after the evacuations, arrests were made for looting and burglary. Soon we will be arguing again over forest thinning to clear beetle-infested trees, and, conversely, the likelihood that global warming and suburban sprawl have aggravated a normally dangerous climatic condition. Everything will return to normalcy. And the rains will come, probably bringing mudslides and flash floods. And, of course, there's the Big One we are all waiting for, the Great Shaker of an earthquake, slowing peeling off our coast, like a long dry onion skin, shifting it to the northwest, away from the continent.
Yes, there goes the Cassandra impulse again. I managed to sidle at last into a familiar stand on yet another week's events. But as I make final revisions, on my roof I hear the miraculous tapping of heavy raindrops as the season's first storm arrives on All Hallows' Eve.
31 October 2003