Apocalypse Now

September 1, 2020

We thought our world couldn’t get any smaller than it has with the covid epidemic, but lately it has shrunk even further since California has been engulfed in flames and smoke.

The pandemic has many downsides, but one upside was clear sweet air—that is until the fires. During the spring and summer I kept my bedroom windows wide open, even on colder nights. I liked to pretend that I was camping outdoors and I’d lie by the window and breathe in the fresh cool air in great inhalations. Indoors is better than out, where mosquitos might attack and you’d be wet from fog in the morning. Snug in bed I’d just pull up a blanket and breathe more deeply the covid-era air, cleansed by a dearth of gasoline-powered engine exhaust.

 It was a warm night on the Ides of August that Holly and I were awakened by flashes of lightning at 4 am. We lay there watching the display from our windows for a while as the flashes got larger and more frequent, accompanied by louder booms of thunder until we just had to arise and walk outside. Suddenly wind whipped the trees, rain and hail pounded the deck and we sought shelter back in the house. Cloudbursts continued into the day but rain didn’t amount to much. The lightning was dry.

I could smell the smoke and see the Meyers fire from Goat Rock beach
Smoke from the Meyers fire seen from atop the Coast Range
The Napa fires looking east from Santa Rosa

That spectacular storm and its thousands of lightning strikes turned our world dark in Sonoma County and the whole Bay Area, but we wouldn’t know it until a couple of days later. Cabin fever had driven me to the coast just to walk along the beach at Goat Rock. That’s when I saw the smoke from what later was called the Meyers fire, which burned right down to the ocean but took no buildings. I drove home on Coleman Valley Road, a narrow, poorly paved country road that traverses the Coastal Range. At the crest you can see the tops of those rounded hills. I saw smoke rising up in white puffs like a column of cumulus clouds. As I drove back toward town I could see the smoke from three more fires. We were surrounded.

Looking west from our house

Goodbye sweet pure air. We had been obsessed with covid numbers, now we are obsessed with the Air Quality Index. We are part of a citizen science project using PurpleAir.com, having installed our own sensor. Anyone can use the map online to see the air quality instantly in their neighborhood. Shifts in wind direction change it constantly. If it’s under 50 we feel free to go outside without a mask.  Soon it’s down to 15, but quickly climbs back up to 134. All day the number is 105, then suddenly it’s 38. The map shows that in some places the AQI is in the high 400s—Beijing numbers.

Let’s go back to life before smoke. It was a time of boredom, gardening, breathing, reading, eating, dancing, drinking, zooming, puzzle solving, post carding, early morning walks. We reveled in our garden. At the end of the day we would set up a chair somewhere in the garden just to sit and breathe in the expiration of the plants. The oxygen rich environment soothes the soul as well as the lungs.

The native pollinator garden

After 40+ years living in San Francisco’s cold foggy summers, I’m still getting used to Santa Rosa’s pleasant weather. Hot nights are rare in San Francisco; you might get one in the whole summer, which almost always falls on a night when you’re sweating at an indoor event without A/C. Santa Rosa has fog too, but it doesn’t arrive with the same gusty intensity. On hot nights we relish sitting out in the yard and watching the light change, pointing out constellations and listening to crickets. The chirping of crickets is one of my favorite things about summer in Santa Rosa. We didn’t have them where I lived in San Francisco.

When you put crickets into a search engine, what comes up first is methods to kill them. This is pretty much true when you google any insect, even as the world insect population declines disturbingly. I don’t want to kill them; I just want to understand them. 

Crickets start their nocturnal chirping in July. That’s when we know it’s really summer. By mid-August the noise is so loud it punctures my dreams. They often keep going until the end of October or whenever it gets too cold for them to survive.

I never see them although I could probably find them if I looked hard enough. But I can pinpoint the male’s location by listening for chirping. My favorite cricket this summer lived in a tangle of epilobium and I’d check on him nightly. Then one night he was gone. Perhaps he died of old age or perhaps he was eaten by a bird. Towhees roam around the garden and I suspect one of them.

Ever since lightning strikes started so many fires in California it’s felt like the apocalypse here, with hot temperatures and smoky air keeping us indoors with air filters going. Now I struggle to remember our lovely covid summer. Ok, admittedly we are privileged—retired boomers who need not worry about loss of work or childcare. And we have great sympathy for folks who do. We can give money to the food bank and UndocuFund. We can mask up and stay six feet from everyone. We can stay home. On hot days I would get out early and take a walk in the neighborhood, nodding at neighbors with masks at the ready. We might do a bit of gardening in the morning but by afternoon we would come inside and work at indoor tasks until dusk. 

Twilight became my favorite part of the day—well two parts because we have twilight in the morning and in the evening. Photographers have divided the twilight into two “hours”. The Golden Hour, more like half an hour, is the period just after the sun rises in the morning and just before it sets in the evening. It’s the best time to take pictures of the landscape. Then there is the Blue Hour which only lasts about 10 minutes. And in between there are about 20 minutes which we have christened the Hazel Hour, just after the sun goes down or just before it rises. I don’t know why photographers don’t include these 20 minutes but I think they are the most special part of twilight.

I love that nautical twilight was measured for hundreds of years by sailors who called it night when they could no longer see a ship on the horizon. More recently scientists have divided twilight into three different phases measured by the angle of the sun as it dips below the Horizon. At Midsummer in Santa Rosa, astronomical twilight starts just after 3:30 in the morning, and in the evening it ends around 10:30. I’m so very aware now as September arrives that as the days get shorter twilight is coming later in the morning and earlier in the evening.

Lately it’s been too smoky to sit outside in twilight, but we are thankful that we didn’t have to evacuate and that our neighborhood did not experience PG&E’s rolling blackouts. Some people are still evacuated from their homes. This year the Northern California fires have claimed hundreds of buildings and seven lives.

They say disasters come in threes. We await the earthquake.

My sacrificial breast

By Marg Hall

Short version: my boob hurts, I’m sad I’m having a mastectomy, I miss my mom, I’m angry about capitalism, we should revolt. Long version follows.

Marg goes into battle to rid the environment of pesticides
Marg goes into battle to rid the environment of pesticides

My mastectomy is this week. In reading about breast cancer I come across the concept of “sacrifice.”  I think about my breast, soon to be sacrificed.  There are 85,000 chemicals introduced into consumer products, the vast majority unregulated, many known to be carcinogenic. Commerce thrives in the absence of regulation.  So does breast cancer. There are those who profit; there are those who pay the price. Business as usual demands sacrifice.

Four weeks post-lumpectomy, I gaze in the mirror at my left breast. It still feels hot, looks discolored, and appears angry. Below the anger is pain. I feel sad for what I (my doctors) have inflicted on my breast. Now they will amputate that breast because of a few misguided cells. This seems unfair, but I don’t want those cells to spread. They don’t stay put. They threaten the rest of me. Primitive solutions are all I have; still I feel remorse. It’s not my breasts’ fault.

I speculate anxiously about my post-surgery body. Will I feel as though a weight has been lifted? Will it help my chronic back pain or will my pain worsen from scar tissue? Will the uneven loading cause even more back pain? Then what?  Will I wake up and feel a rush of regret? Loss? What about my right breast? Will I always wonder what’s going on inside there? Will I feel tenderer towards it? Will I be fearful or clinging?

I wonder about the fact that seven out of nine members of my immediate family have had cancer. Kaiser has offered me genetic counseling. I prepare a family history of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. The medical lens is narrow: risk factors, genetics. Zeno estrogens that reside in my breast, introduced by some of those 85,000 unregulated chemicals, are outside the scope. The counselor puzzles over the fact that both my brother and mother had thyroid cancer. This is very unusual.  So, I explain: both were diagnosed within months of each other, both lived near a nuclear power plant, both were exposed 20 years previously to radioactive iodine in an accidental release. “Well,” she says, “that explains it”–on to the next question.

My brother still lives; my mother died within months–more “sacrifice” on capitalism’s altar. My mother, my brother, and those of us living and dying with cancer—we are “countless.” Nobody really counts us, at least in ways that could adequately uncover the links between the environment and our suffering. Those who benefit from this arrangement count on us to think of cancer as only a private matter, to bravely “battle” this disease as individuals, and to be polite enough to not speak of our cancer publically or in a political context.  I wonder if I can have my breast back after surgery. Maybe I’ll mail my “sacrifice” directly to Monsanto.

My friend Marg’s mastectomy took place December 23, 2015. She is recuperating from the surgery but not from her anger at the chemical industry.



What Ate My Brain?

Drawing by Ana Esquivel

As a child I had a spectacular memory. I routinely memorized all the books read to me. At two, I could recite The Night Before Christmas, which my parents urged me to do for adults’ entertainment. I just liked memorizing things, a concept difficult for me to imagine now, as an older adult who Can’t Remember Shit.

Climbing trees was my specialty
Climbing trees was my specialty

When did I lose my memory? In high school plays my parts were small, but my lines would desert me at critical moments. As a college student and a feminist activist who frequently gave speeches, I began to forget words as I stood onstage talking. I was told the name for that condition: nominal aphasia. Where did it come from? No one knew. When I said to my mother, “I used to be so smart. What happened?” she thought for a moment and then replied, “I just don’t know.” That was not the answer I was hoping for, but at least it was an acknowledgment that something had changed.
It wasn’t just words I was forgetting. I forgot nearly my entire childhood and had to rely on my brother for memories. I frequently forgot things I had pledged to do. I forgot the life stories of my closest friends and I routinely forgot people’s names.

I always tried to get to the top of everything
I always tried to get to the top of everything

Speaking publicly became increasingly difficult until I stopped speaking extempore and began reading my speeches. Writing has always been frustrating and slow. Just because a word is in my vocabulary does not mean it will come out of my brain. The feeling is like having a word on the tip of my tongue. I can almost see it, just out of reach. I spend much time looking up synonyms when I can’t think of the word I want.

My brain plays tricks on me. Just because I’ve finally remembered something does not mean I won’t lose the memory again in seconds. Certain words continue to elude me. For example, for years I could never remember the word lupine. Finally, it has come back to me. Still, for some reason I feel compelled to learn the names of things and I must memorize the names of trees, flowers and mushrooms again every season, like Sisyphus continually rolling that boulder up the hill.

At some point, maybe in my 30s, I began to think of my poor memory as a disability that I had to live with. I worked at letting go of feeling bad for forgetting. I accepted that I would never get better and I asked friends to adjust (they know never to tell me secrets as I can’t remember whom to keep the secret from). This helped, although there wasn’t a certified category I fell into—still isn’t.

When I fell off, I got right back on.
When I fell off, I got right back on.

Mine is an invisible disability. Over the years I’ve been able to live with it and live a pretty normal life. I do what people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s do. I fake it. I make lists. I write everything down. I apologize. Now that I’m in my 60s, I don’t feel so alone. Most of my friends are struggling with age-related memory loss, but I think to myself: This is what it’s always been like for me, my entire adult life.

Although I’ve accepted my predicament, I still want to know what happened to me and why. My wife, who worked as a speech pathologist with brain-injured clients, sees the world of human interaction through the lens of cognitive function. It’s a sort of worldview, like socialism or humanism. Her worldview has taught me to look at my own disability as a kind of brain injury. Of my memory loss my wife asks, is it a storage problem or a retrieval problem? This is one of the things she tests for as a speech therapist. She says anomia (or nominal aphasia) is not the same thing as short-term or long-term memory loss. In the case of anomia, I have a retrieval problem. The word is in my vocabulary; I just can’t retrieve it. Long-term or short-term memory loss involves a different part of the brain. So I exhibit two different kinds of memory loss.

When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers' ladders taller.
When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers’ ladders taller.

How did my brain get injured? Physical injury is a clear possibility. I was a rambunctious child who fell off horses (and was taught always to get right back on). Really, considering how many times I climbed to the tops of things, I was amazingly fall-resistant. But there was one time when the horse I was riding ran me through an orchard and I was swept out of the saddle by a low branch. My riding buddy told me afterward that I was knocked unconscious and had seizures. My lower back was sore from hitting the cantle, but I didn’t notice any effect on my memory at the time. Then there was a minor car accident where I suffered neck lash (not the more serious whiplash, said the doctor).

Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River
Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River

Loss of childhood memories is often associated with childhood trauma, but I don’t exhibit any other signs of trauma. I think I had a pretty ordinary childhood.

Could pesticides have eaten my brain? I was born into an era when pesticides were seen as a revolutionary antidote to bug infestations. DDT was everywhere in the 1950s and home gardeners sprayed it freely without knowledge of its destructive consequences. In my hometown of Yakima, Washington, the apple capital of the world at that time, most of us worked as apple pickers in the fall. Our schools even closed during the harvest so kids could help their families get the crop in. We lived in the middle of orchards where crop dusters routinely dusted everything around us. Farmers pulled big spray tanks behind tractors that shot a fan of pesticides clear to the top of the trees. We often stood close to the tanks and let the mist blow over us. Every spring, right at the time when farmers would start spraying, our family would harvest asparagus along the ditch banks and where it grew in the uncultivated area around the trees. We loved it and we ate pounds of it.

The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960
The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960

As kids, we went barefoot everywhere, but we were cautioned not to walk barefoot in the orchards or to swim in creeks and ditches, where farmers routinely dumped the dregs of their spraying (killing aquatic life in the process). When my neighbor Carla’s horse got out of his corral and into her family’s apple orchard, he died from ingesting pesticides sprayed on the orchard. The year was about 1965. What was the chemical? Trying to sort out the historical use of pesticides is making my head hurt. Besides, as Rachel Carson explained in Silent Spring, these chemicals can combine to form new poisonous compounds that we can’t even test for or identify. Research into pesticide-related illnesses among farmworkers and crop duster pilots has shown memory loss to be only one symptom of pesticide exposure.

Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground
Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground

Not only did I grow up in a pesticide-rich environment, but also Hanford, the nuclear plant that manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and for most of the bombs in our nuclear arsenal, was only 50 miles east of our home. There was that little incident in 1949 when I was six months old. It was like the leak at Three Mile Island except it wasn’t an accident. This leak was deliberate, and it was covered up until the 1980s. The plant has been leaking radioactive isotopes and radionuclides into the environment since 1944. Radioactive materials entered the environment through releases in the air, in Columbia River fish and through food grown nearby and milk from cows pastured nearby. Now decommissioned, the plant is still leaking. There is still a huge amount of radioactive material in the soil and plants around the reservation and we are told it’s only a matter of time before the polluted ground water finds its way to the Columbia River. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and cleanup is the longest with no end in sight. In Yakima, we were exposed plenty, but the people directly downwind suffered most. Called downwinders, they organized citizens groups to find out more information after the government was shown in 1986 to have covered up releases. Most of those people died from rare cancers. Memory loss was probably just a mild side effect for downwinders exposed to radioactive materials.

I long ago accepted that I will never know what ate my brain. Maybe after I die some scientist will want to dissect it and I’d be happy to contribute to the advancement of science.

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