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.

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