How Fine the Air Was
On a clear day, San Francisco is a city close to the sky. Maybe it’s the vanity of the hills, how they act like mirrors bending back the land. The illusion that the city rears up while remaining on its knees. From the Muni pier in the north to McLaren Park in the south, it’s a city of visions — sky, peninsula, bay — with many ways of looking at itself. These peaks, our sights from them, are haunted and peaceful, and give me a feeling that fizzes at the top of my skull: how do we endure?
And then there’s the fog, how it is pulled over San Francisco, submerging the city and bringing the sky low, letting mystery in. It makes us a city of bathers: ashore, shivering, braced and present. “Serene, indifferent of Fate,” is how the San Francisco poem begins. What then if we lost the fog, if it didn’t roll next summer or the summer after? If the sky wasn’t the sky we remembered? We can’t breathe the air for days — what then? What anger then?
By September 9, 2020, more than two million acres of land had burned. Ash hung in the air. On that day, your own eyes or a torrent of photos told you, the sky went orange and dark. An ungodly hour, every hour. The day taken away, replaced by a new midnight. And it was like every photo was trying to say the same thing: “Can you believe this?” Yes, you must.
Erina Alejo went out on Mission Street with their camera that day. They were working on what would become My Ancestors Followed Me Here, a project that would take them down that long street, through Excelsior to the Embarcadero, to understand its history and rhythms, the inequalities and resilience of its joined neighborhoods.
That day, they interacted with workers running registers, unloading trucks, laying out wares on the sidewalk. Alejo saw almost brazen pride, a pride that comes with survival — we out here, profoundly. There was a feeling, from Instagram to the small talk at the bus stop, that for once the Bay was unified by what was happening. Alejo now sees their photographs from that day as an affirmation of that survival, of being seen and having seen.
September 9 was a day of “disappearing in the realism and cynicism of the world,” Alejo says, the collision of disasters. One of their photographs shows the words “No amount of money will save you” tagged on a roll-down gate, matter of fact. The day felt like a premonition. Alejo wonders, what will these photos look like fifty years from now? Where along the chain are we?
The words that came to describe the sky that day, that wrong orange, were nightmare or surreal, hellish or dystopian. Easier to think we’d slipped into a new dimension. “The earth hath bubbles as the water has and these are of them.” The toll of acres of ash in the air, this intensely real, unsparing, earned sky. It would’ve been spectacular if it had no meaning.
I kept being told “it was like something out of Bladerunner.” In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the world, the West Coast anyway, has become a “tomb world,” everything gone to dust. Most animals are extinct and there’s advertisements for life on other planets, life elsewhere, please evacuate. The book is set in San Francisco; in later editions, the year is 2021.
In the middle of all the book’s science fiction, a man chasing and destroying robots, the characters wind up in, of all things, an art museum. And in a world where there are nearly no more birds, the museum is exhibiting Edvard Munch. Of course. Of course, the painting that gets zeroed-in on is The Scream. (A painting Philip K. Dick might’ve seen when it came to the de Young in 1951.) Dick has a character stare at the painting and this is what the character thinks:
By September 9, 2020, there was loss every day, unequal loss. The words needless or senseless appeared often. Nearly 200,000 people in the United States had died from a novel virus, and the country would refuse to learn from this moment, how to protect each other, the vulnerable. We knew that particular look, raw and damaged, when a mask is held against the nose and cheeks for hours — the windburnt, dead skin colors of rose and grey. That summer, “Black Lives Matter” in black spray paint next to “FUCK 12” on a 580 overpass, “Black Lives Matter” sign in a bay window next to a crayon drawing of a rainbow in the Oakland Hills. The wildfires, the complex fires, that year cannot be separated from how the country tore, cannot be separated from how communities tried to regain sense, claim need.
Fires, and all the destruction they inflict, are almost unspeakable. I wish to offer quiet, years of it. Not a prayer bead or tea candle quiet, but a vigilant quiet, of purpose or devotion. More fuse and more vessel.
By now it is recitable, how we usually document these disasters in photographs: the brick chimneys and hearths, like the teeth of a house, identities that outlive their walls; how the heat suffocates iron and steel to rust, so bedsprings and stranded cars look long ancient, like coral dragged on land; the gallons of pink fire retardant gushing from planes like gulal powder. September 9 and its sky join the textbook, these visceral memories and stories. None of this needs to be made heavier, reduced to a vocabulary or lesson. “I inhaled the lives of my neighbors,” Brian Fies, a survivor of the Camp Fire, writes.
After every fire come lists like anthems, the inventories of belongings or places lost: family photos, keepsakes, lifetimes. These lists are made of tenderness, grief, and memory. They are also made of necessity, forced by authorities and insurers: what do you have to declare, what is covered by your plan, what are you owed back.
When I think about possible futures, and the inevitable one where there are more natural disasters, I think of dramatic collapse. I imagine, most of all, lines forming, standing in line. I imagine that our future, if it isn’t our present already, is full of the precarity and desperation of bureaucracy, waiting for passage or the right stamp. It is traffic jams and bottlenecks, sweaty-ear phone calls and paperwork. It’s doing nothing memorable, lost time or time scratched away by loss.
Art about natural disaster, its causes and our suffering, often misses consequence or a breathing core. It can “see only the footprints and not the beast walking,” as artists Edward Morris and Susannah Sayler conclude. There are famous attempts like Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Death Valley or Dust Bowl refugees with that “lost gone look,” as Woody Guthrie called it, photographs that try to get at that “what have we done” or that one big soul. And there are attempts like painter Richard Mayhew’s landscapes, which show nature back to us soaked with acidic history, too bright with menace, like a memory’s negative.
The attempt to remember the September 9 sky is the attempt to avoid being overwhelmed, to avoid stasis and incapacitation. Every year now we see the relentlessness of wildfire season, that it’s no longer a season really but a continuum. Every year a fire makes history. Perpetual regret and cost. The challenge is daunting and it is ours.
About ten years ago, Vincent Pacheco moved from the Mission District where he grew up to a cabin at a trailhead in the Sierra Foothills, Nevada County. (When I spoke to him, the River Fire was moving towards containment, though it had come dangerously close to his mother’s home nearby. He’d been listening to KVMR for evacuation orders.) His new neighborhood was ten houses on a quarter mile of gravel road, creatured with mountain lions and bark beetles. Day one, his neighbors knocked on his door, with binders and floppy disks of their community’s rules and quirks, a welcome. Out there, it was everyone’s responsibility to maintain the road they shared.
Pacheco wasn’t in the Bay to see the orange color of the sky, the effect. What he remembers from that season was PG&E clearing trees fifteen feet from their powerlines near his road, a crew of about thirty chainsawing, blade to trunk, day after day. He remembers a cedar, one hundred years old, toppled and carried away to be milled. Not a dollar spent on undergrounding the wire, he noticed. Seemed like the company was putting fault on the forest, not the sparks. “It was all backwards,” he said, and that too was like a sky we live under.
“Experience becomes material for the work,” Pacheco says. While he remembers the fear of earthquakes growing up, he has no memories of wildfires, never smelled smoke in the air. “This is brand new,” he says.
As an artist now, he grapples with lineage, his own and his surroundings. Ash falling like fraught snow, fire sieging closer and closer, lungs filled with hazardous air for months — he asks is a life under threat one he and his family can sustain? But Pacheco emphasizes the question for most artists, especially in these years, is “how do you keep moving forward, keep showing up?” He now finds he is approaching art with more urgency, feeling pressure, feeling mortality — but not helplessness. “When things get real,” he says, “what do you pursue?”
On September 9, 2020, I remember how fine the air was, the surprise of it being breathable. I remember being tired of irony as the armature everywhere you look in the Bay. I remember thinking “Lord can make you tumble, Lord can make you turn, Lord can make you overflow, but Lord can’t make your burn,” remember singing that song. What a relief to be told what God doesn’t do, what work is left for us.
I remember one of the cerebrally sick, uneasy aspects of that day was how the sky, our “airscape,” resembled the light work of James Turrell — droning, purgatorial, popular to pose in. Maybe it was the big, bent color or the scale, the bleak and seductive situation of being “immersed,” of needing to be. “There’s no such thing as unnatural light,” he likes to say, “to make light you’ve got to burn something.”
Turrell is a pilot, fascinated by the vault of the sky. He was a conscientious objector who airlifted Monks out of Tibet in the 1960s. He came out of a generation of artists who were focused on raising consciousness in the wake of the atom bomb and the throes of the Civil Rights movement. Turrell did this at first by poking holes in the blackout shades of his childhood bedroom with a pin, creating constellations, then in college putting ping-pong balls over test subjects’ eyes and shining lights at them, creating an inescapable, diffuse glow. Later he’d make his lights even bigger, fill entire galleries, as he did at the Capp Street Project in 1983, putting an instrument around an intensity.
Altered or alerted consciousness and the feeling of disorientation: where am I? Turrell calls his works “new landscapes,” realms of no clear depth or perspective — landscape comparable to the internet. On September 9, our landscape felt like that, amorphous and near death. Yet the source was undeniable, and the trauma settling in, forging into muscles and instincts.
I remember thinking of abandonment, imagining a scenario when “to abandon” a country or city is right, when to abandon is against our will. Are we in some sort of denial, like have you ever dropped something in deep water and for a moment hoped it might not sink but somehow reverse, rise to the surface back to you, your reach? What do you want to happen now instead? September 9, 2020, I let those feelings in and let them out again. A balance. I remembered what I’d fight not to lose.
Erina Alejo’s photography and projects, including samples from My Ancestors Followed Me Here, can be found at erinacalejo.com, or follow them on Instagram at @erinacalejo. See Vincent Pacheco’s work at vincentpacheco.com, or follow him on Instagram at @pacheco_vinny.