We were back in California for a visit last year. It was the end of a road trip, across the US in June. There were fires in New Mexico and Colorado as we passed through, but it was California that was a shock. We crossed the Sierra Nevada at Mamouth to visit Devil’s Postpile, and immediately we were in smoke an ash from a fire in the John Muir Wilderness a short way away. Helicopters, fighting that fire. We saw the great postpiles…
then walked, through smoke and a drizzle of ash, across the scar left by the Rainbow Fire of 1992. There was a forest here before that fire; will there ever be again?
In the midst of that scar, we came to Rainbow Falls, from which the fire got its name. Still worth a visit.
The next day, we crossed Tioga Pass and headed across Yosemite into the Central Valley. From the western boundary of the park, for the rest of our visit – another month – we were in smoke and haze, rarely seeing fire but knowing that there were active fires in every direction.
Much is made of houses and even towns burning, and of the problem of houses built scattered in woods on the urban fringe. Yes, that’s a problem: the fire damage is greater, both because houses burn and because the priority of protecting houses can compromise that of minimizing the spread of the fire; insurance companies, the state legislature & local planning commissions will need to sort it out. But, for the houses amidst the trees, we can miss seeing the bigger picture: we are watching the creation of deserts. These Mediterranean climates, which have always been warm and dry, are now getting drier, and hot. The vegetation, live and dead, which had before been part of a healthy landscape, is now just fuel. Mature deserts don’t burn so much, because there’s not much to burn. These places will keep burning, year after year, until there is nothing left to burn.
A nice pair of evasive narrator-villains: in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko, an old woman who lives in the forest and attributes a string of murders to vengeful animals, seeing them (retrospectively) in the stars. Philip Bowman in James Salter’s All That Is: we see through his eyes a lifetime of bad luck in love and money until in the end we see that we’ve been listening to a man who does not know himself, who can shock us but not himself. Salter’s slow reveal of all this is astonishingly well controlled. Duszejko is differnt – it turns out she’s just lying about events, and the interest in the book is more her perceptions of the people and place around her than either mystery or narrative performance.
Unreliable narrators are a dime a dozen, and my pairing these two in particular may just show that I don’t read enough. Or more to the point, didn’t pay much attention to fiction I read in my first fifty-odd years.
I’ll double down on this arbitrary match-making by claiming to see a family resemblance between Duszejko, Bowman, and such psychopaths as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, and Mary Katherine Blackwood in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The latter cases are different in that, from early on, we know the characters for what they are; what they are, though, is so strange to us that an excellent story can be made from their continued ability to shock us by simply responding, in character, to new developments.
Note (1st October 2019): The post below was written in April. Today at the Conservative party conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel smirked while she declaring she will “end the free movement of people forever” as if that were driving a stake through a vampire’s heart. The Labour party, on the other hand, has made some progress, the party conference voting overwhelmingly to support free movement; yet Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott makes clear that the leadership doesn’t feel bound by that – so, despite the appearance of progress, my plague-on-both-your-houses must stand.
The original post: It pains me to see the leadership of the UK Labour Party doubling down on its opposition to continued freedom of movement between the UK and the other 27 countries of the EU. A few impressions:
Westminster politicians don’t understand this issue, because they are typically more inward-looking, less international, than their constituents. British political careers famously begin at university and of course continue within the UK, with the MP being somebody who has devoted years to getting the support first of party members and then of voters, almost all of them UK citizens. The upper levels of the civil service are likewise extremely British. Contrast that with work in most sectors of business, education, or the health service, where an international cast of both co-workers and customers/clients/students/patients is the norm, and where careers often include opportunities for work abroad. My guess is that, relative to other Britons of the same age and education, most Westminster politicians, whatever the party, don’t have a clue of the extent to which freedom of movement within Europe has become a part of the lives – and the identity – of many of their constituents.
The university where I teach, a mile and a half from the Palace of Westminster, might as well be on a different planet.
Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.
To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.
Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin
I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU. Continue reading