This essay was originally published in Issue 7 of The Tiger Moth Review.
I stand in my underwear in the forest and I inhale deeply, stretching my arms in the morning sun. The air smells like pine sap and the 100 degree day ahead. Weeks ago, I stood in a forest similar to this one, a familiar scene behind me: our minivan parked with the doors open to let in the breeze, the sheets of the bed we built poking into view, a half-full bag of coffee on the blue table, Kyle drawing in one of our camp chairs.
The difference between this forest and that one, is this forest still appears mostly whole. We’re surrounded by bushy green trees and fallen logs with moss creeping a slow course up their bark. This forest hasn’t yet experienced fire. Or, if it has, it was so long ago that I can no longer see the signs.
A drought assumes that an abnormality is occurring. That there is something that should be happening that is no longer happening. We say it’s a “drought year” when the rainfall is lower than average. But we also assume that next year, perhaps, we will get more rain than usual and the average will balance again. The word “drought” relies on the word “usual” and its cousin “unusual”.
We also assume that a drought will end. But when do we admit that what we are perceiving as “unusual” is actually a new reality? Year after year, less and less water.
When do we admit that we are no longer in a drought, but a desert?
The forest from weeks ago was blackened. With scorched earth and burnt orange pine needles. The fire left trees standing, but standing as dark black ghosts, ashy reminders of what they once were. That forest was still hospitable. Still possible to drive through, still possible to sleep in for a night. Different, haunting, but still there.
On this new morning, I wonder, sleepily, how long it will be until the forest I’m currently standing in burns. I wonder, as I feel the sun work up to a boiling point, if the heat wave we are experiencing were to be paired with a lightning strike, how quickly I’d be able to make it out. I’m 45 minutes from the nearest paved road, an hour from any cell phone service.
I yawn, and with half my mind I wonder if I could, indeed, make it out at all.
On the surface, Giant Sequoias, the largest trees on earth, are fire resistant. Their sap contains tannic acid, a chemical we now use in fire extinguishers. The Giant Sequoias shield 16 themselves from fire and yet they need it to propagate. In the flames, heat forces seeds to pop out of the waxy cones that have dropped to the earth.
Of the thousands of seeds that a Giant Sequoia releases, only one in a billion will survive to become a sapling. The saplings that survive sprout from the ashes of a burned forest.
Kyle and I run over something in the road. We don’t notice the problem at first, but after a few miles we hear our minivan groaning as it tries to chug up a mountain pass.
We pull off the highway and open the hood of the car. We forgot to bring the metal pole that props the hood open, so I stand and hold the hood while Kyle peers inside. It’s a fruitless effort, neither of us knows what we’re looking for.
“Nothing is smoking,” I say and give him a shrug.
No smoke, no fire.
We drive on.
We’re visiting my friend Casey in her San Franciscan apartment. There’s a large, three-paned window that frames the skyline of the Bay Bridge. We are standing, sipping a cocktail made with purple gin and edible glitter, looking out at the city below and the water just beyond.
“Last summer the sky was red for a full day,” Casey tells me. “It was cold, too. Like the sun didn’t come out at all.”
Later in the evening, four of us sit at her small, glass kitchen table, sparkling water with fresh lemon and cold white wine in our glasses. There are dirty plates in front of us and we laugh as we brainstorm.
“What about Montana?” I propose.
“Montana?” Casey says with a skeptical tone, standing to clear the plates.
“If the temperatures are getting hotter then maybe Montana’s climate will become similar to what Colorado’s used to be?” I say, doubting my own statement.
We’re talking about where to start our compound. A place where we can escape from society. Where we can raise our future families and share the ever-weightier reality of adulthood. But really, we’re talking about where we can buy land that would be relatively safe from the effects of climate change. We’re half-joking, but the conversation is underlined by a dark fear.
“I’ve heard the Great Lakes are supposed to be the best area to move,” we hear a week later as we bathe in a natural spring at the base of the Eastern Sierras. This statement comes from a couple similar in age to us and fellow van dwellers.
“The Great Lakes have water,” Kyle agrees.
In Oregon, a few weeks later, we chat with my cousin’s girlfriend at a Mexican restaurant.
“The Pacific Northwest is supposed to be relatively safe,” my cousin’s girlfriend says, picking at her fried tofu tacos. “California will become mostly desert and the Pacific Northwest will become what California’s climate once was.”
I make a mental note to text my friends and propose Oregon as an option for our compound.
In the forest, they name the largest Sequoias after what sounds to me like war heroes and old white men: General Sherman, General Grant, and the third largest tree – The President.
The President, a tree that is 3,240 years old, has 2 billion leaves.
Less than a hundred years ago, the global population was 2 billion, today our population is 7.9 billion.
An article’s headline reads: “With low water levels, Lake Shasta residents marvel at previously submerged relics.” The article shows a mangled and rusted iron bridge protruding from the deep blue surface of the lake. When Kyle and I drive by the lake, I don’t see the iron statue, but I see red rings circling the cliff sides feet above the water – rings representing past memories and cooler days.
On the lake’s shore, I watch a family back their speed boat into the water. Their young daughters are wearing shirts that proclaim our country as the greatest country, a notion I’ve found myself questioning in adulthood. On the water, I watch them laugh with one another and gaze out at the volcanic mountain range. I can hear the hiss of cans opening and the soft blare of country music. Later, in the bathroom, I’ll hear the woman say: “I just love it out here.”
As the family packs up to go, the girls sunburned and tiredly looking at their phones, I’ll watch the man crush his can and toss it into the bushes, before starting his engine with a rev and driving away.
Much like the Giant Pandas, the Giant Sequoias seem stubbornly against helping their own species. Giant Sequoias will only live in a certain climate, between 4,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation and only on the western side of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
As the climate warms, scientists predict the Sequoias’ viable growing area will continue to shrink.
For now, the leading cause of death in Giant Sequoias is toppling. The leading cause of death in elderly people is the same.
The mechanic gives Kyle and I a repair quote for $8,000. The van itself isn’t worth half that.
“We’re in a bit of a bind,” I say to him, “We’re a few thousand miles from home, we really don’t have that kind of money to spend, but we need to keep moving.”
The mechanic tells us the sound we’re hearing is coming from our exhaust.
“It’s not a safety issue,” the mechanic explains. “But it does make you a nasty polluter.” He says this with a laugh.
Kyle and I resolve to fix the issue at the midpoint of our trip, once we get out of California, where the work would be cheaper.
I scroll through news articles as we drive, trying not to spiral into worry with each new headline. Meanwhile, the van chugs on. We drown out the noise from the exhaust with loud music, but the smell is harder to avoid.
Giant Sequoias can still burn. In 2020, the Castle Fire burned 30% of the Sequoia trees it touched. It’s estimated that thousands of trees were destroyed.
In our van, we drive by a Sequoia. The trunk is so big that it takes up the whole view of my front window.
I feel my breath catch. I’ve never seen a giant before.
That blackened forest comes to my mind during random moments on the road. What was startling to me about it was not the destruction, but the life that still persisted.
I find myself imagining the stories I will tell one day, seated around the dinner table, with a family of my own. I’ll tell tiny faces about mom and dad’s life on the road. They’ll look at pictures and marvel at just how blue and green and vibrant it all was.
On our family camping trips we go into the forest, with its black trees and orange pine needles. The kids play among the scorched rocks and dig through ash, exclaiming with glee when they find a pair of old sunglasses, the lenses melted and warped by the flames.