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Fire and the Western Mentality

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Another year of western wildfires is now over, if the wildfire season ever actually ends anymore. It’s depressing. Last fall, I spent the first half of my sabbatical in Oregon. I was all excited to do a bunch of high mountain hiking in the Oregon Cascades. But the worst fires in decades completely ruined that dream of mine and who knows if I will ever have that much time in Oregon again. The days of Beijing-like air quality from smoke rolling into the Willamette Valley was something I had never experienced before but it is something increasingly normal for westerners. Anyway, I thought this was a good essay about it, from someone who grew up in northeastern Washington.

So routine, in fact, that researchers now study the mental health effects of prolonged exposure to the “smoke apocalypse.” Last summer, New York Times contributing opinion writer (and, like me, a Pacific Northwesterner) Lindy West described smoke-blanketed Seattle, four hours southwest of Okanogan County, as filled with “the claustrophobia, the tension, the suffocating, ugly air,” and rightly pointed to it as a phenomenon exacerbated by climate change. “In Seattle, in a week or so, a big wind will come and give us our blue sky back,” she wrote. “Someday, though, it won’t.”

Indeed, friends of my parents are talking about moving away. Those who stay long for the smoke to clear and for the summer sky to be as blue as it once was. But this nostalgia is worth attending to, for how we talk about the wildfires is also how we talk about the West. The idea of the West—as region, ideology, national mythos—is all about desiring the authentic in a landscape of inauthenticity, about safely yearning for something never there in the first place, about obscuring violence with romance.

Since the landscape of the West is indelibly shaped by its own story, talking about land in the West always contains a moral. How we talk about the wildfires illustrates the tension at the heart of the western myth itself, one that will need to collapse from its own weight if we ever hope to see the sky for what it truly is. And each summer now, that sky is on fire.

Creating defensible space involves reducing excessive vegetation (shrubs, dense clusters of trees, dried grass) from around the house, and replacing them with well-irrigated lawn or flowerbeds, as well as surrounding your home with inflammable materials to deflect burning embers. Depending on your particular vegetation type and the percent of slope on which your house rests, you will need between 30 to 200 feet of defensible space surrounding your home.

The idea of defensible space strikes me as an intrinsically western one. It has taken a tremendous amount of government money, environmental engineering, and colonial violence for there to be such a thing as “private property” in the West, and for people to live out their—historically speaking—absurd fantasies of independence and self-reliance, to create their own western defensible space. And yet still, for the one third of the United States that lives in the wildland-urban interface, each house in each subdivision attempts to surround itself by its own barrier of self-created defensible space, each pretending to be self-reliant yet in need of massive federal funds for power, water, roads, and firefighting.

I don’t want my parents’ home to burn. I spent part of my trip home this summer helping them water the lawn and flower beds around the house and mow the dried pasture grass—all the while contemplating the stumps of larches that had been cut down outside my bedroom window. And yet I recognize that the demand and the desire to live in the West, as it has long been practiced in this country, is destroying the possibility of actually doing so. Defensible space is the present lodged securely within its own narrowed future. If the western narrative stays in this future anterior tense, the story will always end badly.

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