- Jumping the Break:Wildfires and the Logic of Separation
The smoke from the fires in British Columbia and Alberta obscure our views out over the valley. Each day we grimace to each other as we gesture out the windows of Vistas Cafeteria. The vista is not of the usual snow-capped mountains. The snow melted on them weeks ago anyway. The grass is dead, and the forests are pale and yellow-tinged. When we peer through the hazy, orange-tinged, thick air, we can't even see the edge of the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity campus.
I'm scared, but not because I think that the fires will force us to evacuate and jettison the five-week Banff Research in Culture residency program that I co-organize. I don't fear for my own personal safety, nor do I think that the fires will impinge upon daily life in tangible ways. It's more nebulous than that: it's about the smoke and its threat, the way the sun looks like a round orange ball hanging in the middle of an orange-brown haze, which smacks of so many postapocalypse films. The smoke is sharp in our nostrils and catches at the back of our throats, making our eyes water and causing us to look and feel as if we're crying.
We're not crying, though. We're all a little excited by the smoke and discuss it constantly. It's a new version of chatting to acquaintances about the weather. The discussion functions as a barometer of political leanings as well. If someone connects the natural [End Page 231] disasters to the predicted outcomes of climate change, then I know that he or she is on my side. The foes are the ones who don't make the connections or don't care, such as that wealthy donor who came to the Banff Centre for the fund-raising gala. I heard her, in the same conversation, bemoan the dry forest conditions that had the park on high-danger fire alert and express the hope that it wouldn't rain over the weekend and wreck the women's ball gowns. Was her imagination not filled, like mine, with climate-fiction scenarios of the drought, fire, flooding, and extreme heat that global warming would cause in this century? Obviously there were two separate registers in her brain that kept the social separate from the environmental.
It is one thing to argue in theory about how we have irrevocably changed the planet through human actions. It is another to experience the repercussions firsthand instead of reading about them as events that happen elsewhere. The psychological effects are uncanny, evoking contradictory emotions, memories, and apprehensions.
For so many of the people I have talked to, their first instinct was to like the smell. It recalled backpacking adventures, cabins in the woods, and the camaraderie of bonfires. For me, the first pungent whiff took me back to the Catalan mountains of my childhood summers, where the view from the top floor of the old farmhouse sometimes contained plumes of smoke and helicopters filled with Mediterranean seawater to douse the flames. Fires weren't just in the neighboring mountains. They were also in the back of the house, where the gardener would burn all our trash once a week, never separating cardboard from plastics or from leaves and clippings. We children loved the smell of the black smoke that would gust into the playroom, not knowing the toxic fumes it contained.
One afternoon when the sobremesa of adult gossip was going on too long, my cousin and I asked to be excused from the dining room. We stood there aimlessly in the oppressive heat, our fingers rubbing deep between the shoulder blades of the panting sheep-dogs. Suddenly my cousin gasped and pointed in the direction of the chicken coop. We ran closer and saw thick smoke coming from the grass on the other side of the wall. "¡Incendio! ¡Incendio!" (Fire! Fire!) we called out, and the adults, groggy from overeating and wine, came running.
There in the midst of the burning fire was Jaume, the gardener...