Smoke Week

On the weather map on my phone, as I stood and consulted it at 81st and Central Park West, the color-coded diagram of the plumes scorching and stretching south from Ottawa looked exactly like a circa-2004 televised aerial heat map visualization of some especially deadly nighttime moment in a town somewhere in Basra. The colors populating my Instagram feed when I swiped over from the weather map—filtered, balanced, enhanced—were similarly vivid and lively, the colors of harvests and autumn leaves. In real life at midday, the chromatic effects on Central Park West were more like sepia, paprika, piss.

Suddenly the outdoors looked like indoors, and felt like the indoors

Those of us who grew up with some version of Christianity were taught to believe that the apocalypse, when it came, would be final. The original meaning of the word is “to uncover”—literally, to take the lid off something—and one imagines this uncapping as an irreversible gesture. One cannot put the proverbial lid back on once it’s been blown off. That’s the lesson of Revelations, more or less: that once the tinted film that shields us from existential clarity is peeled off the surface of the world it cannot be relaid without leaving some trace, some wrinkle in the veil. But it turns out that you can put the lid back on, sort of—that the thin partition between everyday life and the imminent reality of planetary suicide is more like a curtain than a door, flapping open and shut. We catch the truth in glimpses, in moments when the veil flaps open. Now you see it, now you don’t.

It also turns out that existential clarity can be brought on by the literal obfuscation of haze. When the AQI rating in New York exceeded 300 last Wednesday I was at my desk pumping breastmilk. The sky went so dim that I noticed an LED light on the handle of the machine that I’d never observed before, having only ever pumped in broad daylight. My headache arrived before my recognition that the room was filling with smoke. The haze had seeped in through a gap between the casement and the wall. Deep childhood fears bubbled up from the well of memory: evacuating our home during the 1993 Old Topanga wildfire; the eco-conscious animated movies my sister and I watched as kids, in which small woodland creatures are poisoned by gas that wafts into the open doors of their treehouse habitats and curls around their sleeping figures. Too much about that black-orange midday sky felt familiar. Things I’d thought of as urgent five minutes prior—to-do lists, family quarrels, errands, dinner—ceased to matter. The flap of the veil again. It was once again obvious to me, as it was at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, that the only thing I really care about is having my loved ones near me when I die, and that they know I love them.

And then the next day—blue skies. A crisp, sunny day in June. By Friday the baby was out in the park for a walk, and my reactions of the past two days (staying inside, wearing masks, and googling “best industrial HEPA air purifier 2023”) suddenly felt over-the-top dramatic. Had it even happened? Of course it had. But it was like being gaslighted by God.

Because the events of the 2017 Thomas Fire in California were so quickly followed by a mudslide that destroyed several homes and killed dozens of people, I sometimes forget about that fire, and that my mom had to evacuate. I now remember her sending me a selfie in a N95 under the same orange-black sky we saw last week, though I didn’t know what the masks were called then. “I am a bit thick in the head from the 6 days I stayed behind, breathing the smoke,” she said. ”I am taking today off to recover from yesterday’s crazy rush to collect what I considered my most valued items (there’s not much to it, as you quickly learn).” Once it was all over, she sent a dispatch that included her list of personal lessons learned: “Wear your N95 mask from day one if you are in the smoke zone and wear long sleeves (even if it’s 90 degrees out) . . . Have one convenient box with a handle where all important papers are kept (Passports, birth certificates, hard drives, etc.).” “I’ll be more prepared next time,” she concluded. She was, the two times she’s had to evacuate since. I sometimes think she’s crazy for continuing to live in an area so prone to natural disasters, an area that saw act-of-god-level disruption even before climate change ramped up the frequency. On the other hand, it makes sense that she doesn’t want to move. These kinds of crises will soon occur regularly everywhere, if they haven’t already; you may as well be somewhere that feels like home when they strike.

—Dayna Tortorici

Twister light. That was how I thought of it when I was in college in Ohio. When a bad storm was brewing the sunshine would take on the yellowed, varnish-y quality of the light from a halogen bulb, and as a result suddenly the outdoors looked like indoors, and felt like the indoors. Specifically it felt like being in a room illuminated by an overhead fixture, like a home on the day you move in or the day before you move out, when the lamps are all in boxes—a feeling of unsettled domesticity. T. J. Clark, in his book on Picasso, talks about what he calls room space—the phenomenological experience of an interior with four walls, a ceiling and a floor, at a small enough scale to feel private and safe. He thinks room space is the sine qua non of the bourgeois subject’s spatial orientation, and his theory is that Cubism attacked and dismantled room space, splintering and fissuring it with planes that cut every which way, that were transparent yet visible because of the way they distorted objects or fractured vision. I didn’t know the term “room space” in college but I felt the weirdness of the fact that the light that presaged the most dangerous weather made the whole world feel like a room, an unsafe safe space, as if to propose weather as domestic violence, or as intimate-partner violence, to use the preferred term. Cue tired posthumanist observation about how all entities on this earth are our intimate partners.

The New York Times just ran an article about a guy who wrote a book that has popularized the amazing qualities of fungi, about which I was already educated by that Netflix documentary. His name is Merlin Sheldrake, and he has chestnut curls and fainting-couch good looks, and a brother named Cosmo with whom he’s in a band, and they grew up in a London townhouse that looks like it was furnished by Vita Sackville-West, and fashion labels have produced collections inspired by his book. And, incredibly, in this article he comes across as ten times more annoying than you would think an independently wealthy British-bohemian amateur mycologist-slash-influencer named Merlin Sheldrake could be. As I read, all my alarms were going ding ding ding ding ding. I guess it just seemed like he had to be an imposter because the name Merlin Sheldrake is so absurdly on the nose. But he’s not an imposter. He was named by parents who listened to a lot of Donovan. He could be whiling away his time in unproductive ways, but he’ll, like, get up at four in the morning to go see which of our fungal kin are poking their heads (or rather, their gloriously polymorphous undifferentiated organelles) out of dungheaps in Yorkshire, or whatever. But while he isn’t a con artist, he totally could be: there is a niche in our socius for a posthumanist mycological-influencer con artist, and maybe that’s what’s disturbing. Anyway something is genuinely off in the Merlin Sheldrake phenomenon, as though “the discourse” has become its own form of AI and is fabricating representations that turn out to reflect reality with a kind of grotesque animorphosis, like those commercials people create by feeding verbal descriptions into Runway’s Gen-2 AI generator. Merlin Sheldrake seems insane the way that that beer commercial is insane. I get the sense, from the fungi content I’ve absorbed (though not, alas, as fungi absorb nutrients, fully and with their whole beings), that the fungi kingdom really has it together, and I feel if fungi could speak, they would tell us to stop rhapsodizing about slime molds and do something else—it’s just that I don’t know exactly what. Unless it was just: Organize a general strike! Actually, given the way things have been going, I bet if they could talk to us they’d say, See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya! And then a big chanterelle-shaped mothership would come down and rapture them.

Anyway, twister light, though yellow as stated, shaded toward green. It was jaundiced but leant toward bilious. The other afternoon when for the first time this midwestern light suddenly descended on New York City, I thought, Jesus. I looked outside and sure enough Brooklyn looked like . . . a room. I set about making sure all my devices were charging. I assumed we were about to have one hell of a thunderstorm. Something was nagging, though, a perception that didn’t rise to consciousness til later, which was that the color of the light was wrong—it wasn’t greenish, more shading toward ochre. I was trying to do some writing. An hour passed and the storm still hadn’t started. I finally looked at my phone and saw what was going on. I remembered the photos of San Francisco from I guess 2019, when I wondered, what is this weird meme, why are all of these people posting photos of San Francisco with the sky made to look bright red? What sci-fi movie are these images alluding to, and why? What is the joke? I’ll never forget the moment that I realized that the photos were not a joke and were not digitally altered—they were actual images of San Francisco with a red sky. Arterial red, Kool-Aid red, a saturated high-chroma infernal orange-red. I just had to laugh. Evidently we were literally in hell. That moment was worse than when I realized wildfire weather had come to NYC. But anyway, room space. Maybe T. J. Clark is right and the Cubists could see it already, that living rooms were already Thunderdome, that walls were merely planar condensations of perception no more or less substantial than any of the other splinters and fissures and striations in space, and that their paintings merely diagrammed the chaotic tectonics that had been there in the ether all along.

—Elizabeth Schambelan

Looking across the river from the office window, we are tracking what percentage of the Jersey City high rises have become obscured from the smoke blowing down from the Canadian wildfires. Back at my desk, I read that preparing infant formula in a plastic bottle degrades the bottle, so what babies end up drinking is a sort of plastic soup, and my boss says 0.03 Jerseys, up from 0.0 Jerseys just before lunch time. I send my wife a message: In Cairo they burn their trash, it smells a little like this. My wife lives across the ocean, and all my messages have a lovesick urgency that makes me feel pathetic. The end of the world makes me want to be a baby suckling at your breast I write, or I wish you were here and feel like slitting my wrists when you’re not.

The air quality index is 323, my coworker says, looking at their phone. They add that 100 is healthy and 300 is hazardous. A health warning of emergency conditions is in effect. I try to think about how far away Canada is, how much forest had to burn for it to smell here. My brain doesn’t feel like it’s working well enough to figure it out.

My wife lives in a seaside town and makes objects out of petroleum derivatives. They are sacks or boxes of silicone or alginate filled with milky or bloody fluids. When we began dating, she asked me if my pee was good every time I came back from the bathroom. She asked me why I thought I had a body. I told her that I wanted to write a novel so beautiful that anyone who read it would quit their job and plant mangroves or invent a carbon capture technology that would save Greenland.

It’s June, so our employer is trying to prove to us that they care about gay people. There is a drag bingo event with free alcohol. I go up to the cafeteria with the coworker who was reading the air quality index, and drink my first glass of wine in a single go. Then I have a headache and don’t know if it’s from inhaling dead trees or cheap wine. It’s at 418, the air quality index, my coworker tells me. I notice that I can look directly at the sun without hurting my eyes. It’s red and purple more than it is orange and yellow. The peaks and troughs from the river’s flow form pockets in the water where pink light pools. Refraction, I hazard, the smoke is refracting the light, I say, and my colleague agrees. I feel good that they think my explanation is correct.

Back at my desk again, I read a stat about how Americans use more plastic than any other country and my other colleague says see, we deserve this. I say this isn’t about sin and punishment. I try to say that what is happening isn’t because we buy plastic bottles of water, but because of corporations, weapons, oil, World War II, a coalition formed by beverage manufacturing companies called Keep America Beautiful, but it doesn’t land. When the workday is over, I take the elevator straight to the underground train station to avoid going outside.

The train goes over ground for a few stops, so I see the skyline under the smoke. I send a message to the people I know in my neighborhood telling them to come over and breathe my pure air. A few years ago, my wife and I bought an air purifier because my wife wanted a cat and I’m allergic. The air purifier sounds like a jet engine when it’s turned to its highest setting. The setting is called turbo. There is a blue light that tells me when to change the filter, and it pleases me to see all the dust and the cat hair stuck in the filter’s grid. It pleases me to know I haven’t breathed it in.

I listen to public radio on my way home. They’re talking about a lawsuit involving a million marines who drank contaminated water in Camp Lejeune, somewhere in North Carolina. The water, the voice on the radio says, gave some of the Marines breast cancer.

In my apartment, it does not smell like smoke. When my neighbors arrive, we eat strawberries and macaroni and cheese. I start to feel inside, I feel shielded and purified from the dangerous smoke in the air, and these feelings of safety grow into a big and abstract feeling. I say that I feel the pleasure of protection, and one of my neighbors says that it’s fucked up to feel that way, and that this is what Bangalore and Delhi and Jakarta go through three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I don’t point out that I’m from a place that burns its trash, and this neighbor isn’t, or that he’s breathing my purified air. I’m not even sure I understand why the fact that this happens elsewhere means I’ve made some ethical lapse. I try to say I don’t think that it’s good that Jakarta or Bangalore or Delhi are like this try to say that just because others are suffering doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to seek solace in our comforts. He just grunts.

One of my neighbors says that she just had shingles. That anyone who has had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine can have shingles. She tells us about her brother, a climate scientist mapping conifers in the Sierra Nevada. She says that one time, her dad went to the emergency room with a broken wrist, and there was a man in the emergency room waiting area who kept saying I’ve been shot, I’m going to die, and none of the nurses let him in, and then he did die.

The next morning, I wake up feeling hungover. I think it must be the smoke. My wife has sent me a photo of one of our cats curled up in a ball, and while I make myself coffee and eat my breakfast and listen to the air purifier, I cycle between the air quality index website, it’s at 150, and the image of the cat. She is black and white, and unbelievably soft, and I miss her.

—Ismail Ibrahim

The towers had gone. It smelled like 9/11. The buildings in question were not architect Minoru Yamasaki’s sublime and quintessentially modern twin volumes that stood in lower Manhattan from 1970 until 2001, when their destruction somehow became a precondition for an unrelated forever war in Iraq. That war introduced new aesthetics: recurring telegenic plumes of burning uncapped oil wells snaking across sunset sands, metastasizing red and yellow blobs that were explosions seen through the dark by the heat vision cameras of what are now old-fashioned predator drones.

This past week, the buildings that seemed to me to have suddenly vanished were those along billionaires’ row—that antic lineup of the new phenomenon of supertall skyscrapers, ingeniously engineered and highly stylized into spiky pinnacles. They arise from among the dreary surviving souvenir and electronic boutiques of West 57th Street to forever change the viewsheds of Central Park—standing at its southern edge like surreal chess pieces about to make the park their game board—and famously to launder oligarchical and petrochemical capital into Manhattan real estate. Their frantic collective profile recapitulates, like a map or a chart, the volatility of the low interest rates and the giddily skyrocketing money supply that only recently drove their own development.

At about 11 AM on Wednesday June 7, when I popped up from the West 81st B train subway entrance, between the American Museum of Natural History and the Beresford Apartment building, I noticed that instead of the billionaires’ spiky skyline, there was only a hazy blank space. No low cloud had ever done that before. Whenever I pass the Beresford, I think of the vast tanks of water enclosed in its three corner pinnacles that look like plump versions of the ancient Athenian Tower of The Winds, a peculiar temple that was responsible for predicting and reporting the weather. I hadn’t thought much about the day’s atmosphere until that moment. Normally, as you exit the subway system, you still see a certain kind of deliberate New Yorker briskly remove their N95 mask as they speed up the stairs and out of the underground crowds. That Wednesday, the same kind of New Yorker kept the mask on as they stepped up and out into the open air. The microscopic windblown polypropylene synthetic plastic microfibers that work so well for SARS-CoV19 work equally as well for micro-particulate carcinogens airborne in ash. I thought about the great lower-upper-middle-class urban flight to forests, lakes, beaches, islands of the Spring of 2020—as if the problem had been cities. Now, blown by wind at a different scale, the air of the postmodern wilderness—desiccated and kindled by industry—delivered its blowback.

Before 9/11, the Twin Towers were the first thing that as a kid I always looked for when I came up and out of the subway and into the night: almost always visible somehow down at the convergence of all the avenues of the grid, they would tell you which way was downtown, and cool. I still, unthinking, look for them. They were vast but they were tight: precise, set on a trajectory; just as the plume of smoke that arose from their destruction was—to the eyes if not the nose—similarly formal, coherent, directed as it snaked across the clear blue sky. That one mass of smoke, at least, did not seem limitless, edgeless, ubiquitous.

With the claustrophobic prospect of billionaire’s row erased, the artificial meadows of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park once again answered openly and sweepingly to the pastoral language that captioned their picturesque drawings of 1857: green swards and broad acres. Except nothing was green and nothing was blue. This was, as you know, a consequence of the continentally scaled murmuration of smoke driven south in airborne toxicity from Canadian forest fires, a New York State baptism by fire into the newly yearlong California Fire Season or the new Australian “Black Summer” of orange skies and pulmonary afflictions. The vast plume finally allowed our glittering metropolis to surpass those great conurbations of the global south—Bangkok, Delhi, Johannesburg—as the city, at least for a single day, with the worst air on earth. Yet Delhi’s air is our air: America sends the tainted byproducts of our local industry—like the petroleum coke that comes from cracking long-chain hydrocarbons within New Jersey oil refineries—all the way to India, where, with more carbon dioxide per unit of energy and even finer-particulated carcinogens than in coal, it burns dirty.

On the weather map on my phone, as I stood and consulted it at 81st and Central Park West, the color-coded diagram of the plumes scorching and stretching south from Ottawa looked exactly like a circa-2004 televised aerial heat map visualization of some especially deadly nighttime moment in a town somewhere in Basra. The colors populating my Instagram feed when I swiped over from the weather map—filtered, balanced, enhanced—were similarly vivid and lively, the colors of harvests and autumn leaves. In real life at midday, the chromatic effects on Central Park West were more like sepia, paprika, piss. I looked up at a baleful coppery disk in the sky, and I could not figure out if it was a full moon or the disk of the sun. The sky above the port was the color of television, I thought, tuned to a dead channel.

Do you remember, so very pre-pandemic, the partial solar eclipse in New York of August, 2017? People had fun with their homemade ocular devices. I forgot all about it until Wednesday, there in the fell half-light that had all the portent of heavenly signs but none of the majesty. Whether in pre-Enlightenment astromancy or in post-Enlightenment expectations of a rules-of-motion constancy convened by the likes of Newton and Halley, the sky seemed to promise a predictable order. When I was a very small boy my father woke me up to squint at a tiny blurry plume called Halley’s Comet, low above an ocean horizon. When this comes back, he said very quietly over the sound of lapping water, you will still be alive.

Although the current global catastrophe and concomitant biospheric holocaust that is still mildly called climate change is often framed as making everything hotter and wetter—and also causing us to live through only the sixth great mass extinction in 3.7 billion years of life on earth—the extremes to which local conditions are driven also cause tinderbox dryness. Especially in the arboreal and hyperborean north once quaintly thought of as a geographical reprieve from such effects. Now we are all downwind. The formerly abnormal atmospheric dynamic that routed the smoke low and down the Hudson Valley will make that startling Wednesday ever more commonplace—part of an 11,000-fold increase in extreme smoke events since the turn of the century that now constitute, in historian Stephen Pyne’s coinage, the Pyrocene.

I’d gone up to 81st Street to take another look at the outside of the Natural History Museum, which has a striking new wing designed by architect Jeanne Gang. I’m trying to write about it. Inside, the design uses an unusual system of cement sprayed like wet clay across steel cable meshes to make shapes that look like caves and canyons. Many have compared it to the dwelling places of the Flintstones. But Gang is doing more than stagecraft. To be sure, the swoopy vaults of her new museum wing—which features an actual lepidarium with 400 captive butterflies that actually alight on your shoulders, plus the usual vast event space and monumental staircase—will be photogenic; the billionaires of the row will no doubt enjoy canapés there. But the geometry is for more than looks. The seemingly baroque compound curves are actually a kind of engineering minimalism: they enable new structural lines of force to travel around new volumes of space, down to find old and pre-existing foundations, built for now-demolished annexes from a century ago. This deeper repurposing of pre-existing structures, this radical resourcefulness about the adaptive reuse of the still-present past: this is the only true architecture of the future.

Architecture, a slow art, moves at the speed of lifetimes. Gang, a contemplative and ingenious architect, and a generational talent, has the interesting fate to be at work during an in-between generation. Before her, there were those grandfathers driven frequently by appearances, whether the ponderous ripples of a Frank Gehry, or the sardonic make-it-awkward-so-it-seems-clever condescensions of a Rem Koolhaas. And we have all been acculturated by such work, even now, to that old-fashioned sense of appearances and a seeming necessity–thanks to visual social media—for the spectacular. Architects of future generations will contend ever more primarily and truthfully and beautifully with the material and energetic stewardship—and the concomitant cultural renewal—required by the crisis. They will discover new beauties and new spectacularities. Inside the Natural History Museum, the curving concrete shells were built in a creative way that circumvented the usual environmental costs of constructing conventional wooden formwork. Outside the museum, the picturesque stone veneer façade of the new wing extends—with energetic puzzle-piecing in milled masonry—those billowing geometries of the concrete inside, while also closely resembling the old stone of the old museum wing next door. That’s because, in a classy touch, it comes from the very same New England quarry. But because of our shared consciousness of embodied energy—the great cost in carbon and energetic resources spent in the extraction and transportation and manufacturing of materials, which outweighs by as much as a factor of four a building’s lifetime operational costs like lighting and cooling—when I talked with Gang about it I felt obliged to ask, did we really need to bring that stone all the way from Maine? Well, she corrected me across our shared gaze—bittersweet, tart, wry, soft, hard, human, doing-our-best—it was Massachusetts. 

To a New Englander, those states are emotional and cultural light years apart; but compared to an actual light year, any increment of trucking distance between those provincial states is an eyelash. Buckminster Fuller used to call our planet Spaceship Earth, to remind us of how tiny it is. Of how it is all we have. And all we are likely to have—even with the exponential and algorithmic futures he also foresaw—for dozens of coming millennia. On Wednesday, New Yorkers compared the color of the city’s atmosphere to the terra-cotta hue of the sky as we see it broadcast from cameras on Mars. This is a reminder of the abject misallocation of resources that is the current fascination—often by still more billionaires—for planetary colonization and terraforming. In fact we are doing the opposite of seeding the stars: we are terra-deforming our wet blue dot into a red planet. The millennial public thinker James Bridle, whose specialties of cognitive and computational science are pedigreed fulfillments of Fuller’s autodidactic intimations, accurately reminds us now that we are not—artificial intelligence and all—now merely making technology in the image of ecology, but that any distinction between these two categories is now false. As geological timelines accelerate into human lifetimes, Nature is reduced to Culture. Natural History now belongs only in a museum.

Around 2 PM, after looking at the new museum wing, I went to the apartment of a kind friend who lives nearby. She is an ordained minister. She served me hibiscus tea that came all the way from Thailand. We hadn’t seen or held each other since before the pandemic. But we forgot that. In her company, I tend to think about God. The earth was without form, the story goes, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and God said, Let there be light. The minister suddenly got up from her kitchen table and turned off the lights in her apartment. All that crepuscular Martian light oozed in. This light, she said, What is this light? Later, downstairs, I paused in the lobby to put on my mask. I thought, this light is heat. All maps are heat maps. All vision is heat vision. A doorman was trying to be kind. Headed downtown? he asked. It’s probably going to be better down there, he said, because, you know, uptown is closer to Canada.

—Thomas de Monchaux

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