Everyone loves a fire, at least for a while. Writing about the war years in Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge says we all harbor a secret desire to see civilization crumble around us, to witness the Great Downfall, to watch the world go up in flames before our eyes.
During a heat-wave this past weekend a clutch of electrical storms pushed through the state, which is rather unusual and frankly unwelcome in a drought year. The lightning that scattered through the tinderbox canyons and Sierra sparked over eight hundred separate wildfires in a single day.
The northern half of the state is lit up like a birthday cake, and it’s only the beginning of the season. Few of us are in any immediate danger since the fires are mostly confined to wilderness areas. But the smoke smothers and deadens everything. The horizon disappears in an unwholesome twilight. The mountains look like belching volcanoes. There’s a fine ash on the morning streets.
When you finally do see the world burn up before your eyes any appeal the idea might have had quickly evaporates. The campfire odor sheds all sentimental associations when it persists for days and weeks. You grow sick over lost landscapes: redwoods and chaparral, oak-lined riverbanks, coastal ridges, alpine meadows – the grandeur passing daily into flame. You’re left to scratch, as best you can, some stoic comfort from the melancholy truth so nicely captured in Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos or The Architect:
What is most beautiful finds no place in the eternal… Nothing beautiful is separable from life, and life is that which dies.
Or “burns,” as the case may be.