There's No Escape

The mountains could burn and the sky could smoke. We’d be underground.

There's No Escape
Image: The Smoke Rolls In. By Margaret Bingham, June 2023

Nothing has made me feel like the world is ending like consecutive days of ash falling from Oakland’s orange skies. Not the pandemic. Not my father’s death. Nothing. There was something existentially smothering about it.

During one wildfire season, I had a panic attack in a parking lot. I’d driven through the smoke to go pick up a prescription. Walking around my car to get my baby out of her seat, I looked up at the sky. It was gone. 

I don’t mean the sky was filled with smoke. I mean, there was no sense of distance or expanse. There was just a painted ceiling, dropped so low it’d be described as cozy in a real estate listing. Sometimes when people are trying to sell you something, they call oppressive things cozy. Burnt siena, brown, orange and muddy red ran thickly across uneven plaster. I couldn’t find the recessed sun. 

A part of me understood the sun was still there, because it is not part of this world. And so the harm we do to this world cannot harm the sun. But the persistent logic of panic rose up over my understanding. I started to shake, certain the sky and sun were gone. I was raising children in a world where there was no reason to look up. 

I sat down beside the car and put my head on my knees. There is a sky beyond the smoke. And a sun beyond the sky. And smoke kills but it also eventually clears. The sun had to be up there, because the plaster was illuminated. And the sun was not part of this world. The shaking stopped. I got my baby out of the car and into the pharmacy as quickly as I could. 

Another year, 

The Tubbs Fire burnt up thousands of homes and killed dozens of people. Huge flakes of ash moved through the air and coated roofs, cars and the tops of our heads. They blotted out the sun and stuck in our eyelashes. 

Walking home from school, my six year old held out her hand and caught grey flakes in her hand. She inspected them,

“Mom? What’s in firecrumbs?”

The answer was living room walls, bed frames, family photos, trees, fences, the bones of animals and people.

It was a bad answer. So I just said,

“Firecrumbs? That’s a great word. This is called ash.”

“Oh, so ash is in firecrumbs?”

“Yeah, ash is in firecrumbs.”

We went inside and kept the windows closed. - Heat Domes and Fire Crumbs

I spent my childhood in California too. There were always wildfires. But not like this. These fires burn earlier, brighter, longer and deeper. They’re a product of human-caused climate change, exacerbated by crumbling infrastructure and governments resistant to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The people in power seem content to live in a world without a sky. They’d rather profit from desolation than devote themselves to regeneration. 

We moved to Denver at the end of 2019. A few months later, the pandemic started. And then that summer, the smoke came. It felt like it followed me. 

You know when you sit around a campfire and it feels like the smoke follows you? Even when you move to a new spot? That’s not really what’s happening. Fire heats the air around it, making the air less dense. This hot air rises, leaving behind a low-pressure area. Cooler, denser air rushes in to replace the hot air. This air flow carries the smoke upward. 

When you sit near the fire, your body blocks some of the flow of the cooler air, creating another low-pressure area between you and the fire. The hot air, carrying the smoke with it, then rises towards this new low-pressure area. The smoke isn’t following you, it’s just not being kept from you. A subtle distinction maybe, but one that matters to me. 

The wildfire smoke didn’t follow us. It just couldn’t be kept from us. I could still see the sky and the sun. But the old panic still started to rise. I wondered if I could ever get myself and my family low enough to let the air carry the smoke away from us. 

We shut the windows, turned on air purifiers and spent a lot of time in our basement. The mountains could burn and the sky could smoke. We’d be underground. Of course, it doesn’t matter how deep you dig your hobbit hole. Fire can spread to the Shire. 

In 2021, Colorado had a very wet spring. The grass grew tall. That spring was followed by a summer and fall with intense heat and little rain -  a joint production of climate change. The grass grew dry. On December 30, 2021, hurricane-force winds carried sparks from a powerline and swept week-old trash fire embers up from where they’d been buried, starting two separate fires. 

The wind and dry fuel turned the two wildfires into one raging urban fire. It swept over a suburb just a half hour away from my home. Over 1000 structures burned to the ground. Well, they burned to below ground, really. Most of the homes had basements. Entire neighborhoods turned into smoke and were blown over other towns. 

Earlier this month, my oldest daughter, Margaret, and Canada’s wildfire smoke arrived in New York City at the same time. She was there for a school trip. She sent me a picture of the orange skies and said, “Well, it feels like home.” She was talking about her past home, Oakland. But she could have meant her present home. Or any home she’ll have in the future. The smoke isn’t following her, it just can’t be kept from her.

Borders drawn on maps only restrict the flow of rights. They do not restrict the flow of nature or the consequences of our actions. Climate change is affecting the entire world. Unlike the sun, we’re all a part of this world. We can’t escape the smoke because we can’t escape each other. 

Margaret has always had trouble breathing. Sometimes I think about all the different particulates that have polluted her body, some of them clinging to the leaves in her lungs, some floating in her bloodstream. Bits of places she’s never been, bits of things she’s never seen. Things no one will see again. 

O Canada. 

When one of my kids is away from me, I worry about the vacuum my absence leaves.  But I could think of a couple dozen people from Brooklyn to upstate New York who would have rushed to her side, if I asked. I’ve met all those people online, mostly on Twitter. They’ve become a community. The kind that cares. 

Sorting through their names, I realized I’ve only met two in real life. Still they’d take time from their lives to care for my child. Even someone as heavily introverted as I am can’t escape people. Thank God. They can’t escape me either. If any of them, or any of you, had a child in trouble in my city, I’d rush to their side for you. 

There were fifty kids on the trip. I knew several of them have asthma. So I sent sixty masks to their hotel. And by sent, I mean I used an app to pay someone to purchase them and deliver them for me. Even after leaving a good tip, I felt guilty. 

I asked someone to move through the smoke to deliver masks so that those kids could breathe easier. Did the person delivering the masks have a mask for themselves? Do you see? How helping those fifty kids still might have hurt one gig worker? I see. We can’t escape each other. 

The smoke was thickest on Wednesday. Several Broadway shows had to close.But Wicked went on. Margaret and the rest of the group were in the audience.  Margaret loved Wicked the way a fourteen year old can-- completely. She said the songs and sets made her gasp, but that gasping made her lungs hurt. I don’t know how the actors sang. 

The students waited by the stage door after the show. Margaret got to meet Jordan Litz, the actor who plays Fiyero. He signed both of her Pride-themed playbills (one for her and one for her little sister) and then took a picture with her. She sent me the photo as she walked to the train. She looks so happy in it, I couldn’t even get after her for not wearing her mask. 

She called me later that night, hyperventilating,

“Mom! MOM! We were waiting for the train and then he just appeared on the platform! HE JUST APPEARED!”

“He? He who? Are you okay?”

I couldn’t tell if she was panicked or delighted.

In a tone that was very much isn’t it obvious she said, 

“Fiyero! Jordan Litz! He just appeared! We all started screaming and he took another photo with the entire group! He just appeared, Mom! We were all waiting for the same train!”

When we hung up, I let myself cry a little. We are all waiting for the same train, aren’t we? I guess we just can’t escape each other. 

I am sure Litz was tired. His lungs probably hurt, heavy with particulates from places he’s never been and things he’ll never see. But he stopped on that platform and smiled. When I saw the photo of this big Broadway star with dozens of Broadway hopefuls, the narrator that lives in my brain said, “See, there’s no smoke underground.” 

But narrators sometimes put neatness before truth. Wildfires like the ones burning through Canada often burn into the ground, smoldering through root systems long after the fire is declared contained. Root fires can make the ground so hot, the soil collapses when a person or animal steps on it. And any slight disturbance can reignite the fire above ground. 

There are other fires burning underground. Abandoned coal mines smolder all over the world. In Colorado, 38 coal mines burn below ground, some have been burning for more than 100 years. Underground coal fires start above ground fires.But even when that doesn’t happen, they create voids in the earth that swallow people and poison towns. Burning can take the soil and the sky. 

The next day, the smoke was slightly thinner. Margaret and her classmates went to a Broadway workshop. A Wicked cast member taught them the music and choreography to One Short Day. I watched a recording of the workshop while I sat in a playground in Denver. 

The kids were staggered across a room that looked like a set from a movie about Broadway hopefuls. You know the room and the scene, some version of both appear in most movies about performing in New York City. 

It’s the room with light wood floors, a couple walls lined with mirrors and barres, radiators for when it is cold, big windows that slide open for when it’s warm. It’s the scene where everything changes, a failed audition sends the character into the city to find a new way or a dance teacher nods with slight approval at the lead who has finally found their feet.

It was nice to see my kid in that room, even for a minute. I hope she finds her way, I hope she finds her feet. The instructor shouted out instructions, “Right, left, picture, stop, right, left.” The kids moved together, singing, swaying, spinning. 

In the Emerald City, One short day, Full of so much to do, Ev'ry way, That you look in the city, There's something exquisite, You'll want to visit, Before the day's through,

There are buildings tall as Quoxwood trees! Dress salons! Libraries! Palaces! Museums! A hundred strong, There are wonders like I've never seen…

I get why the company chose it for a student workshop, it’s a song about visiting a big city for the first time. But the song’s lyrics felt especially poignant in the middle of another climate change disaster. We haven’t only created ugly things like climate change. We’ve created so many exquisite things too. 

Libraries, museums, buildings taller than redwood trees. Musicals, pastrami sandwiches, community as connected as a mycorrhizal network. Those exquisite creations are nestled in a world that is so big, a long life feels like one short day. I am 38 years old and I still find myself gasping because of wonders like I’ve never seen. 

Why are we letting the sky turn to plaster? Why are we letting the soil smolder?There are many answers to those questions. Most can be distilled down to greed, power and racism. Some people still think they get to escape the things they do and the people they hurt. 

Once we understand that we cannot escape this world or the people in it, will we get to work? I think so. Will that work happen in time for my children? I don’t know. I hope so. I hope my daughters can always draw in enough clean air to gasp and sing and spin.

Nothing makes the world seem like it can begin, like it must begin, like watching my kids lose themselves in the things they love. At the end of One Short Day, Margaret threw everything into the big finish. In the middle of a park in Denver, I clapped for my daughter in New York. I am so grateful we can’t escape one another.