I was driving back from Joshua Tree National Park with two friends. We had decided to come back to campus early because the winds were so strong. I smelled something burning. I was about to pull over to the side of the freeway to see if there was anything wrong with my car when I looked towards the horizon. To the left, the sky was a dark grey mess. I turned on the radio. We listened to the news. A fireman was frantically cataloguing the location and intensity of each of the fires. He had never heard of so many fires in one area at one time. I remember thinking two things. First, that I was heading back to Los Angeles just in time for the apocalypse. Second, that Los Angeles literature predicts its own catastrophic future with startling accuracy.
With the exception of a history professor who linked the fires to unsustainable urban planning in a desert landscape, I’ve heard very few people recognize the fires as “symptoms” of reckless grafting. It strikes me as strange that we can so easily avoid asking why it is that our landscape is on fire. Even those of us who did not see the fires, can sense their presence in the air that enters our lungs, can see their destruction falling from the sky in white flakes of ash. Perhaps our numbness is a product of our transience; many of us are just here for a few short years and a disruption of academic life (the allocation of time and energy necessary to understand why this place is the way it is) does not seem worth our investment. Or perhaps it’s that we’re so desensitized to pollution and to disaster that we’ve forgotten the importance of talking about their origin. Kamilah is probably right to suggest that it’s not quite apathy or indifference. Perhaps it’s not even numbness. We certainly acknowledge that Southern California is on fire—but it’s as if we are waiting for someone to tell us how to react or respond. Are we waiting for a narrative to explain the significance of a disaster that we ourselves are actively creating?