As life in the Anthropocene unfolds ever more rapidly, what were once called “biblical” disasters—fires, floods, locusts, and whirlwinds—have become a daily reality. We watch anxiously as catastrophes occur, at least as much as our screens allow, but still go about our business: reading the next story in our newsfeed or wading into half-flooded subways to avoid being late for work. The problem we face is more difficult than mere inattentiveness: we need to cultivate a way of seeing adequate to the changed world being revealed in these catastrophes.
What we watch on a screen unfolds in a place. Take the Holiday Farm Fire, one of the 2020 Labor Day fires in Oregon. Hot dry winds from the east blew hard over forests dried to tinder by a summer of record low rains. Hurricane force winds sparked electrical lines and whipped small smoldering fires into infernos. The fires roared over ridges and down the McKenzie River valley faster than alerts could be issued, shocking even those long accustomed to living with red-flag fire warnings. Emergency alerts skipped immediately from Level 1 (“Be ready”) to Level 3 (“Go!”). Many barely escaped with their lives. Some did not.
The Labor Day fires burned more than a tenth of the Oregon Cascades, incinerated entire towns, destroyed thousands of homes, killed eleven people and untold animals. Outside the fire zone, the rest of us watched the now-familiar genre of shaky phone videos of escape drives through infernos and listened to coronavirus-masked reporters interviewing traumatized survivors. Thousands of miles away, we marveled, conflicted or ignorant, at the beauty of sunsets rendered magnificent by the remains of Western forests scattered in the stratosphere.
Surveying the ashes, we can ask: What were these wildfires? Were they the latest turn of an ancient cycle of fire and regeneration in which these forests have evolved to thrive? Or did the blood-red skies over cities from San Francisco to Seattle portend something new, something as dystopian as the films they so eerily evoked? The uncertainty here is deeper than the statistics of climate science. It cuts to the heart of our ability to see and respond to the moment in which we are living. Even those deeply attuned to the unfolding climate crises face the question: How to attend to the full truth of these fires?
Our typical ways of seeing, formed by the ephemerality and superficiality of the media flow, do not prepare us for this. But we can hone our gaze by considering alternatives to the shallow seeing of everyday life: the deep time of forest cycles and the ancient biblical tradition of the apocalyptic. Doing so might offer an unexpected way to see through the smoke—and better meet the demands of this new and disorienting moment.