By Jeanie Johnson
The camp reassembled to talk about the winds and the fires and what to do and how to do it. Tension was high; there were words spoken in frustration and some in anger. A few people offered suggestions. A watch during the night might be posted so any change in the winds or a sudden lightning strike could be reported and the camp could, once again, evacuate. It was decided to post a two-hour watch beginning at sundown. In the meantime dinner would be served. Everyone helping with meal prep dispersed to tend to their duties. Others left to reconnoiter their souls. She found a camp chair and sat down heavily, feeling grit from head to toe, her windblown hair, her sunburn and the fear in her bones. A twinge of smoke still lingered in the air and every now and then she saw someone else stop for a second, raise their nose up to test the currents. It felt to her as though the humans were struggling to recover senses they had not needed for a very long time.
Dinner was served in the open commons area, everyone gathered in a circle to eat, quietly chatting, some small and comforting laughter slipping in between the softer comments. She watched faces and eyes and knew others were watching, too. The adults were being careful not to frighten the children, keeping their conversation superficial, not needing to tend deeper exchanges in front of the little ears. Someone took the dishes to wash, the cups and bowls. Murmurs of thank you’s sprinkled the dry ground. People smiled, genuine but ever so tight. Then a woman brought her guitar to the circle. She began to play old tunes from Appalachia, songs from a time so far back that none of the people would have remembered it, perhaps not even their Grandmothers, but they all knew the words. And so it was that as their food settled and the coffee pot made the rounds that singing rose into the air and, in a way, replaced the smoke of the afternoon. Human memory is a strange thing, short, long, involved, often subject to distraction. Especially when music is present. Everyone joined the singing and that sound, along with the melodious guitar, soothed the threads of fear humming in each and every person in the circle. The fear everyone felt just like her, even the ones with smiles on their faces just like hers.
In the short space of collective breath a ragged sentence blossomed in the center of the song fest. “Look at that!” Like a well-timed performance all heads in the circle turned at the same time to the west. There, hovering less than a hands width above the horizon, was a huge blood red disk. It was not a sunset, not the kind the people in the camp knew from long years of experience in their own homelands. It was not that at all. The sky was a clear pale blue. Just the perfect blood red sun hung suspended. She had never seen anything like it. Not ever in all her travels across the world had she ever seen the likes of that sun. Of course everyone knew what it was. Of course. But it was disconcerting, disturbing, as if an omen had arrived on the earlier winds, waiting to interject a forbidding word into the lyrics of the circle. She was suddenly aware the entire wild world around the humans, the birds, the insects and the deepest reaches of the dusty forest were silent. Soon all the people left for their own tents taking their chairs and coffee cups with them. The first watch was due to begin as soon as the sun, the bloody fire sun had set.
She and her sister and a friend took the first watch. It felt better to her than waiting without sleeping. They took their chairs, a pair of binoculars, some tea and jackets and set up at the edge of the ridge near where they were camped. At first there was only smoke visible in the distance. It looked like a gray wave washing over the hills, snaking down the sides until the tendrils disappeared into the lower forest below where they could see. There was enough light yet to observe details through the binoculars though it seemed there was no flame, just smoke, lots of smoke. They wondered aloud if the fires had gone out; perhaps the immediate danger was passed. But the darkness crept closer and as the daylight slipped completely away it was obvious the fires were not gone, they were raging worse than ever. When the sky was finally black as ink the truth of what was happening a few miles away stunned her and the others. Even without the aid of binoculars it was clear the fires had begun to feed on new forest. A tree would explode sending flames high into the night. The entire ridge, only ten miles away from the camp, was consumed by fire. It was a sobering sight, difficult to comprehend but very, very real. The reality of hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres burning in front of them was an impossible fact. Nothing could be done during the night but watch. And wait.
Sometime around midnight the new watch arrived. The women reported that the wind had not shifted and that the fire appeared to have moved across the ridge but not further in the direction of the camp. She said goodnight to her sister and collapsed on her cot immediately falling into a deep sleep. In her dream the thunder and lightning was chasing her down a steep hill, she was tripping and falling and crying out for her sister. And then she bolted upright on the cot as the interior lit up like noonday. The real thunder was deafening, coming from every direction it seemed. Jagged lightning crackled across the sky illuminating dark, angry clouds overhead, thunder heads building along the ridge. No rain fell, no winds blew, just a chaotic display by the weather gods, the newly appointed ones, in charge of global climate change and its unpredictable events. She watched the continual zig zag threads of electricity being thrown back and forth between massive cloud formations accompanied by base notes that literally shook her body. For two hours she watched, waiting to see if the gods might become careless and loose a lightning bolt on the part of the earth where the camp slept. Such a capricious thing would ignite the dry timber all around and bring the fire instantly to the ridge on which she stood. There would be no time to escape, to find safety.
The night passed without event, as strange as that was when first light dawned on the camp. Those who had sat watch, their eyes bleary from straining to evaluate the fires, were somewhat relieved to report only a small change. The fires had moved down the hill, most likely prompted by a lightning strike during the night. The fire was now closer but they could already hear the National Guard planes in the air along with the water helicopters. So, breakfast was served up with prayers for the firefighters, for the safety of those who were in the path of the fire, for the safety of all the living creatures in that forest and for the forest itself, burning hot and wild. (Much later she read an online article that the fires burning in the U.S. this summer caused a strange sight. The fires burned trees at such an intense heat that their trunks were fused into ninety-degree bends, as though they had bowed to the forces that caused their death. The suffering of those trees must have been unimaginable.)
The camp broke up after breakfast and people packed and left. She and her sister did the same, lingering only long enough to hug and kiss everyone goodbye. The smell of smoke clung to activities, drifted through the efforts to tidy up and enjoy the last moments of friendship. Days later all campers had arrived home safely, from across the United States, from Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria. No one from the camp was injured by the fires that had raged along the South Dakota/Wyoming border. However, 9,000 acres burned and many homes were destroyed, businesses were lost, livestock and countless wild creatures were killed. And four young men from North Carolina lost their lives when a National Guard C-130 plane went down in the fires.
The new earth is becoming different than the one we have known for the past ten thousand years during which we came of age as humans, developed cities and towns, began cultivating grains and refined our civilizations. We have caused immense damage to the systems upon which we and all the creatures who reside here with us depend. This new earth will be hotter and wetter, drier and more stressed, all its life support systems strained under the building CO2 in the atmosphere. The fires that I watched burn a mere ten miles away this summer brought me to a gut level understanding of reality. Have there always been fires? Of course; but these fires are different and they will burn longer and hotter each year, beginning earlier and lasting far into what used to be the cool and gentle fall. They will consume more forest releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.
There will be many more red suns.