West of Eden

Climate migration and the imagined pristine

For my money, the best wildfire in literature is the fire that takes the life of Robert Grainier’s wife and daughter in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. The passage in the novella I think about the most describes its aftermath, as Grainier surveys the burned valley that was his home from the Spokane International Railroad. Like many of Johnson’s characters, he is something of a cipher, a protagonist granted little overt subjectivity. Nonetheless, his trauma is obvious and haunting:

All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dream-like business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching the daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world (p. 43)

The fire in Train Dreams takes place in north Idaho in 1920, but it’s a clear stand-in for the Big Burn of 1910, a three-million-acre conflagration throughout the northern Rockies that was disproportionately responsible for the U.S. Forest Service’s subsequent fire suppression mania. Montana and Idaho have always been wildfire country, and even when the forests that are burning are hundreds of miles away, the V-shaped river valleys of the Bitterroots and Selkirks and Cabinet Mountains are veritable magnets for smoke. A few weeks ago, Missoula’s punishingly bad air quality made the opinion pages of the New York Times.

With this in mind, there is something darkly comic about a current slate of stories of (largely affluent) climate refugees leaving California for the mountain West. Take a recent piece in SFGATE about designer Sasha Vermel, who decided that because the “2020 wildfire season had been relentless” she would “fly to Missoula, Montana for the weekend and look at houses.” Or evacuees of the Camp Fire relocating to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, their choice feted by regional lifestyle magazines. “The transience of white people has put us in this situation where they don’t even know who they are, where they come from; the idea that I’m just going to keep moving to greener pastures”, says Winona LaDuke in a recent New York Times Magazine interview (thanks, Nate).

The line between moving to greener pastures because you are unwilling to accept the tradeoffs inherent to living in real places and moving because climate change is a threat to the health and safety of you and your family is a tricky one to draw. Denver’s AQI has been bad enough for long enough that transplants who leave because they can’t see the mountains and have scratchy throats fall on both sides of it at once; it’s an environmental justice issue because plenty of families with deeper roots can’t or won’t pack up and go. Monday’s IPCC report has only prompted more discussion about how climate migration will reshape our world. It should also be a reminder to pay attention to the people who are staying put.

Right now the settler search for the last best place is for a search somewhere that climate change hasn’t touched; the imagined pristine of Duluth or Vermont or Bozeman. We’re always wrong, but the sentiment is understandable. We spent three generations creating paradises that had never existed, arid forests and oak savannas without fire, coasting along through seasons that were wetter than they should have been. You can have it all. But only for a while. A handful of decades, maybe a century. Maybe we did. Those years are gone now.