Exiting the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, I couldn’t help but notice the ethereal haze hanging over everything like a moldy yellow blanket. “Wow, I haven’t seen this much smog in years,” I told my wife, recalling the overcast days of my childhood when we were forced to stay inside. Then I remembered what I’d been reading about before leaving the Philippines; the worst wildfire season in California history. Ah, not smog but smoke, I realized with an involuntary shudder. And just like that I was back in a world strangely familiar yet eerily changed.
Wild fires are nothing new in California. Almost every year for as long as anyone can remember they’ve sparked the dry kindling of the hillsides to be spread by the Santa Ana winds in the hot summer months. Ecologists characterize the annual burnings as part of a natural cycle; nature’s own way of clearing excess brush to make way for the new. Prior to the Euro-American settlement of the 1800s, in fact, some 1.5 million of the state’s 100 million acres burned naturally each year, a phenomenon that the region’s Native American population mitigated for eons by starting smaller controlled fires to keep the wild ones in check.
Those smaller burns continued, to some extent, into the mid-twentieth century; I remember occasionally seeing them alongside the freeways as I was growing up. Eventually, though, pressure from environmentalists made the burns sparse, contributing to the volatile situation that we find today.
“We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact,” award-winning environmental reporter Elizabeth Weil wrote in a recent issue of the independent nonprofit publication, ProPublica. “We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over 100 years.”
Toss in a gaggle of aging electrical wires prone to sparking conflagrations plus just enough climate change to fan the flames and the results are catastrophic: 79 fires now raging in three West Coast states that have consumed 5 million acres of land, killed at least 35 people, destroyed thousands of structures and thrown up smoke plumes reaching all the way to Europe.
The health effects are potentially dire. Breathing the smoke-filled air, one Portland resident told the Washington Post, is “like sticking yourself in a little room with 12 people all around you, smoking cigarettes.”
The psychological effects may be even worse. Glenn Albrecht, an Australian environmental philosopher, recently recalled working with residents of one of the world’s largest coal export ports distressed over dramatic environmental changes related to heavy industry and open-pit mines. Theirs, he told the Los Angeles Times, was a pain “experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.”
Eventually Albrecht came up with a name for the malaise: “solastalgia,” a combination of the words nostalgia, solace and desolation which, he wrote in a 2014 essay, is “manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.” What it amounts to, he concluded, is “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.”
Perhaps that’s what I was feeling when I got off that plane. Now, just days later, it has morphed into a more traditional kind of homesickness; a not-so-subtle longing for the islands I left behind.
Want to get Expat Eye each week in your mailbox? Sign up here.
David Haldane authored the award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and broadcaster whose radio work received a Golden Mike from the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California. He lives in Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their two children. http:///felixr28.sg-host.com
Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily