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Keep Swimming

Keep Swimming

Sarah-Dawn Albani & Connie Zheng


No one wants to accept the truck loads of debris that are already on the move out of Butte County—burnt over, transformed—the toxic instability of the materials of contemporary life revealed, wrapped in plastic, bound for landfills around the state. 

This is another way that the fire moves, another way that the fire gets inside us.

We are mesmerized by these moves which speak of the impossible scale at which we must think, if we are going to think climate cataclysm, if we are going to rub up on global warming. We can finger the traces but we want to pursue global warming as an entity, a haunting, a hyperobject. We like Timothy Morton’s term. The hyperobject is always already inside of us, we are permeated, embroiled, enmeshed. We know we can not see it all at once but we can learn a great deal by the moves it is making, the thrashings, and incinerations, the bending, breaking, and blowing apart. We seek the movement that the trace describes. Here in California we follow the moves of fire though the burn scar—it is not a dance we know—though it is familiar. It is an uncanny move—a sliding shadow in our peripheral vision. We look there because we believe that slide—the one that takes us through horror and into trauma—and maybe on to the ecstatic—is part of why we cannot make substantive moves to protect future generations from this crisis. We just can’t make sense of it, it is too much for us.

The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as [s/he] exists in the realm of discontinuity. —Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality

So when the town of Paradise burns to the ground and a friend in nearby Magalia invites us for a visit—we go. We go up there again and again in the months after the fire to see what remains—to look for traces. We want to study the way the fire moved, what it can accomplish, what a fire can make. On our second trip to Paradise the activity and tempo amid the wreckage has changed and our progress up Pentz Road is slowed by laborious and complex gestures that have begun to transform the ashen stillness. Pentz Road is a long climbing grade that becomes more densely developed as we go. Homesteads, tract housing, and trailer parks, churches, an orchard, a market, and the Feather River Hospital, destroyed, partially destroyed, or left unscathed but exposed, vulnerable and alone. A steady flow of trucks are taking away the massive ponderosa and Doug fir, the incense cedar and black oaks. The impressive charred bodies of the trees are being cut in pieces and stacked in piles. Trucks and machinery move in and out of the roadway and we slow or stop for the workers and their vehicles again and again on our way into town. Workers are moving methodically through the debris and everywhere there is the motion of a steady sorting, and raking, and sifting. The gaze is either far into the canopy of hundred foot trees or down low on the ground amid the debris—a coordinated effort to make sense and give order to the chaos of the cataclysm. We do not really know what is happening, all the parts do not equal a whole, but we can see that the material world has been broken into fragments, some so tiny we breathe them in on the wind. The idea of “the cleanup” is so overwhelming from our peripheral vantage, tucked as we are into the Prius, insulated and protected, just driving through, our own homes safely 170 miles away. We turn the music off on our way into Paradise, a hum comes through our body, an ugly excitement, a terrible awe.

The task at hand is absurd—an entire forest needs to be dismantled, the bulk of three towns. We watch the quiet human forms in white hazmat suits, masks obscuring their faces, bent over their work filling ridiculously tiny white plastic bags with debris, sealed up with heavy blue tape laid out in rows. They are working near a small white tent with the word “asbestos” on it and move so deliberately through the ash that they appear to be studying the dangerous inflammable objects they have been sent to retrieve.

• • •

All along the road we see signs offering hope and direction. “We Will Rebuild” is a common refrain and it feels like a mandate. Cleaning the debris from the fire becomes a moral issue. Other signs along the road read ominously, “Opt Out Here,” advertisements for dozens of independent contractors offering to do the hazardous work of debris removal without government involvement, vying for the millions of dollars that will be spent pushing this mess around. This idea is gaining traction and local people are suspicious of the FEMA-led effort. The right of entry forms property owners must sign are vague and coercive and allow the US government unfettered access to your place for the next three years. Other signs along the road speak to the psychic damage—“You Are Not Forgotten,” “You are Loved,” and, ominously, “Keep Swimming,” which has the effect of calling to mind a kind of zombie army defying their undead state, moving mindlessly forward, against all odds and even against their better judgement—a pioneer sensibility. 

There is a lonesome quality to the movements of the clean up. This wretched and hazardous work does require a single minded fortitude. Alone at the top of a ponderosa pine, some hundred feet high, an arborist is strapped in to dismantle the towering tree. We watch as the worker prepares to make a cut above the place they are harnessed. The whine of the chainsaw and the swaying of the tree make for a knot in the belly. Down below under the tree another worker calls out instructions and makes sure, with strategic ropes, that the pieces of the tree fall correctly to the debris strewn landscape below. It is dangerous and laborious work, and it is hard to see where it will take us. Everything feels improvised even as the American flags wave and the machinery whines on. 

• • •

Our first trip to Paradise was at the start of the new year, a month and a half after the fire had been contained. Driving around in stupefied awe, we noticed this impossibly tall vertical tangle of bent and leaning rods down in a ditch beside Billie Road. A mysterious form among mysterious forms, forty foot tall rods, some bent right in half, slumped and leaning into each other, a standing cluster in an ashen fleshy pink, we talked about them for days. Wondering over their scale and color, this form we saw nowhere else, we speculated on what they might be—some part of the power grid, water treatment pipes, a play structure— we could not agree on what we were seeing. The rest of the unknown burnt-over objects at least appeared to be a part of a repeating pattern—the grid of a trailer park, the shops and houses of the town. If we could not figure out what something was that we were looking at, we could at least see there were lots of these objects—bent and blackened, molten and made liquid. Forms repeated would eventually make sense in the context that their repetition gave: propane tanks, sheds, motorcycles, bird baths, power tools, engines, vehicles, trailers, greenhouses, fences, dishes, washing machines, mailboxes, garden hoses, filing cabinets, chimneys, desks, lamps, chicken coops, trash cans, rain gutters, air conditioners, screen doors, all strewn through the profusion of twisted and melted metal in sheets, girders, rods, and waves, folded, piled, ripped and curled into unrecognizable forms—but in repeating patterns along the roadways and driveways through the forest and up and down the ridge.

Walking around the ruins of these homes, the thing we notice—and then cannot un-see—is the corporeality of the alchemized material. Glass kneaded by fire into frosted putty, car aluminum pooled into inverted puddles, tires fire-whipped into wires draping onto the ground like long pine needles, or hairs from a coarse wig. We were mesmerized for a while by whitish patches of fur on the ground: they looked like the curls of a poodle, or a Santa Claus, but tightly blanketing the ground and the metal springs of gutted mattresses like a pelt, as if an animal had died and left only perfectly clean fur, no bones. Looking and looking and looking—we move through layers of confusion, misunderstanding, uncanny incredulity at the twisted up remains. Our bodies hum with the uncertainty, there is the palpable sense of slipping—what does it mean, what can we make it mean? Our anxious efforts to make sense of the nonsensical even while the patterns refuse to add up to a whole—this is a story that falls apart even as we try to tell it. We feel ourselves falling with it—a tumbling and a swooshing as the remains of the fire act on our bodies, we let our gaze be held, we do the work and stay with it. We do this work to attempt to deny the spectacularization of Paradise, to loosen its hold on our imagination. This is a real place, with real people, teeming still with shifting sets of relations, even if they do not look as they used to. We want to drop into what is bodily here—to sense without making sense—to remain in the gap—to view the rupture in this way and stay with it as our work. We see here a transformation—and it troubles and excites—pointing to something deeply other. The familiar objects become strange—as if they have arrived from another dimension—their old names need verbs attached—descriptors of the movement—the slippery in-betweenness.

It is disturbing to realize that we still do not know what it actually looked, felt, smelled and sounded like—that we still can not really know—even as we study these remains. Our bodies are alienated from the searing physicality of a fire roaring past 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to melt the siding of a house, hollow out the roots of a tree, wrestle plastic polymers into liquid and gas. Everything is broken open and even our own memories of the encounter with the Camp Fire smoke have faded to a soft pink phantom burning in the throat.

In the Bay Area on November 11th in the sky was a miasmic veil, a stew of pastel colors that lingered for too long in certain registers at all the wrong times. It was like banana milk mixed with concrete water, strawberry frosting burnt at the edges with chemical fire. The air smelled singed, and while it was difficult to identify what kind of burning it was, the news media made it quite clear that what we were smelling was not just 153,336 acres of burnt trees, but mostly burnt cars and trash cans and plastic bottles and aluminum sheets and some animals and people. Occasionally we would see a moth—wing of ash flutter and land on our hands. 

It was too easy to call the sky and the time apocalyptic and to join the choruses in the Bay that redoubled around the word: we raised the cry whenever we emerged from our lairs onto the streets, on social media, in text messages sent to friends and family far away who heard about the #campfire from a slurry of digital images and words. Of course, it is now nearly impossible to unearth social media posts referencing the fire from that hashtag, if one feels compelled to perform a search; its semiotic function has mutated back into a photogenic quilt of crisped marshmallows and mittened laughter amidst saturated pines. Cold flavorless images, with all the ghostliness of the sloughed skin of a snake.

Apocalypse: Αποκαλυψις, a revelation erupted through a dream. 

Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. (Book of Revelation, Chapter 7 Line 3)

Professor Matthew Gabriele from Virginia Tech points out that the vision transmitted to John in the Book of Revelation was thought to reveal the “arc of sacred history and the tribulations along the way, as it bends back finally towards paradise once more.” Paradise for whom, salvation for which coterie of chosen few? We are disturbed by the gesture of calling our experience of the Camp Fire here in the Bay Area apocalyptic: it feels too dismissive, too imagistic, too virtual a descriptor for the irruptions of the poisonous smoke in our bodies and the horror of the fires up north. The word “apocalypse” used in this context feels recognizable, broadcasted to us through news stories and cinema, most familiarly as cautionary morality tales set amidst catastrophic eco-apartheid. We know how the story ends. Death is blanched of its libidinousness and no longer corporeal: simply another menu item summoned at the behest of a click.

Discontinuous yet immortal, destined to hurtle along the light-path of eternal growth and settlement that has served as the backbone of the Californian mythos. We can always keep swimming. The gold will continue to bloom in our pans.

Because the official history of our state is tied to that of the Gold Rush, because our very home here in the Bay Area is ground zero for a neo-settler-pioneerism, because we arrived at this place with our own visions, which have mutated over time—we are fascinated by the kinds of alchemies that have shaped the mythologies of California. Water to gold, marijuana to gold, data to gold. We live in a land whose mythos has been shaped by chrysopoeia, the transmutation of common commodities to gold in the creation of the philosopher’s stone. The relentlessly transmuted material left behind by the Camp Fire suggests a chrysopoeia we do not recognize, a direction of atomic and elemental movement that breaks with our understanding of how matter should move. How matter is limited and delimited. How our bodies should change. How our bodies should continue to exist, which we slowly begin to understand as: not in the way we have assumed they would. 

The most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being. —Georges Bataille, Erotism

Looking at the remains of the fire we find ourselves circling around, and continually landing upon, Bataille’s revelation—we are continuous beings who must believe we are discontinuous beings—that we have borders, boundaries, a locatable self. We are haunted by our own permeability, our slippery and porous nature, death as a transmogrification of materiality instead of a transcendence. The ethic of the alchemist is challenged in the fire—there may not be any gold here at all. What if the cataclysm reveals instead what we always already were—fluid, boundless, mutable, and permeable. This looking we are doing entangles us, transforms and reveals us to ourselves—we are moving, we are in between—never static. We are vulnerable here facing loss of language, loss of limits and the very boundaries of the material world challenged. The moves of fire reveal the the illusion of those boundaries.

• • •

The next time we go up to Paradise the clean-up has been officially halted. After weeks of rain and snow and hail, the creeks and rivers are at full volume, the burnt-over land is fragile, and all along Skyway Road the oaks, burnt at their bases, are toppling from the weight and the wind. Those that stand are balanced like dancers poised on pointe, tapering black feet in the vivid green grass. It is too dangerous to continue felling trees in the rain and the debris too wet to be hauled away. We decide to go back to Billie Road. Those pink pipes down in the ditch had become a riddle and we could not stop thinking about them. We figured with the work paused we might be able to take a better look. We drive out through the remains of housing developments and churches, gas stations and almost to the park before we see them again. We pass by three times before we are able to slow and get a really good look. Bamboo. It is very tall bamboo, some of them bent in half but still standing fifteen to twenty feet high. Their ashen pink bodies like Butoh dancers reaching out from the waist, leaning into each other for support, or doubled over towards the earth. It is reassuring to know what the alien forms are. Something that flutters inside the belly has settled down, a disquieting quivering has ceased. The mysterious shapes have a name, the name has a meaning, a history, content we can understand, part of a pattern, repeating itself until we learn it. Language returns and we step away from the void, death retreats and the melancholy game is over for now. •

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