Of Departing Kansas
Not literally, since I’ve never entered Kansas in the first place, but the way Dorothy Gale does early in The Wizard of OZ, when she emerges from her somewhat battered house to find herself in the middle of a strange city.
What brought this to mind is seeing the headlines about the bushfires in Australia – and remembering one of the nasty fire seasons I’ve lived through. I never faced anything like the worst of the fires, but I do know how bad they can get, and I did watch flames playing around bush near where we lived (and more to the point, watching them and hoping like hell the flames didn’t get close enough to the big gas tank to cause… issues).
More than that, I remember the feeling of unreality that hovered around at the time, then and in several other crises and natural disasters I’ve had the good – or bad – fortune to experience. Oh, I’ve never been in the worst of things, but I’ve lived through the joys of watching the major rivers and wondering not when they’ll break their banks but by how much; and I’ve seen the aftermath of an earthquake (that was eerie). And of course the fire weather.
All of this – and I imagine that those of you who have been through far more… interesting events would tell me that it’s the same for those as well – had a sense of other about them, as if the departure from normal everyday was something that couldn’t happen without reality jumping a few universes over. None of the individual pieces that made up the feeling were in any way unknown, either. It’s just that combined they made a familiar place seem alien.
In a bad fire season, there’s the smell of smoke that never really goes away. Everything seems to be permeated with it, and there’s a haze in the air that’s not like any normal atmospheric phenomenon. At night, and on clearer days, the closer fires show, and the lines of flame seem to dance as they burn. The absence of firefighters – because they’re after the bigger, more dangerous fires – lends extra weirdness to the scene, and nobody tries to do anything about them because there are water restrictions, no way to get close to the fire with enough water to do any good, and most people are more concerned about trying to save their own homes if it comes to that.
Nothing is normal. Buses are rerouted because roads are closed. Train lines are closed. So are some of the roads. Some places are completely cut off. Others, there are long detours because there’s so much more traffic pushed onto the safe routes. Ash, everything from coarse black sooty stuff to fine white dust, is everywhere and coats everything.
And yet everyone tries to get on with whatever they need to be doing. Those who can get to work still go to work. Schools continue, albeit with a lot more looking out windows to check whether the smoke plumes are advancing. There’s a sense of skating over an abyss, as if stopping to consider what’s going on will cause a disaster. People just… keep doing what they have to as if it’s the only thing they can do.
Flood weather… is similar. There’s the constant damp, of course, and watching any visible waterways obsessively. Checking daily for the flooding notices, and the detours. Seeing the rivers that are normally sluggish, brownish, tame bodies of water turn into churning messes that eat land. Wondering whether the flood will peak before it reaches you. It didn’t feel quite as alien as the fire season, possibly because the fire season just kept spawning new fires where with flooding, once it peaks it starts to go down, and rain is just… rain, although seeing what used to be riverside homes and businesses turned into rubble can be disturbing.
This is something I grew up with – not the sense of disaster, but the knowledge that bad fires happen and that floods happen. I’ve been in a car that was one of the last to get through before the highway was closed because of flooding, and watched the rising water lapping at the road we were driving on. It’s part of the cycle in Australia – droughts with bad fires are broken by floods then the next drought settles in. So much so that there are more than a few plants there that can’t germinate without a fire.
When I was growing up, it was common knowledge that there should be regular controlled burns in the off-season. Every time the environmentalist lobby forces a stop, there are catastrophic fires, and every time once the fires die down there’s a new resurgence of locally extinct plants coming back. I’ve seen the cycle a few times now – it’s way past time everyone realized that nature is not tame and nature is not a mother (except in a rather specialized sense that involves rather nasty language). It’s also time we remembered that we can, for the most part, live with nature. We just need to remember that there will be no mercy and every mistake can be fatal.