California Dreamin’ ~ Smoke on the Water

2018 Camp Fire

‘All the leaves are falling’ I overheard someone say in downtown Mill Valley and I misremembered the lines of the Mamas & Papas hit song. And although it is starting to feel like a winter day, this post is about neither song mentioned in the title. Today is the day before Halloween and there is an eeriness in the air. It’s a combination of the changing seasons and the eve of a holiday celebrating spookiness but more than just a vibe, the eeriness in the air is also literal. There is a massive fire burning one county to the north that is blowing smoke into the air that is spreading for miles. The fear of fire was the justification for the planned power outage that keeps our Library in the dark today. 

The Kincade Fire at the time of this writing is 30% contained, has scorched 76,825 acres and has its own Wikipedia page. It began a week ago today and on my commute to Marin from the East Bay, I could see the smoky haze in front of me. I assumed everyone felt like me – with the recognition that it was only the beginning of something more serious. As Jerry Brown put it, ‘the new abnormal’ fire season had begun. What struck me on that drive, though, was how crystal clear the Golden Gate appeared. Karl the Fog was at bay and the Sonoma smoke so far north that the eastern sunrise over the hills brought out the best of the international orange of the iconic bridge. The details of Angel Island were recognizable and seemed so much more in focus than an average day. The water appeared deep blue but I also knew what was ahead of me. On my commute the following day the first words that came to mind when I saw the bay were smoke on the water. It still wasn’t too bad – just a low hanging shroud over the water like wisps of fog over a swamp. It was beautiful but I also understood that the beauty of this spot was caused by the destruction of another & I thought of all the fennel in flames to my north as I sped past fennel gone to seed in the median of the highway. 

About this time last year, our Library closed due to smoke pollution from the Camp Fire, some 175 miles to our northeast. I wasn’t sent home early that day because I was already driving towards Death Valley for the weekend, a 575 mile drive that never eluded the smoke from the combined force of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. Presumably at some point the smoke from the Camp Fire met the smoke from the Woolsey Fire but I couldn’t pinpoint where because it all looked and smelled the same to me. Almost everyone was wearing or wanting a respiratory mask. 

This year our Library made preparations for when – not if –  wildfires return. We hoped, and still hope for, a generator so that we can remain open the next time we lose power. We preemptively ordered respiratory masks not just for staff but our patrons, too. We discussed circulating backpacks full of camping tools (flashlights and first aid kits) year-round to hikers and campers that we could then use as emergency kits during the next emergency. We stocked the Library with lanterns and flashlights. We brainstormed ideas for activities and programs we could offer our community with the lights out. Personally, I’ve been hoarding some canned food and water at my desk in case I’m unable to cross the bay back to my home during an emergency. But what struck me during our staff meeting discussion was that all of us had already accepted that it will happen again – not if it will happen. And here we are: almost exactly one year after the Camp Fire smoke closed our Library, we’re closed today as the Kincade Fire burns near the area that burned in the Tubbs Fire almost two years ago this month. And when did every fire begin receiving a name like every hurricane? It’s just part of adapting to the new abnormal. 

As my coworkers made plans for the next wildfire related emergency, I thought of an analogy I’ve heard used a few times about the human response to climate change being like a frog boiled slowly and not realizing the water was getting hot until it’s too late. The new abnormal may not be normal but it is here. As my coworkers discussed the needs, gaps and options for the next fire, I thought of the boiled frog analogy and how quick my Library shifted to accepting responding to wildfires as part of our work responsibility. Of course, frogs will actually jump out of the water if put to the test and now that we are being tested, I hope we too will respond to the warming of our environment.

Inspired in part by our staff meeting addressing how to respond to the next wildfire, our Library is introducing a new program called Borrowed Time. Beginning in January of 2020, the Mill Valley Public Library will offer a year-long series of events addressing climate change. Each month will focus on a different aspect of climate change and we will offer year-long activities and actions for our community to participate in. This blog, and a corresponding podcast series, will compliment our programming.

So why Borrowed Time? The short answer is because that’s what we’ve got. Report after report verifies the need to drastically respond to climate change in the next ten years before irreversible damage leaves an uninhabitable planet. Every new report becomes more bleak & I’m reminded of the book I referenced in the previous sentence written by David Wallace-Wells that begins with, ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think.’ I’ve spent countless hours stuck in traffic this year on my commute to work each day asking myself what the role and responsibility of a library is to address climate change. At first, I didn’t have an answer but I recognized that to do nothing was a disservice to the community I serve. I felt everything else I do at work is meaningless if climate change is ignored. So a year-long series of events addressing climate change seemed like a good starting point but Mill Valley is a relatively small community and I asked myself what difference would we make. 

We want Borrowed Time to extend beyond our Library and encourage other libraries and librarians to bring radical awareness about climate change to their communities however they are able. We will share information & resources where we can, including our blog and podcast series, and encourage librarians from libraries elsewhere to share their climate change related recordings and writings with the Borrowed Time program, too. 

So, what is the role of the library during the existential crisis of our times? The answer will vary from place to place because every community and every library has different needs and challenges. A starting point may be providing core library services such as providing  information to people, circulating materials and offering programs but I would argue that the threat we are facing is so severe that libraries and librarians need to do more than add new books to the collection that get buried on the shelves. At my library near where the wildfires burn, the books could be covered in ash before dust. For that reason, my Library isn’t going to be neutral. Climate change is real and we need to respond before we run out of time.

Andrew Murphy of Mill Valley Public Library