One Big Day is, by design, a sunny can-do project. Implicit is the idea that we might — really should—periodically engineer a single day where we try to make something happen. Something meaningful and lovely and maybe a little bit life-changing.
But Big Days also just occur on their own. And sometimes they’re very un-lovely, though no less life-changing for all of that. When the sun sets on such a day, all that will be remembered is the devastation.
I have just finished my Advanced Reader’s Copy of Fire Weather, John Vaillant’s read-it-through-your-fingers account of the natural disaster that befell the residents of Fort MacMurray, Alberta, in the spring of 2016.
On May 3, the entire population of the city of 90,000 was evacuated as wildfire 009 – dubbed “the Beast” – jumped the river, rolled through and laid waste to pretty much every stick of those people’s built lives, leaving incalculable grief and a dark cloak of portent over the 21st century.
The book is an instant classic. It’ll be talked about in 100 years. If, that is, people are still around to talk about it.
Okay, that’s hyperbole. But this is the way Fire Weather gets you thinking – in extremities. Which is arguably the way we should be thinking. Because complacency isn’t working for us all that great.
Like all of Vaillant’s books, Fire Weather is about one thing and many things; a single news story and its cosmic implications. In this case a chemical event and its metaphoric redoundings.
I can imagine John pitching this one to his agent.
“Got a new book idea for you, Stuart.”
“Great. What’s it about?”
“Uh huh. Got anything new to say about … fire?”
“I think, so, yeah.”
You’re not meant to quote from an ARC in case the passage gets cut from the final published but. But I’m pretty sure that’s not gonna happen with this scene-setting bit, so here goes. It’ll give you an idea of the scope and scale of the thinking, of the cosmic fingerspitzengefuhl, happening in these pages.
I was born in the 1960s, but I personally knew people born in the 1870s and ‘80s, when the petroleum industry was in its infancy and Standard Oil was a start-up. The Civil War, waged by horse- and manpower, was a raw and recent memory then; Queen Victoria reigned over a global empire held together by sailing ships, and the climate visionaries Svante Arrhenius and Arvid Hogbom were still in high school. In 1875, Chicago was still rebuilding after its great fire, the battle at Little Big Horn had not yet been won or lost, and boreal explorers were still fantasizing about how men might one day turn Alberta bitumen into money. Back then, 1.3 billion people walked the planet – literally, because there were no cars. Nor was there plastic, and the Keeling Curve of CO2 had only just begun its relentless upward bending. That world — the same one into which people whose hands I touched were born – is so close temporally (I looked into their eyes; I felt their breath), and yet it is so remote chemically, biologically, atmospherically, technologically, anthropogenically from the world we inhabit now, the world we are currently unmaking, the world our children are inheriting that resembles, less and less, the one that made us.