When I first moved to Virginia, I remember passing hurricane evacuation signs on the highways, directing citizens what roads to take in the event of an evacuation. Those signs were clear indicators I had moved to a coastal town, but I found them amusing in the same way I find signs at state parks that warn about bears amusing – they’re foreign, a danger I’ve never even considered before, and so my first response is to laugh.
I grew up around Atlanta, where the biggest worry we had was the occasional tornado. My mom worried over thunderstorms and lightning strikes, but the weather was never an event for me.
But once I relocated to Virginia, I began to understand the elements in a new way. I remember my first big storm, a Nor’easter during my final year of MFA school. I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Ghent, one block behind the Naro Cinema. I lived alone, and all I knew of my neighbors was that someone across the courtyard played violin, the family next to me had a very rambunctious son, and someone above me cried often. We were all strangers, and I was alone.
Once I lost power during the Nor’easter, I got bored quickly. I couldn’t work on my manuscript because I would quickly drain the power from my computer. I couldn’t watch TV, and since the storm was so intense, the apartment was dark, and I couldn’t turn on the lights. So I laid in bed a lot, watching the storm out my window. I called people, updating my mom every few hours, draining my phone’s battery.
At one point during the final night of the storm, when it was at its most intense, I saw green flashes. It was like something from War of the Worlds, the sky flickering an eerie green the color of Nickelodeon slime. I had never seen green lightning before. I had never experienced a storm so strong.
When I finally left town the next day, my power still out, it took me an hour just to get out of the city – major intersections were filled with water. Cars had floated out into the middle of major roadways.
That Nor’easter, and subsequent hurricanes the past two years, filled me with a healthy respect for weather. The natural world is mightily indifferent to humans, to possessions, to property values or power lines. Living in Norfolk gave me a healthy fear of and respect for water – water that rises and recedes daily, that floods during big storms. Norfolk is a city that we hear is sinking, and I can believe it.
I’ve been in California for two weeks, and yesterday, as I walked downstairs from my apartment to take trash to the dumpster, I noticed a red haze across the sky, pluming up, obscuring my view of the mountains. It was the same effect as draping a red scarf over a lamp. I assumed it was a dust storm in the distance because yesterday was really windy.
But it wasn’t a dust storm – it was (is) a fire. Brush fires have raged for 24 hours now, burning at least 10,000 acres from Camarillo (the town next to us) to the coast. Last night, taking a break from watching the news, we stood on our balcony and took this photo. The red glow you see is the fire; usually, I can see mountain peaks there, but last night, we could see the glow of flames, the plumes of smoke.
We are safe – the fire is not spreading in our direction – but as I watched footage of flames spreading, licking at chaparral, the burning foliage blown about by the winds – I realized that my new home has brought me to a new fear/respect: fire.
In California, summer (and early autumn) is the dry season, fire season, where we are at single-digit humidity; I’m from the South, where humidity is so thick you feel like you can squish it through your fingers. It hits you like a heavy wet blanket when you leave the house. I can barely fathom single-digit humidity.
In the book I’m writing, I have a character who moves from the west coast to Virginia, the reverse of my journey, and as I wrote in my journal today about the fire, I thought about my first encounters with hurricanes, rising tides, flood planes. I remembered green lightning and torrential downpours. Weather has a way of humbling us, of showing us its might. I have made a journey from coast to coast, yes, but I have also journeyed between weather extremes, from water to fire, both elements that I know, from years of education in symbolism and literature, are cleansing in their own violent ways.
I had not realized it, but now that I see it, the move has become real in a new way: I’ve traded water for fire, and that feels big and important in a way I can’t even identify yet.