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By now, you’ve probably seen the pictures: hellish red skies over the San Francisco skyline, street lamps lit in midday to compensate for a sun obscured by ash, hazy and barren cityscapes more fit for an apocalyptic movie than a weekday morning in September. These striking images are also what I woke up to — not just on national news alerts, but also on the social media pages of my friends and family in Oakland, 3,000 miles away from my dorm in the Yard.
“No cap,” one friend wrote to me through Snapchat, “it looks and feels like actual hell out here.” That night, I called my parents to see how they were holding up. Nearly seven months of COVID-19 shelter-in-place meant that they were both accustomed to staying indoors, but the magnitude of the situation was clear. “This is the worst it’s ever been,” my dad told me over the phone. “You picked a good time to leave.”
As a first-year, introducing myself to new people (or, in Harvard-speak, “building my network”) is practically a part-time job, and I’ve performed my introductory tidbit enough times that I can probably say it in my sleep: “Hi I’m Eleanor from Oakland, California yes the actual city yes it is Very Liberal no I do not expect to survive the winter here also did you know that my state is currently on fire hahaha?”
In these exchanges, we offer quirky facts and slight digs at the places that we’re from — maybe offering these concessions in anticipation of judgement, or maybe because we want to shield ourselves from what it actually feels like to miss home. So each time I introduce myself to someone new and do the real-life version of “lol”-ing about the fact that my home is facing its most dangerous fire season ever, I’m not being entirely honest with my new acquaintance nor with myself. What I don’t share is that in being here, in Cambridge, watching my world burn through a phone screen, I feel a disembodied grief. What I don’t share is that I feel a survivor’s guilt for being able to breathe.
Every year for the past four years, Northern California has been devastated by late-autumn wildfires. If you’re lucky, it starts out small — a faint scent of smoke, a subtle thickening of the parched air, a slight bitterness that only the most attuned noses and throats can detect. By the end of the day, the world before you is unrecognizable. Streets are emptied. Birds stop singing. The smoke-sheathed sun covers everything in an eerie orange hue, and the air you breathe is no longer a respite but razor-sharp betrayal to your lungs.
Last year, the year before, and the year before that, the all-consuming effects of fire season persisted for weeks on end. So life went on. We wore masks before it was cool, kept air quality index reports loaded on our phones, rationalized a new normal in whatever way we could. Most of us in Oakland, being out of the direct line of fire, were fortunate enough to emerge each December physically unscathed. But there were some things that we could never get back: senior-year fall sports championships, final homecoming dances, youthful naiveté about the direction that the world was heading. I still remember drafting college essays in my English class in junior year, trying desperately to “imagine myself 20 years into the future” as the Camp Fire obliterated the town of Paradise and the room became steeped in the bitter eulogy of the sky. When I closed my eyes, the bleeding of the sun was still the only thing I could see.
At Harvard, the rest of my life extends infinitely before me. I open my windows to fresh air, savor the blue sky above the Yard, form lifelong friendships, and dream about the possibilities in my future. When I left Oakland, the air quality was stifling; in Cambridge, there is no smoke that clouds my vision, no firestorm that keeps me constrained in visceral fear. I’ve been here for just a month, and I can almost forget what it feels like not to be able to breathe.
Because in a world on fire, a world drying and drowning, a world with 10 years left before irreversible climate catastrophe, this is what it means to have the rest of your life open ahead of you: to know that someday, when you need to breathe most, there will be nowhere left to go.
Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Stoughton Hall.
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