I was housebound in Brooklyn the day that Paradise burned to the ground. Just two weeks before, in October of 2018, I’d carried a heavy box six blocks through downtown. It was at least five blocks too many. By the time I reached the car, my peripheral nervous system felt like an internal highway clogged with rush hour traffic. It pulsed, sizzled, and stung with an overload of sensations it was unable to process. That night, my legs couldn’t carry me the fifteen steps from the sofa to my bed. My roommate Rossi found me collapsed in the hallway, sobbing incoherently, I carried a box…
Five years into my struggle with Lyme disease, I was well acquainted with weakness, difficulty walking, and long, housebound months. But until now, I had always been able to get myself from room to room inside my small apartment. I spent the next five months inside, mostly in my bedroom. I had been teaching two Gender Studies classes I loved at Rutgers University, classes I had to relinquish. When I finally gained the strength to walk across the street, it was early March. Winter had been a sight, not a feeling: I watched snow accumulate on the fire escape, but never felt the cold. The world outside was lost to me.
Three weeks into my confinement, on November 8, 2018, a spark from a PG&E transmission power line lit the parched grasses on Camp Road east of Paradise, California on fire. Fanned by winds reaching fifty miles per hour, walls of flame tore through the foothill towns of Concow, Magalia, Paradise, and into the eastern edge of Chico, my hometown, at the record-breaking rate of one football field per second. Paradise is so named because of the cooling two-thousand-foot elevation and towering Ponderosa Pines that offer welcome relief from the one-hundred-and-seven-degree days that bake the valley floor below. That day, Paradise was destroyed by its own greatest asset. Seven years of drought had created “negative rain”: more moisture had evaporated from the trees into the air, than had fallen down as rain. The town was a campfire lying in wait, with mobile home parks nestled between the dry logs like bundles of newspaper. The only reason its twenty-thousand residents stood a chance was the foresight of their mayor, Jody Jones, a disaster-preparedness expert who had carefully outlined a city-wide evacuation plan in the all-too-probable event of fire. Yet when the Camp Fire sparked, plans went awry.
The only major road leading westward out of Paradise, which clings to the edge of a ridge on its two-thousand-foot vertical descent to Chico, became a miles-long traffic jam that locked cars in place in the midst of advancing wildfire. Eighty-six people lost their lives, the majority incinerated inside their cars, houses, or mobile homes. Those who died were those unable to run due to bad knees, fragile hips, and aging bodies kept upright by canes and walkers. Cars burned so hot they became unrecognizable hunks of twisted metal lining the road, while more than nineteen thousand structures burned, including fourteen thousand homes, reduced to piles of ashes between the scarred pines. The heat of the flames transformed people into dust; identifying who had been lost required weeks of painstaking work sifting for bone fragments that preserved DNA.
As a young child, Paradise anchored the eastern edge of my known world. As a teenager, it was where my friends and I could push against those boundaries, ascending into the hills to find ourselves in the night sky, or catch the new Will Wheaton movie when Chico’s three theaters failed to book his latest “masterpiece.” Few things are as naturalized to me as this: Paradise is the town next door. I can imagine so vividly its pine-shrouded strip malls and trailer parks, but I can’t seem to imagine it gone, wiped off the map, consumed in a single November morning by the hottest and fastest-moving flames in California’s history of wildfire. The naturalized fact, denaturalized.
Meanwhile, I was at home in New York, trying to work up the energy to take a shower. Showering was an ordeal I attempted only every five to six days. Afterwards, I was so fatigued I couldn’t speak for hours. It took two days to recover what little strength I had: enough to lift the bottles of medicine containing the sixty pills I swallow each day, and to move soup, kindly prepared by my neighbor Todd, one spoonful at a time from the container inside the fridge into a plastic bowl.
Lyme disease has taught me to suspect that what is naturalized can be denatured beyond repair. That my mind and body transform alchemically, at times leaving the world unrecognizable: forks become too heavy to lift, words like “best” too difficult to find, toaster ovens too complex to operate, and my own writing too challenging to read. I’ve watched my roommate bring in a bag of groceries and thought: she’s so strong, next she’s going to pick up that bookcase and march it down the hallway. When I lose the neurological capacity to process moving objects for months at a time, my apartment becomes not only my home but my world. If I do venture out, my hyper-acute senses transform the city streets into a pinball machine and I’m the ball, directionless and ricocheting wildly off every stimulus in my path. If a truck honks its horn, I burst into tears. Sometimes I make a necessary text or phone call: The signs says 12th and Broadway. What does that mean? Where am I?
Alarmed at my sudden decline during my first month of illness, my friend Sam stood agape as I stumbled down my short hallway, grabbing onto bookcases to keep me upright. This is just how I walk now, I reassured. At 2 a.m. in an uptown ER, I explained to the resident neurologist that, I only shake uncontrollably when I try to lift really heavy things, like a glass of water. Perhaps my consciousness was protecting me from confronting the reality of my deterioration. Incapacitation, suddenly naturalized.
Lyme disease has been called the first epidemic of climate change. Ticks thrive on mice and other small mammals, even more so than on deer, and those mammals proliferate in the warmer winters and chopped-up forests that have decimated their predators. Humans now live in closer proximity to other animals than we used to, and our illnesses have become “zoonotic;” three out of every four new infectious diseases spread from wildlife and livestock to people, including COVID-19, Ebola, and SARS. Annual cases of Lyme disease in the United States outnumber the rates of breast cancer and HIV combined. Shrinking habitats mean that species barriers have become permeable as we shuttle our illnesses back and forth from tick to mouse to child.
Deer ticks can be as small as poppy seeds, and they head straight for our crotches and hairlines. I don’t know when a tick infected me with Lyme and another bacteria called Bartonella. I know that it was during the summer of 2012 when my symptoms took hold, just as mysteriously as their cause. That’s when my plants died because I couldn’t find the energy to water them. I seemingly recovered a few weeks later, even though I remained unable to run in Prospect Park. I taught and did pushups between writing sessions, but I holed up in the bathroom shaking with sobs if I tried to be social in the evenings. Consciously, I remained unaware that I had a tenacious infection spreading throughout my joints, cartilage, and nervous system, but my body and emotions understood. While I’d previously been absurdly committed to never repeating the outfits I wore to teach, I found myself wearing the same pair of stretchy velvet leggings I called my “dress pajamas” every day to class. You’ve moved into those pants, my colleague Max noticed. My nerves and muscles were swelling, causing anxiety, depression, and pain so global I couldn’t identify it. My only reaction was self-swaddling.
By March 2013, I couldn’t read my own class notes and I kept tripping over my own feet. I ceased being able to walk more than twenty steps. I spent my days with doctors and my evenings in emergency rooms. A physician once told me: Something is terribly wrong. You’re so weak we’re worried you’re going to stop breathing. After that, it was another three months before I was properly diagnosed with Lyme and began antibiotic treatment—treatment that induced a nightmarish bacteria “die off” that exacerbated symptoms months before it brought any relief.
Lyme symptoms debilitate body and mind, and for the twenty percent of patients whose Lyme symptoms persist after months and years of treatment, as mine have, climate loss feels deeply personal. It is not only our homes that are imperiled. Climate change has already begun to transform how our bodies move, feel, and think.
Before Paradise burned, I was grieving my weeks-long confinement. My world had shrunk to my orange-colored sofa. But the day of the Camp Fire, this suddenly felt like a luxury. The luxury of disability that didn’t pose immediate peril; the luxury of having a home to be inside of. My tears of anger and grief at my drastically narrowed world found room for tears of gratitude. I was confined, but confined within my painted-green walls, with my aging cat at my side and grocery delivery on its way.
I scrolled news websites and social media obsessively for updates about the fire. Paradise. Paradise is gone. I couldn’t grasp the scale of this new fact, so I repeated it to myself like a mantra in an effort to make it real.
Twelve days into the Camp Fire, radar imagery showed its plume of smoke—the airborne remnants of entire forests and towns—drifting thousands of miles eastward. The smoke traveled all the way to New York City. It was a phenomenon I watched on social media, via weather reports and photos of hazy, glowing skies at morning and dusk. The fires of Paradise had reached me, but it was a fact that I acquired rather than a condition I endured.
New terms help make sense of our new climate-change reality. Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has proposed solastalgia to name the feelings of loss that climate change creates. “It manifests… in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation,” he writes. The American Psychological Association now recognizes the diagnosis “ecoanxiety“ to mark the trauma of surviving natural disasters and the psychic pain of living in a world whose very viability is in doubt. This is a new scale of anxiety, arising from a creeping fact: any place you know could disappear in a moment.
My apartment in Brooklyn and job in New Jersey both easily withstood Hurricane Sandy. But two years ago, I stopped at a Trader Joe’s in Santa Rosa, California to pick up groceries for a birthday gathering with friends. The next weekend, the Trader Joe’s, its complex, and its neighborhood were gone, destroyed by the Tubbs Fire. A few months earlier, the frigid Vermont swimming hole that numbed my body each summer was destroyed as three inches of rain within two hours moved the course of the creek several feet northward and felled the trees that had managed to survive Hurricane Irene. As my known world began to erode, anxiety accreted in its place.
The coming losses are planetary. Yet I don’t feel full-blown climate grief. It’s a problem of scale, as scholars who study climate change note: the immensity of the coming trauma is simply too big to grasp. We imagine climate change as a shapeless, looming threat, rather than an intimate relation between the flesh and the world that nurtures it. Despite my losses, climate change doesn’t quite yet have the urgency of the real—of breakthrough emotion.
What I know how to grieve is the loss of the stability of my physical world. The natural has become alchemical; body and place can transform in the second it takes a tick to sink into flesh or a spark to alight on grass. My sense of home, both corporeal and geographic, my sense that a home is possible, is ruptured. Of course, it was a privilege to have this feeling in the first place—that geography is stable—born of living far from the ravages of war and famine. But while I feel dislocated in mind and body, my body remains immersed in its changing environment. The deer tick that bit me was part of the world and its climate chaos, as was the fire that burned through Paradise. Whether or not we can comprehend or process the impact of climate change on the earth, we’re a part of it, one and the same with it, bound to the same fate.
I can, however, feel the onset of existential precarity as it settles in my body. It’s hard to wrestle with a town gone, its people absorbed into the neighboring areas. It’s easier to grasp climate change as it takes hold of my flesh, swelling my nerves and tissues. Tick-borne illness is an advancing edge of global warming, one that has my joints and tendons in its harrowing grip. What my mind cannot yet fathom, my body already knows.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.