The first thing you notice is the smell. After a controlled fire – hearth, camp, pyre – the air smells dry, because firewood is dry. But wildfires burn living flora. Walking over land razed by wildfires you breathe resinous air, the fumes of combusted sap. During this summer’s record-breaking heatwave around the Mediterranean, wildfires broke out in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Kabylia, Provence, Turkey, Sicily and across southern Italy. In August I went to Sardinia, where the fires had burned thousands of hectares of land and displaced hundreds of people. According to Sardinian apiculturists, millions of bees were killed.
Visit Flatford Mill today and the scene appears largely unchanged; an English rural idyll. But the area around is carefully managed, not just for the benefit of wildlife and farming, but specifically to maintain the appearance of Constable’s paintings. These aims are not necessarily incompatible, but there is an acknowledged desire to maintain a look that can be marketed as ‘Constable Country’. The landscape is to some extent a simulacrum; a present sculpted around a romanticised vision of the past. And it isn’t possible to recreate the scene of The Hay Wain exactly as it was two hundred years ago. The challenges of doing so offer a glimpse into a future we are already being forced to come to terms with.
As you approach Greece from the air, smog covers the land like a curtain – a thick grey line separating the deep blue Mediterranean sky from the Pindos mountains that run the length of the country north to south. There isn’t a major fire along the aircraft route, but with more than five hundred active wildfires across the country, the smoke is everywhere. Greece is facing its worst heatwave in four decades. With every passing year, the country sees more extremely hot days in the summer months. Wildfires are a feature of its ecosystem at the best of times. Now the threat is existential.
On hot days, a friend and I used to sneak away from school and dodge through a gap in the fence to the golf course next to the playing field. There, on the manicured grass, we would roll up our shirts and trouser legs and lie in the sun until we were weak with sunstroke. By the sixth form, I’d progressed to year-round bottled sunshine: golden cans of pungent foam that dyed my skin a glorious shade of bronze within minutes. At university, a baffled boy pointed out the streaks and I added my fake tan to the list of things that lost their currency outside Essex. Last summer, when my neighbours concreted over their lawn and unfurled lurid rolls of synthetic turf, I bit back my own aversion to fakeness. They passed us their unwanted compost bin over the fence, cheerily announcing they’d have no more garden waste.
Part of the trouble is the idea that trees are just wood, wood is carbon, and carbon is fungible. Most of the wood pellets burned in the UK are imported from Canada and the United States, where mature forests which underwrite vast, complex ecosystems are being felled to meet the growing European demand for ‘renewable’ energy. The official line is that pellets are made from offcuts from the timber industry, but scientists and environmentalists report that trees are being felled to go straight to biomass.
The oilfield at Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, has been burning for at least four thousand years. Its name is Kurdish for ‘Father of Eternal Fire’, and it’s a possible site for the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar casts Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Kurdish women used to travel to Baba Gurgur from miles around to pray that their child would be a son. Elsewhere, incandescent foetal sex rituals are on the rise. In Western cultures, ‘gender reveal’ events often involve setting off fireworks with pink or blue colorants. Last month, a spark from a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California set a neighbouring forest ablaze.
Until I learned of their prognosis, I was one of the four in five people who could not identify an ash tree. Now I see them everywhere. I have opened my curtains to a sprawling ash every morning for years; all day long I overlook a straggly individual from my desk. Both are healthy, but I’ve added them to the list of things to worry about.
On 20 May, Super-Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Bangladesh with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour. It tore through embankments in the Sundarbans Delta, flooding riverine villages and choking vegetable and paddy fields with seawater. Salt water also got into wells and freshwater ponds, depriving thousands of people of their access to drinking water. Storm water surges – more than five metres high – carried away livestock, houses and entire islands. The winds blew salt water into the trees: guava and palm, but especially mangrove. Now, a month after the storm struck, they look burned by the brackish water, their leaves yellow and red.
By late last year, it seemed clear that decades of attempts to coax governments and business leaders into taking seriously the risks posed by the climate crisis were leading nowhere. Yet faced with the far more immediate threats posed by a global pandemic, states that for decades had been committed to neoliberal thinking have slowly begun to embrace such radically old-fashioned ideas as planning for the future, relying on scientific expertise, or calling on their constituents to make sacrifices in order to protect vulnerable members of society. Environmental campaigners and journalists have begun to document the effects that the shut-down of factories, cancellation of large conferences, postponement of sporting events, and limitations on freedom of movement have had on carbon emissions.
Yunarso lives in a small kampung, or informal settlement, in West Jakarta. It was one of the worst-affected areas, with over a metre of floodwater inundating the houses. ‘Did we prepare for this?’ the 36-year-old said. ‘No, nothing. We were celebrating New Year’s Eve until it was late. Then we laid our heads down for a moment and in the morning the water was everywhere.’
A child hoisted a Tunisian flag up a pole beside a palm tree in the concrete courtyard of her school in Tunis. The national anthem blared and gardening gloves were handed out to the watching crowd of environmentalists, local politicians and call-centre employees, who were on a corporate responsibility outing and wearing matching T-shirts printed for the occasion. The Eid al Shajara (‘tree festival’) has taken place annually on the second Sunday in November since 1958. Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, said he wanted to ‘awaken in the nation a lively interest for trees, an appreciation for their aesthetic and economic value’.