I’m 24 pages into William Wordsworth: A Life by Stephen Gill, republished in a revised edition earlier this year to mark the great poet’s 250th birthday. I ordered it through Phinney Books about a dozen blocks from my house, because I want to avoid to the extent possible helping make Jeff Bezos even more obscenely rich than he already is. I’m enjoying it greatly so far, and sensing that it’s one of those long books to savor slowly. It has that in common with Barry Lopez’s masterwork Horizon, published last year, which has been one of my sources of consolation all summer. It occurs to me that there’s something else Wordsworth and Lopez have in common: a confident deployment of a subjective first-person perspective on the world, rigorously disciplined over a long writing lifetime, documenting the sustained paying of attention and (to resort to what’s become a cliché) “lived experience” on the surface of our planet.
It was Wordsworth who famously wrote, about the moment of the French Revolution, that “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven.” Over the two-plus centuries since, the consensus on Wordsworth has been that he was great when he was young and radical, but he spent too much of the rest of his eighty years being crotchety and reactionary and releasing warmed-over and otherwise regrettable work, like an aging rock star. A merit of the Gill biography, according to the reviews I’ve read, is that it assertively resists that interpretation of both the work and the life of Wordsworth.
I once visited Wordsworth’s famous cottage at Grasmere, but I’ve never really read him, and most of what I knew about him before now was filtered through my hero William Hazlitt, the great journalist who started out radical and stayed that way. The two were lifelong frenemies avant la lettre. In his wonderfully enthusiastic 1922 Life of William Hazlitt (which incidentally I snagged for a couple bucks in the vintage Penguin edition at Bert’s Books in Phnom Penh during the ’97 coup; I wonder what ever became of Bert), P.P. Howe quotes his man on Wordsworth:
He tolerates nothing but what he himself creates; he sympathizes only with what can enter into no competition with him, with “the bare earth and mountains bare, and grass in the green field”. He sees nothing but himself and the universe. … [H]e hates Sir Isaac Newton [?!?]. … He is glad that Buonaparte is sent to St Helena, and that the Louvre is dispersed for the same reason – to get rid of the idea of any thing greater, or thought greater, than himself.
Anyway, here’s the thing. I revere Hazlitt as much as ever, but I’m a good quarter-century older than I was during the first flush of my callow discovery of him. I’m also now older than he was when he died. And his judgment was not always impeccable; he wrote a whole book (Liber Amoris) about his infatuation with a serving-wench half his age, which is embarrassing to think about, much less read. Is it better to burn out, or to fade away? I’m old enough to understand, or rather to feel, that a human lifetime is a long haul, and so is a life’s work.
I compose these diaries in longhand on yellow lined pads. I began writing the preceding section by the dim, grim light of the orange-tinged pall that has settled over Seattle courtesy of what the Seattle Times memorably called a “super-massive plume of smoke” carried here on the wind over the ocean from California and Oregon, where wildfires are raging out of control on an unprecedented scale. There are fires here in Washington too, on both sides of the Cascades. Until a few days ago, we were quietly congratulating ourselves on having not really had a fire season this year; now the bad fires and haze of 2018 seem quaint. It was about 9:00 this morning, but still not quite light enough to write by comfortably, when I sat down at the dining table. I didn’t turn on the ceiling light because the arm of our house’s living area where the table is is near the door of our bedroom (which has to stay open so the cats can come and go), and Jenny was still asleep. But soon Jenny woke up, so I took her coffee and then turned on the light and went back to writing.
We in the Pacific Northwest have an ingrained habit of fancying ourselves at a remove from the main currents that roil the rest of the U.S. of A., whether meteorological, cultural, or political. A lot of us like it that way, to the point of smugness. And that presumption holds … until it doesn’t. A glance at my phone reminds me that it was as long ago as August 20 that I texted our friend Margaret in San Jose: “Are you and Steve okay, with the fires nearby?” She replied: “Hey Ethan – so nice of you & Jenny to check on us. We are doing okay. The fires are about 20 miles from us. The air is terrible & so smoky. Here is [a] picture from my backyard.”
As recently as this Wednesday, September 9, I still felt safely remote from it all when Eugene Smith, whose memoir Back to the World: A Life after Jonestown we just turned in to TCU Press, sent me a photo looking east from his front porch in Oakland with the comment: “It’s 09:05 and it’s dark. 2/3rds of CA is under SMOKE … That is a night light still on across the street. … 160,000 folks are without electricity in the wine country. Their electricity won’t be on until tonight. Second day, third night …” Yesterday – Friday, September 11 – I sent Eugene the link to an essay headlined “Wildfires rage, Covid spreads: in California, life as we knew it has disappeared,” by retired UC-Santa Cruz history professor Dana Frank, published September 3 in The Guardian. It had taken me a week to get around to reading it, and these days there’s always a danger of any piece of writing quickly going stale. But that one holds up. Eugene read it within a couple hours and replied to me:
I read this while in the mudroom with Anthony Fauci speaking in the background on NPR. This article is very sobering. While in the mudroom I saw a glimmer of light outside, it was the sun, barely visible. It has now hidden itself again. That was the closest I’ve gotten to a sunny day in three days … It’s smokey/gray outside, but it’s no longer dark at 12 NOON.
It was yesterday that the super-massive plume of smoke hit Seattle. Dennis Rea and I had been kicking around the idea of getting together for socially-distanced beers somewhere in my part of town, and when we spoke on the phone early in the day (I stood outside on the front porch for our five-minute call and regretted it afterward), he suggested seeing if our mutual friend Bill Horist, who lives nearby in Ballard, would like to join us. I hopefully put that notion to Bill and he replied: “Hey man! So the smoke has forced us to cancel our camping trip so I have time this weekend to hang. That said, maybe the smoke will preclude that too.” Dennis lives on the eighth floor of a condo high-rise downtown. This morning at 8:52 he texted me: “I just looked out the window and the smoke is even worse than before – can’t see skyscrapers that are only four blocks away! No weekend for beers, alas.” Then at 11:01: “This pall is intense – I feel like shit, heavy-headed despite all our windows being shut for the past 24 hours.”
There have been rumors that left-wing and/or right-wing extremists set some of the fires. Various authorities have said ostensibly reassuring things about how that’s not the case, but whether it is or not seems somehow beside the point. My friend David Grantham, an Air Force veteran whose book Consequences: An Intelligence Officer’s War will be published (by me via Blue Ear Books) in November, wrote to me this morning:
When it comes to the disinformation, I have seen this type of thing before done by outside actors intent on causing conflict. … I wouldn’t be surprised if an actual terrorist group set a handful of the fires, knowing other legitimate fires were ongoing, and then pushed out disinfo on the local groups. Al Qaeda has regularly preached about starting wildfires in the U.S. It probably isn’t the case, BUT I wouldn’t be surprised.
My plan for getting through today emotionally intact is to treat it like a snow day. I have work to do, including some on deadline, but this is not a day for going about one’s normal routine, if there even is such a thing anymore. Yesterday Jenny and I forewent our daily walk for the first time since March, not counting the three days I was in the hospital in late July, and I’m sure we’ll unwillingly skip it again today. Today is all about staying indoors: reading, writing if and only if I feel like it, maybe a jigsaw puzzle, maybe a movie. Last night we watched Hamilton, and it was awesome.
There’s too much to write about. I abruptly decided to stop writing my diary after the August 1 entry, for several reasons that I still consider good ones. One of those was that it’s impossible to keep up, and exhausting to try. Between March 3 and August 1, I wrote more than 82,000 words – the word count of a full-length book. I’ve been glad in recent weeks to have more of my time and energy back, and I’ve needed it to do other work.
Lately I had been thinking I might start the diary afresh just after November 3, because I have a queasy feeling in my gut that the election will resolve exactly nothing. But when Dennis wrote in passing yesterday, in a supportive and otherwise encouraging note, that “this fire season might be a missed opportunity,” I thought, well, I really shouldn’t miss this opportunity. So I got a pretty good night’s sleep, found myself this morning looking out the window multiple times while drinking my coffee, jotted down some notes, then sat down at the dining table and wrote this.
Just now Jenny looked out the window and said, “What if it just stays like this?”