As our planet wobbles toward its 52nd Earth Day on Friday, April 22, the global medical report is… not great. This month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if we don’t stop pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere ASAP, we’ll soon be living in hell. California had its driest first three months of the year in recorded history. Antarctic ice shelves are melting before our eyes.
Three new books explore the perilous realities of life on Earth in 2022. One takes a global view; another focuses on fiery California. The third celebrates the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, while acknowledging that beauty’s possible loss.
“Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present”
By Eugene Linden
(Penguin Press; 336 pages; $ 28)
In any good end-of-the-world movie, there’s the moment when a plucky scientist tries to alert the powers that be of impending doom-and fails. Think astronomer Jennifer Lawrence futilely warning President Meryl Streep about the approaching killer comet in last year’s “Don’t Look Up.” Veteran science journalist Eugene Linden’s “Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present” covers 50 years of such moments. It’s a detailed account of climate science and policy from the first Jimmy Carter-era government acknowledgment that global warming was a threat to today. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Koch brothers and Greta Thunberg’s stirring 2019 speech to the United Nations – they’re all here, and the avalanche of mostly gloomy news can get overwhelming.
Still, Linden is a clear, concise writer. He knows his climate science, and “Fire and Flood” makes points that stay with you. First, it took some years for science to be settled – and early expert disagreements fueled climate change denialism for decades to come. Second, human beings are bad at grasping grave but gradual threats. Writes Linden: “We naturally tend toward worrying about what is in front of us, not about the threat of invisible gases miles above our heads.” Above all, Linden argues, Earth has been betrayed by a business and financial community that prizes short-term profits over planetary health. “What we have right now is a blind, amoral system that invites gaming and manipulation by the clever. … It is a system whose default is to drive off cliffs. ”
“Into the Inferno: A Photographer’s Journey Through California’s Megafires and Fallout”
By Stuart Palley
(Blackstone Publishing; 240 pages; $ 28.99)
Stuart Palley’s memoir, “Into the Inferno: A Photographer’s Journey Through California’s Megafires and Fallout,” is the product of a decade’s work capturing California as it burns.
“Turns out I was preconditioned to be drawn to wildfires.” Palley writes, crediting a Southern California upbringing where smoke and flames were always in the background. After studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri, he returned home knowing that he wanted to shoot fires.
What makes “Into the Inferno” compelling is that it shows a state struggling to battle a new era of megafires and a young photographer learning how to shoot them. Palley suits up in fire gear and takes firefighting training. He acquires a high-end Nikon and a low-end 10-year-old Ford Expedition he dubs the Fire Wagon. He lives like a firefighter, set to go 24/7: “Everything boils down to readiness to get to a fire quickly and make photos when the action is happening.”
He succeeds. Palley shoots Lake County’s 2015 Valley Fire, the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura County and the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County. His images of flaming hillsides and charred neighborhoods (many included in this book) are nightmarish, hallucinatory. Palley’s camera skills and fire-line nerve get him published in the Washington Post, Wired and more. They also bring broken relationships and post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, he writes, there is nothing like photographing a wildfire: “You realize your place in the universe. … Nature, the planet, whatever you want to call it, is showing us who’s boss. ”
“The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles Across the Sierra Nevada”
By Richard J. Nevle and Steven Nightingale
(Comstock Publishing Associates; 192 pages; $ 29.95)
“The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles Across the Sierra Nevada,” by Richard J. Nevle and Steven Nightingale, leads you through a sweeter California: still Eden, if a damaged one.
In 2017, backpacking buddies Nevle and Nightingale set out with their wives and daughters on a 13-day west-east trek across the Sierra Nevada. “The Paradise Notebooks” is a joint journal of that expedition, 21 paired essays on Sierra subjects from rivers to aspen to western tanagers.
The result is a thoughtful, intimate and moving book. Nevle, a geologist who is deputy director of Stanford’s Earth Systems Program, illuminates the physical forces – colliding continental plates, grinding glaciers – that sculpt the mountain range. Poet Nightingale handles the metaphysical: an obsidian shard steers him to write, “Mind is stone and light, river, comet/ Trust and story, gut, sun, sonnet…”
“Notebooks” isn’t blind to trouble, personal and planetary. The backpackers suffer sore feet and lashing thunderstorms. Once-beautiful views are scorched by California’s warming climate. Nevle looks across a mountainside to see “much of the once dark sea of conifer forest is dead.”
And yet, in the end, “Notebooks” finds hope on the trail. Climbing toward 10,689-foot Kaweah Gap, Nevle observes that the Sierra’s highest elevations are “broken everywhere,” their granite slopes heaved apart by snowmelt and ice. Bleak, hazardous terrain, and yet, in the cracks between the rocks, you see flowers. “Look carefully,” he advises, “there are small graces everywhere.” Just like this book.
Book launch and reading: Richard Nevle and Steven Nightingale, and special guest Deborah Levoy, read from “The Paradise Notebooks.” In person. 5:30 pm May 6. Free. Stanford Educational Farm, 175 Electioneer Road, Stanford University. Register here.