The Harmony fire starts in the early afternoon of Monday, October 21st of my first and only year at the new high school. I’ve transferred here my senior year because the principal was willing to bend the rules for my swim practice schedule. The school was built in an inland canyon where the smell of the ocean never seems to reach. When classes start, nursery trucks are still unloading strips of lawn and seedlings, their roots swaddled in burlap. The athletic fields look like scorched earth over which the workers unroll carpets of grass. It’s like they’re building a stage set of lush suburbia on top of the desert, as though it were that easy to hide and forget the baked mud and dust, sagebrush and prickly pear.
The fire comes down the canyon and licks at the cement where campus begins, but stops there. There was nothing here worth burning, my friends and I will joke for weeks to come. The school closes for a week to shelter displaced families, including classmates whose houses burned down. The rest of the year, we drive to school past charred manzanita and blackened boulders. We decide the lunar landscape is symbolic of whatever senior year has in store for us.
The hills were green last winter, but then the rains ended early. Every year, the wet season is getting shorter; there’s talk of another drought. In October, the Santa Ana winds blow in from the Mojave and Anza-Borrego deserts and fan the flames. Fires burn from Big Sur down to the border, and it’s days before the firefighters can contain them. Super scooper planes swoop in low over the ocean, taking in water, then spill the ocean into the blaze. Residents describe the disaster in cataclysmic, Old Testament terms: “smoke clouds blackened the sky and turned the ocean black,” says a man in Malibu. A reporter writes about the fire scattering embers in “snowstorms of glowing lights.” A woman who watched her house burn down says, “It’s amazing how quickly everything can disappear.”
Wildfires are named after the neighborhood where they begin. The Harmony Grove community is just east of the school, in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. For the last couple of years my friends and I have been hiking in the Elfin Forest Preserve. To get to the trailhead, you cross Escondido Creek as it winds among live oak and sycamore—the last shade you’ll get for the rest of the hike. Sweating up the dusty trail, I can feel the chlorine finally evaporate from my skin. The Harmony fire sweeps over the preserve and consumes the chaparral, leaving only gnarled, blackened manzanita skeletons. The creek dries up.
School lets out at 2:20 and we disperse to our cars. The fires are still some distance to the east in Escondido, but smell closer. We find our windshields coated with ash. The air smells of wood fires and melting plastic and sticks like resin to the back of my throat. I don’t know what else to do, so drive to the pool for afternoon practice. As I’m pulling in, teammates are wandering back out to the parking lot and the lifeguards are closing up the gates. The air isn’t safe for exercise, our coach says, and sends us home. We let out whoops and high-five each other, giddy with the unexpected reprieve. October is a brutal training month, the lighter sets of September giving way to heavy yardage in preparation for winter nationals.
I drive home through barely advancing traffic. Battalions of fire trucks wail past up the shoulder. The foothills to the east are on fire, and with dusk the flames seem to burn brighter, so that the hills look like erupting volcanoes. To the west beyond the lagoons, the ocean is still there, all that useless water swelling and surging unfazed. I put on R.E.M.’s new album and sing along as loud as I can, so loud I can barely hear the sirens. Leeeee-eeeeave, leave it all behind, Michael Stipe wails. Peter Buck’s electric guitar riff sounds too much like the sirens.
We’re lucky to live along the thin strip of land west of the freeway, where the fires sometimes halt, deterred by ten lanes of cement, but sometimes they leap right over and continue down to the coast. So we’ve packed our getaway suitcases just in case—a few changes of clothes, a couple of photo albums, our crisp American passports, and of course my swim gear and textbooks, god forbid the fires should disrupt all that.
That night I finish a tub of ice cream watching the news with my parents, and though I should be scared, I’m mostly relieved. With fires like this, school and practice will be cancelled for who knows how long. In fact, I stay home only the next two days, hardly moving off the couch, dry and warm. But those two days change everything. My body, confused by this largesse, loses track of time. All that discipline, and in a matter of hours it cracks and splits open like an old cast. High on the extra rest and sugar, I can’t sleep and wander the house at night, decimate the remaining ice cream, sit out on the lawn under the apple tree inhaling the brittle air. The night is cold and dry, like in the desert. The ever-present briny sea smell has evaporated and, for all we know, the ocean along with it.
Is this when I first start to seriously imagine quitting swimming? Or does the parched air only make me crave water? I don’t remember, but the memory of that bounty of dry warmth, the laziness of those two days, stays with me as the beginning of some loosening, like a tooth starting to rock in its socket.
In California there are two seasons, wet and dry. The wet is from December through March, and the dry is the rest of the year. Just as the dry season is defined by the Santa Ana winds, the wet season brings mornings of May gray and June gloom. The marine layer forms when the temperature of the ocean is significantly cooler than that of the air; as a result, a pocket of air is trapped between the two elements, becoming dense and humid, turning to thick fog. If you’ve seen photos of San Francisco fogs rolling in over the bay, you’ve seen the marine layer.
In coastal San Diego, the marine layer swaddles the beaches, rolls up the sandstone cliffs, and seals off the coast up to the foothills of the Peninsular Ranges. On May and June mornings, we all become disarmed with melancholy. But also warm and safe from the ravages of the desert. For once, we can realize our collective fantasy, that we’re not a desert but a beach civilization, already practically swimming through the air, even if the gray mornings make us blue and lethargic and cranky. Orhan Pamuk writes about hüzün, the sadness peculiar to Istanbul mourning the glory of its lost civilizations. In Russian we have toska, the nostalgic melancholia that hits hardest in the diminishing days of autumn. In New York, we just get depressed. And in coastal California, we all get a case of June gloom.
For many years, swimming was like this. A moody but contained, humid pocket between air and water through which to move, with power and grace, as though dry land had ceased to exist or matter. When swimming got bad, on the other hand, I remember it as an interminable set of October afternoons, azure skies stripped bare by Santa Ana winds, ash in the back of my throat.
Because the last year was bad, when I think about swimming I can still feel the burn on my face and across my shoulders, a constant body-wide thirst though we were submerged in water. We put on sunscreen before practice but didn’t bother to reapply. The sun burned goggle marks around our eyes and engraved our backs with suit lines. After afternoon practice, our skin felt raw and flayed. And while the sun seared, the cold of desert mornings rubbed like sandpaper. We shivered weekends at a time, at meets all over the outdoor pools of California and the Southwest: Mission Viejo, Irvine, Long Beach, San Jose, Santa Clara, Tucson, Tempe, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno. Those names still grate at my skin and make me want to reach for a bottle of lotion.
When I’m sick, or after a day at the beach, or cold after a shower, the old sensation returns, the way it always felt: skin pulled tight and brittle with chlorine, painful to the touch like when you have the flu. I’d ask my mother to buy me only flannel sheets. These days when I visit, she still makes my bed with plaid flannel, even in summer, as though enacting some inherited ritual the origins of which have been nearly forgotten.
What is it about living in coastal California that makes one’s skin hurt? I wonder if all of our senses are somehow rejiggered by the alternating quality of the air—soft and wet marine layer mornings, harsh and abrasive Santa Ana winds. There’s no middle ground in California. And nowhere safe to put your body, out of harm’s way of fire or water.
In a landscape like this, swimming felt inevitable. Everything about the coastal Southern California landscape refers to water. Torrey pines clinging to the wave-carved bluffs. Lagoons filling and emptying with the tides. Gulls circling like vultures over the school picnic tables. Whales migrating along the coast between Baja and Alaska. Seals diving under the pier and lounging on the warm rocks in La Jolla Cove. Caravans of cars on Highway 101 with surfboards strapped to their roofs. Living here meant smelling the ocean in your bedroom at night, tasting salt on your lips in the morning. To swim only took living here to its logical conclusion. Living on the edge of the Pacific, hugging the eroding sandstone, precariously clinging to the thin strip of coastal desert: you might as well jump in.
Just as swimming felt like the true expression of the landscape, so the landscape signified always and only swimming. I read the signs like a smitten or paranoid lover. Santa Ana winds meant potential pool closures, and respite. Marine layer mornings meant that the cold cement on our feet at 6 am would be less searing, and when the sun rose over the bleachers, it would do so behind a thick layer of low clouds, the muted light making the surface of the pool look slick with oil. Traffic on the freeway meant everyone would be late to practice, including our coach, and there’d be extra time to crank up the volume and sing along to R.E.M. Clean swell and an offshore wind in the morning meant the fast surfer boys would skip practice and I’d get to lead the lane. All the signs of winds and tides, clouds and falling atmospheric pressure, I can read them now as traces of swimming, because that’s what it was always all about.
I’ve been rereading Joan Didion lately to remind myself just how much of California is a myth, a set of stories told throughout the state’s history to construct and perpetuate its own self-image. An opportunity for a fresh start. A paradise of sublime natural beauty. A resort and a sanatorium. A playground of healthy young bodies with golden tans. Wishful thinking and willful self-deceit, Didion calls it. The misnamed “wildfires” are a case in point. There’s nothing wild or natural about the intensity and frequency of the fires these days, fueled as they are by drought and rising temperatures, the product of global warming and ill-advised housing developments in eroding canyons. Southern California is a desert, whether inland or coastal, and all that we take as natural and native about the landscape—lush lawns, orange and avocado and eucalyptus groves, scenic Spanish-style villas on rolling hillsides with the freight trains slowly threading their way between ocean and lagoon—all have been grafted on with great effort and at great economic, environmental, and personal cost.
If nostalgia is the yearning for a mythical home, then my California nostalgia is a double myth, a yearning for a place that was always make-believe. Among other California myths, I’m a product of Southern California competitive swimming culture of the 1990s. I’ve absorbed the narrative of the athletic body, driven by pure will and spunk, of the uncomplicated broad-shouldered jock girl ready to do her best, go all out, go for it, give it her best shot. And even though I should now know better, twenty years later, I still find myself longing for that un-nuanced, suburban, Southern California student-athlete construct, a well-regulated world of the pursuit of excellence, where disruptions like wildfires, earthquakes, floods, and mudslides—to say nothing of the body’s sudden, inexplicable refusals to comply—are blips in the otherwise 24/7 transmission of progress en route to personal fulfillment.
I’ve built up some immunity to these myths over the years of not swimming, not living in California. Most of the year, my defenses hold, but when October comes and atmospheric pressure rises here on the east coast, I still have to take to the pool and just go for it.
It’s late October and the air in New York is finally dry. When the weather turns like this, the humidity of summer drained overnight, my throat tightens with the memory of the yearly fires. As I write this in 2017, the Sonoma County wildfires are still not fully contained, having blazed for over a week and consumed more than 200,000 acres. A school friend and her family have been evacuated and still don’t know if their house survived. I’ve been following the news coverage and Cal Fire maps all week, and when I see in news reports an orange glare over the mountains, I can vividly smell charred sagebrush. Sometimes I don’t know how to distinguish PTSD and nostalgia.
Three cases have been reported of elderly couples trying to survive the night by sheltering in their swimming pools. Two made it. The third man’s wife lasted the night but her lungs failed by morning. A husband and wife stayed six hours in their cold pool, saved by the foresight to bring t-shirts through which to breathe. The cement on deck was searing and they couldn’t touch the coping, so once in the pool they were trapped. Their shoes, left on deck, melted. Eucalyptus trees burned around them. Their house burned. But none of it fell into the pool and so the pool saved them.
In the video interview several days after, they both look stunned, still too keyed up to stay still. They move about the pool deck as they relate their story, taking pictures to commemorate the site of their survival. The water looks brackish, black bile, poisoned. On deck a plaster cherub remains untarnished.
I watch this interview over and over, until at last I understand. When the Harmony fires burned, I was saved from the pool by the fires. The Sonoma County couples were saved from the fires by the pool. Water is meant to be sanctuary. When did it stop being that for me?
When the Santa Ana winds blew in, the pressure rose and the clouds retreated. No more marine layer. No more buffer of clouds and fog to swaddle us and keep the cold out. Nothing for miles was wet, save our skins and our blue rectangle. The harder we swam, the more our lungs burned. We couldn’t drink enough water. It seemed like a miracle the water didn’t just evaporate into the parched air. At morning practice before the sun rose, we could touch the constellations just by stretching out our arms on the backstroke recovery. The air so thin, swimming felt like floating face down in the ocean, nothing separating us from the terror of the immensity up there, down here.
A pool was never my sanctuary. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, for those two days we couldn’t swim, I wasn’t only warm and safe and relieved. Spooning in ice cream like it was a main set I had to get through, it was like everything I’d ever called home had already burned down.
Asya Graf’s poetry and essays have appeared in Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sport Literate, Underwater New York, and Vestal Review, among other journals. She is currently working on a book about swimming and completing a water-based arts residency on Governors Island in New York City. Her blog, Home by Water, explores New York City by swimming in its waters.