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Fires and Floods, Now, Then, Later
Again in October, California burst into flames. Winds to 100mph, 250,000 acres charred. Blackouts imposed capriciously by a bankrupt energy company, crippling campuses and hospitals.
Once again we watched from six thousand miles away, perched in an old city in the middle of a laguna. After yet another flood tide, we joined a crowd of Venetians gathered in pouring rain to protest the failure of their government to cope with the rising waters and the sinking city. In Rome a panicked parliament voted more millions of euros to complete the MOSE sea barrier network, still untested, already rusting, encrusted with mussels, clotted with sand.
Unlikely as it seems, Venice has also had a long and terrible history of fire. Palaces and bridges of brick or stone rest on ancient wooden pilings, their interiors lined with wood. Given bone-chilling marine winters, buildings were heated with fireplaces, later with large tiled stoves. Creative chimney design, on display in Carpaccio’s view of the Rialto Bridge, in did not stop every spark. In 1105, great fires decimated 23 churches across the city. A truncated campanile is all that remains of the church on Campo San Boldo, where we were living. It burned first in 1105 and several times thereafter. By 1291, fires had become so frequent and destructive that the great Venetian industry of glassmaking, with its red-hot furnaces, had been ordered by the city government to move to Murano.
The nearest functioning church to San Boldo is in Campo San Giacomo, where in the early evenings children play and old men shout into their telefoninos. Instead of fires, the neighborhood is now threatened by the gutting of old buildings to house a boutique inn or yet another fish restaurant. Several mornings a week we went to the Rialto market. The pretty neo-gothic loggia of the fish market dates only to the last century, when it was finally rebuilt after the last big fire. Today the fishmongers (6), butchers (3), and produce stands(20) at the Rialto are fast disappearing. Not only because of the depredations of tourism: German supermarket chains and Dutch coops are everywhere.
Last year Chinese investors proposed establishing a cooking school in the loggia above the fish market. This failed, although the space had been empty for three years. Now an Italian foodie forum, Gambero Rosso (Red Shrimp) proposes to slick up the fish market to offer prepared street food, local specialties of course. The upstairs may house a museum of the history of Venetian commerce and some kind of unspecified commercial activity. Mayor Brugnaro blessed, but did not fund the project, estimated to cost 7-10 million euros. An enraged local activist saw this is the latest move to make Venice into a soulless “toll city.”
La Fenice, (Phoenix) the Venice opera house, burned to the ground in 1996, not for the first time. Aside from the romantic tale of arson and corruption, in 2004 it was rebuilt, with international funding. Only last October, another fire broke out in the theater, blamed on the backup power system. Failure of electrical providers, ENEL in Italy, PG&E in California,has become common in the age of climate-driven disasters.
A dramatic winged phoenix emerged in Berkeley, California’s environmental art show, made of lacquered eucalyptus leaves by Sophie Dua. We hope to give it to friends who rebuilt their house following the Oroville fire of 2017–also caused by an electrical malfunction.
The penetrating fragrance of eucalyptus trees stays with me from a childhood on the California coast. That tree, native to Australia, is now prey to fire safety removal measures. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 had spread more quickly via the flammable migrants. Driving back to the bay from the north coast with a Czech friend, I told her that the blazes we could see along the Oakland ridge were reflections of the sunset in hilltop windows. She, with darker experience of war and revolution, thought not.
A centenarian eucalyptus stands in front of our Berkeley house. Corymbia ficifolia, with abundant pink flowers and tough little urn-shaped nuts that resident squirrels use to sharpen their teeth–and a sturdy trunk that pretends to be supported by a scrawny iron pole. One winter day, gazing vaguely out an upstairs window, I noticed a soft slow drift of white through the eucalyptus leaves. Snow seldom falls in Berkeley. I looked more closely, and made out on a branch a hawk, perched atop a dove, sending feathers floating as it pecked at its prey.
Just before the California fires, news from Berkeley had focused on an attack on the Gourmet Ghetto–not upon that unassuming stretch of shops and eateries between the campus and the hills, but upon the breezy sobriquet it had borne for decades. Probably it was christened by a young comedian then working for the Cheese Board Collective. Serious people tend not to traffic in irony. Alice Waters never liked the term in the first place, and street banners celebrating the “Gourmet Ghetto” have been furled forever.
In 2016 the Venetian ghetto marked its 500th anniversary with a new production of Merchant of Venice. The shallows of political correctness surrounded the project from the start, provoking strained comparisons of Shakespeare’s Venetian ghetto with the current status of refugee enclaves in Europe. William Shakespeare, in any event, appears not to have visited Italy, although thirteen of his plays are set there.
In 1516, when the Venetians cleared one of their islands to house Jews, this was no act of benevolence: the city at that moment was in sore need of moneylenders. Venetian commerce was suffering because of the new trade routes across the Atlantic, and because of the costly War of Cambrai. In fact, the Jews themselves had to pay the guards who enforced the curfew on the walled ghetto.
Ghetto came from the Venetian word “geto,” or foundry, which had preceded the Jewish settlement on the Venetian site. Later, “ghetto” came to be the name for any closed community of Jews across Europe. The Venetian ghetto was not opened until 1797, in one of Napoleon’s liberal reforms. Later still, in 1866 when Jews gained full Italian citizenship, many moved into palaces in other parts of the city. After World War II, of some 200 Venetian Jews sent to the camps, eight returned. In Venice today, of 500 Jews resident in the city, few choose to live in the historic ghetto.
Today, 1500 years after Marco Polo and William Shakespeare, China hopes to recreate the famous if somewhat apocryphal Silk Road trade route, Their BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) invests in the infrastructure of Adriatic ports such as Genoa– and Trieste, already activated– as a gateway to Central European markets. Venice, with its troubled laguna, does not much interest them.
Mayor Brugnaro has been assuring all tour planners, so basic to the Venetian economy, that Venice is still beautiful and awaiting more visitors. Meanwhile, the flood tides have continued through December, and the incomplete MOSE network of underwater barriers has failed to protect most of the laguna. There is no Plan B.
Marine archaeologists continue to excavate the ruins of the ancient port city of Thonis-Heracleion, located thirty feet underwater near Alexandria, Egypt. Temple columns litter the floor of the bay, and a retrieved boat from the 5th century B.C. exactly jibes with Herodotus’ description.
Early in 4,000 C.E., let’s say, in the northeastern corner of what was once known as the Adriatic Sea, underwater excavations reveal ruins of what appears to be an ancient port. The site is crisscrossed by a network of canals that give some credence to identifying it as the lost city of Venezia. Further evidence is provided by the remains of various slender boats, distinguished by their high prows and extensive traces of black varnish, often mentioned in records of the lost city. Also present on the excavation site are the hulls of very large ships, with space for thousands of passengers.
In the same time frame, but 6,000 miles away on the southwestern edge of the continent once known as North America, significant remains have been found at a depth of a thirty feet in the mud at the bottom of what appears to have been a deep bay, narrowly open to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by urban settlements. The finds include a wheeled transport system, tunnels, and several large bridges.
Each of these sites appears to have been abandoned during the rising of the seas in the Great Planetary Meltdown that began in the 21st century C.E.
In May this was a Tuscan landscape at sunset, an etching by the friend of a friend. Yesterday, our copy, fresh from the framing shop, had morphed into a row of blackened trees in the foreground of an inferno.
In the interim, we had spent several days on the Mendocino coast, just a few hours from what became the largest fire in the recorded history of California. We had rented a house with gas grill, bird feeders, and wifi. We watched the birds, grilled salmon, combed the beaches, hiked Fern Canyon under a blue sky. Upstairs we identified orioles and woodpeckers and kept track of the fire news and presidential gaffes, while others below stairs engaged the video screens and hot tub. Meanwhile, the west wind kept the coast gloriously clear as it continued inland to feed the flames.
We had also been watching the Carr Fire’s progress above Redding and around the Whiskeytown Lake. The fire had begun in French Gulch, a former stagecoach stop southwest of our family camp on Scott Mountain. We heard that the local Van Ness cousin, a kindly fellow with a deep voice and a long, weedy beard, a legendary grasshopper fisherman, had been burned out.
The good news was a photo of my Smith cousin, one who had, like us, been exiled for decades. She was astride the ceremonial cedar stump in the middle of the camp, smiling through the smoky haze.
The several hundred thousands of incinerated acres would have been many more if not for tens of thousands of firefighters from as far away as New Zealand. Some 3,500 of them were firefighters from California’s prisons. The women receive two days off their term for each day of service, two dollars a day for active firefighting. After they are released, it might reasonably be assumed that these incarcerated but experienced firefighters would find work as professional firefighters, who make $73,000 annually, but they are presently excluded from this possibility. Governor Brown may or may not be presenting a bill to change this. He has a lot on his plate.
Naturally wildfires would be political. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 was blamed partly on the local defense of flammable stands of non-native eucalyptus from the east bay hills.
“I go with what the Australians say about eucalyptus — they call them ‘gasoline on a stick,’” said an Oakland resident who had watched a flaming eucalyptus grove explode just yards away from her family van, stuck in a line of evacuating cars. But other residents still want to preserve the ridgeline pines and eucalyptus, although those that survived the 1991 fire are yet more flammable today, and many more have matured since.
In other news, I read, not long after midnight last Thursday, that shortly after Thursday midday, a third major earthquake had struck (or would have struck) the island of Lombok, Indonesia.
Indonesia has three time zones, and Lombok appears to be in the middle longitudes, so let’s say that the Lombok quake struck about fourteen hours ahead of the hour that I read about it on the Pacific coast. WIB (Western Indonesian Time) = GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) + 7 hours.
I boated once along the Thames to Greenwich, the home of GMT, Greenwich Mean Time. The Old Royal Observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, an astronomer better known for his architecture, and of course I had my photo taken astride the Prime Meridian.
In 1851, Sir George Airy established the Royal Observatory as the zero degree line of longitude. His line is the starting point for longitudinal lines that run north-south, the measurements that form the basis of our geographic reference grid.
And yes, I do accept the concept of global time zones, but there’s that occasional seismic disjuncture that fogs the brain. Along with global time gaps, anxiety about the Indonesian temblors led me to look up the so-called “Ring of Fire,” the horseshoe of active volcanoes and faults around the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
More specifically, I was wondering about the chain reaction among quakes, faults, and volcanoes along the Ring of Fire, flames and faults colliding along the horseshoe and curving south along the Pacific Coast. This line of insomnia may seem on a par with anxiety about our president’s late-night tweets, but I live with my near and dear atop the Hayward Fault, recently assessed as more dangerous than the San Andreas Fault that ravaged San Francisco in 1906.
In 1989 the Loma Prieta quake clocked in at 6.9: I was sitting in a corner of the living room, complacently perusing proofs of my novel, when the house began to shake, wrenching around like an unbalanced washer. On TV, cars were hanging off the broken Bay Bridge. Husband returned, having felt nothing on campus, but noting plume of fire downtown, where our car, in for a new headlight, had been incinerated in the body shop. Calls began to arrive, from children across the bay, from Italy, from Prague.
Somewhat earlier in the century, at my Girl Scout camp on Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my counselor’s camp name was Cedar. I l loved that camp, the hikes and the singing, and would gladly have spent the whole summer there. Cedar was smallish and acerbic, with short hair and a sharp jaw. One night she helped us insert a dead rattlesnake into the sleeping bag of the head counsellor. The backstory of my own encounter with that rattlesnake is perhaps too well-known in my family.
This summer the youngest grandson stoically suffered several weeks of camp, but was reported early on for having filled his water bottle (twice) with dirt. An older grandson actively resented the interruption of his electronic pursuits but kept his water bottle potable. At his age, his big sister had already assembled her own earthquake survival kit.
Our president has at latest count nine grandchildren. He doesn’t seem to tweet about them or their future on this dirty, shaky, and ever hotter planet.