Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure
If a tree burns in California,
does anybody hear it?
Crackling and smoky, the flames
licking the circumference of the trunk,
sap oozing out like waxy blood.
Once my father lit some logs in
our fireplace during the holidays
and the black smoke came billowing in,
burning our eyes while songs from
A Charlie Brown Christmas played
on the stereo. The nicely stacked blocks
of wood popped like gunshots as flames
licked and blackened their bodies.
My small brown face burned too as I
looked into what my mother called,
“Too much trouble” before
throwing open all the windows
in the house.
It came in the form of lightning,
the fire, like a curse rained down
by the Greek gods. Except in the summer
in California, there is no rain. Only white
hot bolts from the sky, ricocheting off
dried hills and freeway exit ramps
at night. And by morning: flames that
could eat up the state.
It was an emergency that we inhaled in
our sleep. 45 came on the TV and said:
“I see again the forest fires are starting.
They’re starting again in California. I said,
you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean
your forests—there are many, many years
of leaves and broken trees and they’re like,
like, so flammable, you touch them and it
Did he know that before the white men
came with their missions that turn
every California third grader into a mini
architect, the Yurok and Hupa were
setting fires to the land? Controlled
burnings that opened fields and thickets
to new growth, intentional fires that
cracked open hard-shelled seeds and
cleared away dead matter, underbrush.
The colonizers saw the black smoke
and knew where to shoot.
“Maybe we’re just going to have to make
them pay for it because they don’t listen
PG&E also makes homeowners pay for it,
twice. First the bill, then the cutting of
service. They even help you map it.
On this day, in this month, in this
pandemic year, exploding electrical lines
and rolling blackouts are part of our
new weather patterns. Welcome to
sunny California. Come see the beaches
and stay for the fire siege.
Lightning in a state that is perpetually
dehydrated could light up acres
forever & after, the gated communities
and million dollar mountain houses.
Who will look after the horses that were
abandoned when their owners evacuated
and left them behind, roped in?
Who will feel empathy for mother
mountain lions, stuck between fire
complexes and abandoning their cubs,
now cradled in the arms of a
journalist’s photograph, its tiny burnt
paw pads and singed fur?
An architect looks at the now-charred
structures on the evening news, stilty
like egret legs and julienned like black
carrots, and says, That was my best work.
Each week there is a new fire raging.
They bleed into each other with
whimsical names and messy footprints:
North Whizz Dome Fire, Apple Fire,
Bear Fire, Bobcat. We feel them in
the flatlands, rolling white ash and acrid
smoke through our weeks, punctuating
the fact that a killer virus is in the world
and no one has enough toilet paper
or hand sanitizer to stop it.
I will always remember the Glass Fire
in Napa County, the one that nearly
burned our aspirational palate dreams
of eating at a three-starred Michelin restaurant.
Porcini crusted sea scallop with cauliflower veloute & apple pie with miso caramel
The one with a fixed menu.
Toasted quinoa & preserved black winter truffle & Pacific shima aji “tartare”
The one that required RSVPs and suggested formal attire.
Burrata cheese crostini & handmade strozzapreti
The one we would have overdressed for and overtipped at.
Beef tenderloin with truffled potato puree & salad of winter chicory leaves with roasted carrots and parsnips
No wine pairing, thank you.
Or what about the CZU Lightning Complex
fires that burned the sign off the entrance
to Big Basin? Charring the memory of
old growth trees and leaving them like
seniors in a memory care facility.
What do you remember about your childhood?
There was once a grove of trees
We lived through many wars
We watched the cities expand
We became the backyard neighbors of
rich people who drink white wine at night.
Firefighters with drug convictions
pushed back the flames, earning $1.90 a day
as they looked into the face of the blaze,
while entire Bay Area cities were
ordered to stay indoors due to dirty,
dangerous air. Meanwhile Black folks
still stood outside waiting twenty minutes
for a late AC Transit bus.
My sister bought our mother two air filters
around the time we watched that video of
George Floyd not being able to breathe.
These cops, like these fires, are killing us.
We are alive but like all the kids in
Oakland with asthma, we don’t know
that it’s in the air. Like a horror film.
It’s in the water, too, like Flint. But we
drink it, even if it’s lead. Even if there’s
After the fires, my mother and her neighbor
sneak outside after dark to water their lawns.
Need to pamper your proof of suburban
homeownership. You’ve invested too
much into this near-million dollar house for
it to go up in flames, literally. Climate
change can’t interfere with first-gen
immigrant assets. Even if a thousand trees
burn to ash in California, everybody will
somehow avoid hearing them.
Wendy Thompson Taiwo is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at San José State University. Her poetry has appeared in the Rappahannock Review, Jet Fuel Review, Waccamaw Journal, Hey, I’m Alive, and Typehouse.