Sadness and Strange Beauty: On Manjula Martin’s “The Last Fire Season”
By Ellie EberleeJanuary 19, 2024
The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History by Manjula Martin
Martin confronts more complex challenges in the form of relentless, flame-ferrying heat and chronic pain in her new memoir, The Last Fire Season. This unsettling, timely book traces the dual fallout from the author’s botched hysterectomy and the 2020 California wildfires, during which an approximate 9,900 fires burned 4.3 million acres in California—twice the previous record. Forced to evacuate Sonoma County mid-August, Martin and her partner Max seek refuge everywhere from the coasts of Santa Cruz to the foothills of the Sierras. But safety doesn’t guarantee peace of mind. Even removed from the blaze and bluster of the Diablo winds, the writer’s “nightly routine of watching the slow apocalypse unfurl across [her] tiny blue screen” seeds profound anxiety.
Martin hasn’t always lived in Sonoma. The writer was born in a trailer in a Santa Cruz redwood forest and, from there, passed through Boston, San Francisco, New York, Paris, and Portland. Along the way, she co-authored Fruit Trees for Every Garden (2019) and edited the anthology Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living (2017). She also served as managing editor for the National Magazine Award–winning literary journal Zoetrope: All-Story. It wasn’t until 2017 that Martin and Max acquired the piece of property on which the writer felt “easily, seamlessly, at home”—the land she “mistakenly thought [she] possessed” yet feared more than anything to lose. That year, too, marked the onset of the writer’s chronic panic, triggered by a dangerous shift in the orientation of her IUD and doctors’ failure to properly remove the device.
Adrift during unprecedented fires and the first pandemic summer, Martin weathers daily, sometimes debilitating bodily discomfort. Flares of pain, like flames, are unpredictable. The immediate fire threat fades, and she returns home to wait for November rains among Sonoma woodlands and her beloved backyard garden. Muscle relaxants, cannabis, psilocybin, and anxiety medications are consumed; decks dirtied by ash and redwood duff are swept. Flowers and manuscripts alike are tended, bloom, are pruned—still, Martin fails to find ease. “I rehearsed my own death all the time,” she writes. “[T]he fire was heading west, the fire was uncontrolled, the fire was within city limits, again. Mental inventory: go bag, keys, nonsynthetic shoes, all we had to lose, all that was never ours to begin with.”
Martin’s subtitle, “A Personal and Pyronatural History,” alludes to her impressive interweaving of various narrative modes. The result is a deft tessellation of medical memoir, local reportage, and ecocritical and literary meditation. Martin situates the worsening wildfires amid deficiencies in California’s housing stock and the politics of disaster response; with grim, unrelenting curiosity, she considers the catastrophes’ implications for migrant workers, land-based industries, and community-supported agriculture networks. She’s at her most compelling, though, looking inward to examine lived experience and the often problematic or insufficient narrative frameworks in which those experiences are couched. Familiar critical names are enlisted to guide her inquiry (Amitav Ghosh, Ursula K. Le Guin), as are mainstream Western mythological and literary figures (Prometheus, Mary Shelley). But Martin also pulls from Buddhist parables and queer and ecofeminist theory. She interviews Indigenous peoples, climate justice leaders, prescribed fire specialists, and farmworkers.
In this way, Martin levels colonial and capitalist Californian mythologies with the efficiency and precision of a controlled burn. Again and again, she brings her privileged and pastorally skewed relationship to the natural world down to singed roots. Rather than mourn capital-R Romantic notions of the wild—in particular, the “pristine” landscapes objectified by the 19th-century naturalist John Muir—the writer exhibits growing distaste for what she sees as the predominant pre-21st-century literature of California, rife with “cowboys and Indians,” sublime vistas, and unpeopled frontiers. She looks closely, fending off the “allure of an empty wilderness” and attempting to “de-settlerize” her gaze. Consequently, the borders between “built environments” and “nature” begin to blur. Once, the writer relinquished naturalistic ideals of healthcare for the interventions of, first, an IUD, and then surgery. Now, she abandons untenable notions of pristine nature with similar pragmatism. “I didn’t need this forest to be untouched anymore,” she writes. “I needed it to survive.”
This unraveling of boundaries between woman and nature further undercuts the writer’s own sense of climate exceptionalism—an attitude she has long harbored (albeit passively) as a cis, middle-class white woman in a heterosexual relationship. Because, just as her normative and well-nourished body fell prey to a string of cascading health crises, socioeconomic advantages can only insulate Martin so much from the ravages of climate change and its undiscriminating fires. She, too, is precarious, and her prose is limned with humility, even fear. What happens to the land and its other inhabitants will eventually happen to her, for the skies that summer were a “color to put people in our place, inside history.”
Martin engages in other, suggestive rethinkings of her relationship to and with the natural world, many of which play out within the bounds of her backyard garden. There, the pained writer participates in perceptible cycles of growth and finds kinship among plants who are her “companion[s] in damage and renewal.” She also wrestles with thorny issues of agency, sustenance, and respect. Humans have wreaked irremediable havoc on planetary systems for centuries—how much should we continue to intercede in processes in which we don’t obviously play a part? How much can we?
Martin is far from the first to ask such questions. But her subject position, defined as it is by pain and a consequent awareness that she “was an animal, too,” suffuses them with particular pathos. Her gender provides another lens with which to peer through the “modes of concealment” that, Ghosh famously posited, prevent effective representation of climate change in popular culture. Comparatively speaking, her perspective is less distorted by typically patriarchal drives toward material production and the burning of fossil fuels; as Martin observes, “The history of the world was so often the history of men not knowing how to respond to beauty.”
Gratifyingly, Martin stops short of reproducing the reductive ecofeminist frameworks ably critiqued by Val Plumwood: that “the goodness of women”—their tropological feminine closeness to nature—“will save us.” After all, Martin reflects, “I wasn’t that different from those men. I didn’t know what to do with all this beauty, either, where to put it, how to process the conflicting experiences my body and heart had when I was outdoors.” And, as vision-granting and empowering as uprooting, replanting, and deadheading in her garden may be, the acts don’t eliminate her need for painkillers or other trappings of a male-dominated medical system. Ultimately, the writer retains keen awareness of her limitations as a human and animal, acknowledging that “[d]isorder ruled the day. I wasn’t standing in 250 AQI urging plants to grow because I thought I had the power to control what happened to either of us.”
Martin does have the power to control language, as a glance at any passage from the book confirms, and she pursues vivid, precise vocabularies for life in the so-called Pyrocene. She is determined to—if not exactly, at least adequately—articulate the changes besetting her body and her smoldering environment. As in the garden, Martin’s work on the page pays off: her lithe, incisive prose functions as an instrument capable of sounding change at the scale of both the individual fire poppy and the state of California. The author roots her capacity for complexity in Sonoma’s soil, relating that “[t]he slow, repeated act of being in direct physical relationship to a piece of land was beginning—slowly, repeatedly—to teach me to understand the physical world in terms beyond well or unwell, fertile or sterile, whole or broken.” That same slow, sustained relationship compels her to reach beyond everyday vernacular for more uncommon constructions, like professor and environmental activist Glenn Albrecht’s “solastalgia,” the anguish a person suffers when their home environment alters irreparably. According to Albrecht, solastalgia is “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.” (Unsurprisingly, the word is increasingly invoked alongside phrases like “climate grief.”)
As the book’s title suggests, even the term “fire season” offers potent kindling for Martin’s ready, expository light. The writer explains how “[f]ire season was a loosely defined term invoked by Cal Fire, local authorities, and the media to describe the dry months in the American West when fuels were [highly flammable], the weather was hot, and wind drove ignition of wildfires.” She identifies an ironic hopefulness embedded in the phrase, an optimism inherent in the notion that fires might be confined to a single season—that they would otherwise go away. Of course, any potential optimism was snuffed out by the 2020 burns. Because if the months covered by the book affirm anything, it’s that “[f]ire wasn’t going away. Fire was everywhere, it would continue to be everywhere, there was nowhere it couldn’t reach. It was inside me right now,” Martin thinks, inhaling smoke-inflected air.
When natural cycles, language, and systems of care and response fail, what options remain for the crisis-haunted Californian? Grievance is one logical reaction. However much the writer rejects certain veins of Western and colonial literature, her memoir might also be read as a prose installment in the English elegiac tradition. Descriptions of Martin’s physical incapacities and California’s smoke-stained, sunless sky are not only steeped in ubi sunt (transient) motifs but also—in their lament for bodily and ecological undoing—evoke lines from Walt Whitman’s great American elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”: “O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star! / O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me! / O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.”
The comparison isn’t a perfect one; the book rejects tidy generic bounds. And Martin’s accounts of garden labor demonstrate deeper affinity with the georgic tradition than with the pastoral, or the mode of nature writing most closely connected to elegy. Still, much of her memoir appears an exercise in mourning—for herself, for the plants and people around her, for an atmosphere “pregnant with doom.”
In her search to find forward footing through personal and planetary pain, Martin calls upon the ecocritic Donna Haraway, who identifies two common responses to climate change. There are the “game-over people,” who have already capitulated to apocalypse. There are also the “technofixers,” who deny the true extent of the crisis, or else heap misplaced faith on human efforts that are often, in reality, nonexistent. The Last Fire Season puts forth a convincing argument for Haraway’s third option—“staying with the trouble.” In Martin’s view, “[i]t was a simple but powerful concept: only by allowing oneself to exist within—to fully feel—the terror, sadness, and strange beauty of this moment in human time could one develop new ways to live through it.”
Stay with the trouble. No small task, where chronic pain and ecological crisis are concerned. Yet Martin’s memoir provides a diligent and soulful example: for carefully examining burn scars; for reseeding wherever possible; and for committing to see clearly, despite the smoke.
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