I like the air here.
It’s still, doesn’t impose in the morning with a fierce coldness or envelope with a sweat inducing heat at midday. It simply exists. At night, I leave my window open and it provides such a negligible temperature change in my room that I forget to shut it for days, only remembering when the fog rolls in on a random Tuesday morning and I wake up with a cold nose and cold toes. I’m writing about it in terms of what it is not because I still can’t believe what it is. I’ve only just gotten used to not feeling cold in 70 degree weather at the peak of summer.
When I first moved, I looked into apartments on the west side of the city. The west side was, allegedly, hip. It was growing, opening up to a younger, cooler population and the houses were getting nicer, or if they were shit, they were gritty, real—and really fucking cool.
But I need outdoor spaces more than I need cool and I kept finding myself on environmental websites that gave me facts on the port’s pollution and the shockingly high cases of asthma in the kids out there and so, because I had the option, I headed for the hills, or as close as I could get.
Yesterday, my entire county was covered with that red outline reserved for severe situations on The Weather Channel. And so was the county above me, the one where Richmond and the Chevron refinery are located. And their red was bolder. And their warnings only issued after the fact. These warnings were instructions, they said things like: “Don’t breathe the air,” and “keep your fireplaces closed.” And, to me, it sounded like a strange game of dissociation because what the fuck could one have to do with the other? And then I remembered that I live in a city with a port. And then I tracked that dirty air from my computer at my desk beside my open window. And then I shut my window.
What makes people want to protect and change their environment?
This was a question I wrote down on my first weekend in the city—the other one, the city by the bay. I was at a lecture on “Our Better Nature,” which is a concept as well as the title of a book written by an environmental history professor at SFSU. I was at the Golden Gate Library, a tiny, beautiful library so close to the marina and it’s perfectly blue water, that after the talk was done I took a walk down the hill to get a better view of it. It was so beautiful, so irresistible that I could have watched it for hours. That’s one of my favorite things about nature, how it can convince you that you’re not close enough to it, how it can make you forget that it’s all around you.
Environmental history is how a group rearranges nature in order to live in it. It’s the roads and buildings we’ve built as well as the trees and gardens we’ve curated in the middle of it. At its simplest, we all play a part in environmental change because we are constant rearrangers of nature. We rearrange nature by deciding the things we can’t live without: fresh fruit, grain, herbs, beef, milk, eggs, gasoline, automobiles or mass-produced clothes from Taiwan. Someone has to find the space to grow those things, care for those things, build and sustain them and then ship them. They all have their effects and because nature is not better in one form or another (for instance, a dry region is not better than a humid one is not better than a mild and temperate one, etc…), our better nature can only refer to what we the people are demanding and what we’re deciding we can’t live without.
And I can’t tell you what you can and cannot live without—and who the fuck am I to try to do that?—but, I choose air.
“Our Better Nature” is a book written by Phillip J. Dreyfus, Associate Professor of History at San Francisco State University. My personal notes taken at his June 23rd lecture at the Golden Gate Branch San Francisco Public Library informed certain segments of this post (betcha can’t guess which ones!)