My Year of Smoke: Finding Echoes of Frankenstein in the California Fires
Joy Lanzendorfer on Mary Shelley's "Year Without a Summer"
The campground in Oregon is foggy in the morning. The air is soft and clean. I walk out of my van and scrutinize the white feathers of cloud blurring into the branches of fir trees, looking for undertones of brown. My fear is that the smoke has followed us here.
The day before, we drove eight hours to escape the wildfire smoke smothering California. All week I’d been suffering from a strange sickness. First, a wild sore throat fading to congestion. Then I coughed up something green. When I tried to sing, I found myself gasping for air, my ability to modulate sound compromised by weakness in my chest. I walked my son to school and came back with an itching spot in my throat, like a low-level ember that couldn’t be put out, no matter how much water I poured on it.
This is the third time this year that smoke has blocked out the sun. Last October, our home was threatened as fires burned all around us. Not long after, the county north of us burned for almost two months. This latest one, the Camp Fire, was the strangest because it was so far away. It would take a three-hour drive to reach it, yet the smoke was thicker than when the next town over was burning. Our son, whose respiratory rate is twice that of an adult, was advised to stay indoors. Instead, we piled in our van and drove, waiting for blue sky to appear again. It took traveling far up into Oregon to find good air quality. How crisp and clear everything seemed after the smoke. Within a few hours, my sickness was gone.The days of California smoke filled me with restless claustrophobia, as if the most animalistic part of me couldn’t stop responding to the weird atmosphere outside.
During the drive, I kept thinking about 1816, or “the Year Without a Summer.” The year before, Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted with a boom so loud, people heard it 1,600 miles away. Catastrophic amounts of ash and dust entered the atmosphere, disrupting the weather system for the next four years. Temperatures fell to record lows. Frozen birds dropped from the sky in Montreal. A “dry fog” spread over New England, making sunspots visible to the eye. Ash-tinted snow fell in Italy and Hungary. Crops failed, leading to food shortages and riots. And maybe the worst part is that no one understood why it was happening.
That summer, 18-year-old Mary Shelley went with Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont to Switzerland, where they met up with Lord Byron and his friend, Dr. John Polidori. Byron rented a villa by Lake Geneva, but the weather kept them from the outdoor activities they probably imagined when they left London. Torrential rains gushed down and Geneva flooded. Soup kitchens opened for the poor. Shelley called it “a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.”
Famously, Byron proposed a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. That night, Shelley imagined a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then … show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” This nightmarish vision became Frankenstein, widely considered the first sci-fi novel. From this gloomy, strange weather came a story that asks, at its heart, a question we’re still asking now: What horrible price do we pay when we go against the laws of nature?
Despite the creature’s hideous appearance, he isn’t born a monster. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he says. Abandoned by his creator, who refuses to engage with what he has done, the creature experiences brutality, which hardens him and makes him cruel. Frankenstein spends most of the book running away from his creation as he broods, weeps, and suffers from nervous fevers in his privileged childhood home or while traveling through France and England on vacation. He doesn’t just play God, he plays God and then pretends it never happened. Meanwhile, his creature grows in rage and power, turning back on the man who made him. He kills Frankenstein’s little brother and nurse, his best friend, and finally, his wife.
Shelley’s life around the time she wrote Frankenstein was full of tragedy. Her elopement with Percy Shelley in 1814 was a scandal because he was married with two children, and her father disowned her. Their first child, Clara, died in infancy a year later, and while Shelley was writing the novel, both her half-sister and Harriet Shelley, Percy’s pregnant wife, killed themselves. All these subjects—estrangement, wandering, lost friends, forbidden lovers, dead children—are poured into Frankenstein. And so is the weather. In fact, weather is practically on every page of the novel. There are descriptions of nice days, which ease Frankenstein’s gloom: “It was a divine spring… I felt also sentiments of joy and affection revive in my bosom.” More often, however, the weather is cold. Frankenstein meets his creature on top of mountains and near ice caves. Storms pour down. There is darkness, then “vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes.” The novel ends in the Arctic, with Frankenstein pursuing his creature over deserts of ice. Finally, the creature jumps onto an ice raft in the ocean, where “he was carried away by the waves and I soon lost sight of him in the darkness.”What horrible price do we pay when we go against the laws of nature?
The days of California smoke filled me with restless claustrophobia, as if the most animalistic part of me couldn’t stop responding to the weird atmosphere outside. For Mary Shelley, who likely didn’t understand what was happening, the Year Without a Summer must have seemed unnatural and disturbing. Of course, the volcanic eruption that caused that phenomenon probably would have happened regardless of human activity, whereas the California wildfires were likely caused by people. Part of this is human negligence—a car fire or, more often, failed electrical equipment. A downed PG&E power line sparked the fires near my home, and damage to a transmission tower may have started the Camp Fire. According to The New York Times, PG&E was responsible for “at least 17 of 21 major fires in Northern California last fall.”
But there’s also the pernicious drought that persists year after year, making the summers drier and the need for rain more pressing. In 2014, almost 200 years after Shelley’s strange summer, my state simply skipped winter. The yellow hills never turned the lush green I look forward to each year, but stayed the color of a hay bale and equally as likely to ignite in flames. The California Department of Water Resources says that the drought is exacerbated by climate change. Most areas of the country, if not the world, are starting to experience crises related to climate change. Yet many people, including prominent politicians, continue to ignore the problem or pretend it isn’t real, a tactic that may have dramatic long-term consequences. Like Victor Frankenstein, we’re unwilling to look at what we’ve created. We try to run away from it, but it follows us and begins to chip away at the things we love. It’s inescapable, and as we try to go back to our summer-drenched childhoods, this monster of ours is sickening and becoming worse.
My family stayed in Oregon for five days. The last day, the sun came out on the way home. It was a gloriously fresh morning as we drove past cranberry bogs and small towns. On a beach, a bald eagle perched on a limb above an inlet flowing to the silvery ocean. Then we went around the bend, closer to Bookings, the last town in Oregon before California. There, above the tree line, was the coastal fog, rising like an erasure in the sky. And on the edge of it was a tint of brown—the telltale signs of wildfire smoke creeping on top of the fog.