Rapacious Skies

The heft of boiling darkness, rapacious skies; concentrated humidity and free electrons Natural processes tumble against our infrastructures, our abstract territorial boundaries.

The heft of boiling darkness, rapacious skies; concentrated humidity and free electrons
Natural processes tumble against our infrastructures, our abstract territorial boundaries.

New York
An eye toward the horizon brewing with shades of grey and filtering out summer light on a workday afternoon, I thought nothing of the impending storm. Sitting in my office near New York, the forecast rain is but brief relief to the summer humidity – enjoyable while it falls, infuriating when it departs and leaves soggy, damper air. The flash of lightning sparks through the sky, the thunderous rumble follows seconds behind, I am innocuous to their effect. In New York, a summer thunderstorm means water – a significant amount of it, depending on the intensity of the storm. As New York City saw in August 2007, a single storm has enough water power to bring the entire subway and surface rail system to a halt for several hours (in some cases, days). A flood of water from a summer storm overwhelmed the subways pump system, shorted the electrified third rail, and disabled the morning commute. Hundreds of thousands of people who normally travel hidden underground were suddenly taking to the street – the commute compressed into a single plane – surface level. The city was temporarily crippled. The water disabled our transportation infrastructure; the space of the city was relegated to the surface of land.
In northern California, the summer thunderstorm has entirely different associations. The Sacramento Valley spreads itself between two mountain ranges – the horizon is hilltops on almost all sides. The brewing dark clouds seen over those hills, floating toward the valley, are an ominous sign in the summer heat. They signify briefly cooler temperatures, a small amount of precipitation, but most significantly to northern Californians, thunderstorms are associated with fire. In the dry heat of June 2008, the skies lit with vengeance: 6,000 strikes of lightning occurred in the northern part of the state igniting more than 2000 wild fires. By mid August when the fuel had been consumed and valiant fire fighting efforts made, more than 500 homes and businesses were lost, 15 people had died, and approximately 1.2 million acres burned. The dry, golden grasses that lend California its slogan “golden state” are millions of hectares of tinder. The hillside pine forests, full of low scrub, are matchsticks ready to be lit. Criss-crossed fire brakes – tilled soil – scatter at property edges and forest intervals, attempt to contain and reduce the spread of flame though they cannot gather the embers and sparks which float through the air, skipping over their planar futility. The concern is not for crippled transportation networks or flood – but rather for burning wilderness, lost homes, scorched grazing fields and disrupted power lines. The large electrical transmission lines that feed this part of the valley snake through the matchstick forests and grassland tinder. Fire can mean loss of power – and for an area where much of the population is semi-rural, loss of water as well – the pumps drawing well water from the aquifer below are powered by electricity. The lack of water creates insurmountable hardship in the fight against the flame. Helicopters crowd the reservoir skies as they fill their tumblers to satiate the burning thirst. Fire bombers soar swollen, then expel their cargo valiantly, a spritz of mist to parched skin.

Southern California cringes when a wind so recognizable it has been given the name “Santa Ana” tears across the terrain, be it scrub or subdivision of homes, and pushes the heat of the desert toward the temperate shore – blasting past the arbitrary ocean/land divide, wilting lives in her wake. Any excuse for a wayward fire, be it a downed power line, a spark from an automobile, a hunter’s flare or a castoff cigarette, grows into an potentially engulfing firestorm as Santa Ana fans destruction in seemingly incessant gusts of her strong hand for days on end before retiring exhausted, giving brief relief to the firefighters and reprieve to endangered property owners.

Emerging Urban Futures: Land, Infrastructure, Water. Ed. Moji Baratloo and K Holt-Damant. New York: Columbia University Press | 6/09