This essay appears in the anthology Dark Mountain 17: Restoration
One October day, my husband and I drove out of San Francisco to take a walk in the South Bay hills. It was the final day of Fleet Week, when the navy comes to town each year to attract new recruits, culminating in an airshow by bomber jets called Blue Angels. People flock to see them, crowding the sandy strip of the bay shoreline for miles. The pilots perform stunts of great virtuosity, flying in tight formation, dropping from astounding heights to roar just over the spectators’ heads. The jets scream across the sky with an all-encompassing, elemental sound, as if the sky itself were in pain.
I always looked for excuses to leave the city when this was happening. I could not imagine the people who came in droves to see the airshow had ever had any personal experience of what the planes could do in war.
There has never been a single day in my life when a war was not being waged somewhere on earth, but those wars were almost invisible to me (and, it seemed, to everyone around me) until I went to live in El Salvador, in Central America, in the late 1980s. At that time, more than one-fifth of its five million people had been displaced, exiled or killed in a decade-long civil war.
In El Salvador, the bomber planes were called push-and-pulls. The US government had paid for them. They were used by the Salvadoran military to fight leftist insurgents who had established strongholds in remote areas and were trying to take power.
In November 1989, the rebels attacked the capital city, San Salvador. They stormed into the slums, where they had many supporters, and the government was unable to dislodge them by sending in foot soldiers. So it used the planes to bomb homes and streets in its own capital. Many residents fled up the forested slopes of the sleeping volcano that towered over the city.
I was living in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac on the mountainside. The family next door were fundamentalist Christians, expatriates from neighboring Nicaragua, which was then socialist. They stood on the roof of their house and cheered each explosion, each distant building collapsing into dust and sooty flames. The boys wore the starched white shirts and dark trousers of the evangelical church; their mother clutched a bible and prayed, eyes closed, rocking on her heels.
The planes climbed higher and higher, with a weird droning sound, then dropped into a breathtaking dive. At the bottom of the dive, a sudden silence. Then a cloud of black smoke would go up from the streets below.
Ultimately, the bombings achieved their objective. The insurgents failed to take the capital, and the civil war returned to stalemate for another two years, until a negotiated settlement was reached. These turned out to be the final years of the Cold War. El Salvador, a ‘hot’ war, was one of its last fronts.
Past the city’s ragged suburban edge, my husband and I drove through a corridor of second-growth redwoods along the ridge-top road, until the land opened into grassy, treeless hills. From one side of the road you could see the south end of San Francisco Bay, hemmed in by chalk-colored squares of housing, industrial areas, airfields. Salt ponds marked off by white dikes enclosed their odd colours, from red and purple to turquoise. On the other side of the road, the hills fell back into thickly wooded land, declining toward the coast, with a glinting promise of sea beyond.
At the trailhead where we parked, broad tracks followed the open hilltops and footpaths led down into forested ravines. The sun was warm and bright, and the breeze was gentle. It was the time of greatest dryness, toward the end of the annual six months of drought. The grass covering the hills was white-gold, making them look like sand dunes against a desert sky. Above the blinding white ridge, a perfect blue.
Years before the Salvadoran war, I found my way to a Berber tent in the Sahara. There was a sandstorm; I was stranded with a couple of other travelers. A fine grit covered our bodies as we lay on rough rugs of goatskin and wool. The sand seemed to enter every crevice of my skin, sifting under my eyelids, inside my mouth. At first I didn’t really feel as if I was present at all; I’d sent my mind far away. But the place ultimately captivated me. Two red dunes, one star above at twilight, a stone well.
When the storm died down I went outside and poured water from the well over my face and neck. I felt I was experiencing some culmination, even if it was just for the moment I stood with the sweet clear water dripping from my hands.
The Sahara made all other places seem like they existed at some lesser degree of necessity. The desert said it would win over time; it would remain when all other landscapes were lost. When we left after the storm abated, I felt for a moment as if I’d stayed behind and was watching a ghostly version of myself disappear down the almost invisible road through the dunes.
The desiccation of the South Bay landscape was so perfect that every detail of the plant life was preserved, even as all color other than a uniform pale brown had been drained out. The drying seemed like freezing in this way, fixing all the elements of the landscape in place, preserving them completely in death.
The dead grasses on the hills looked exquisite, although most were not native. Later I found a website mounted by a local man who had dedicated himself to cataloguing the decline of the native grasses in precisely that area, and the advance of the aggressive European species – Harding grass, wild oats, starthistle, snake grass, dog’s tail grass – that were replacing them. The website included a sequence of letters he had written to the county Open Space Preserve, petitioning them to take responsibility for a series of controlled burns that had had exactly the opposite of their intended effect, to allow the native grasses a chance to re-establish themselves. Here is his list of the damages done as of the previous summer:
The exotic weeds that were measurably helped and spread by the five illegal fires were 808,000 Italian thistle plants, 527,622 Harding grass plants, 152,000 yellow starthistle plants, and two million wild oats plants, for example. Those were the taller weeds that spread, plus uncounted shorter annual grass weeds and exotic clovers, also spread and took advantage of the damage to the wildflower fields and native grasslands by the fires.
The fire-killed environmental resources that existed before the fires and need to be restored include 200,000 Sitanion grass plants, 156,000 Nassella pulchra plants that were lost in the fires, 32,000 Melica grasses, 20,000 Festuca grasses, 20,000 Koeleria grasses, 500,000 annual tarweeds, 500,000 owl’s clover plants, 400,000 Layia wildflowers, 224,000 white yarrow plants, 160,000 Amsinckia plants, 52,000 lupines, 40,000 native Plantago, 40,000 miner’s lettuce, 40,000 coyote mint plants, 40,000 California poppy plants, 40,000 blue-eyed grasses, 12,000 popcorn flowers, 12,000 buttercups, and 10,000 farewell to springs.
I was impressed and moved by the rigor of this chronicle of loss. But as we were walking, I had no knowledge of it, and without that history, I was merely delighted by the heat of the sun, the sweep of sky, and the silence, with only the occasional rustle of a fence lizard or garter snake in the dead grass.
I would often amuse myself, on walks in open country like this, by imagining that my husband and I were among the last people left on Earth. I once tried to explain to him: I start walking and I just walk into the future in my mind. I cross a threshold somewhere, and a thousand years have gone by, or maybe ten thousand. I can feel it’s another time… He was tolerant, but I could see he was baffled, so I didn’t mention it again.
As the years passed this displacement seemed to be occurring more frequently.
A dirt road led down the sere hill to a ranch gate. There we found a little stream, its banks crowded with blackberry bushes and shaded with pungent laurel, like a shout of laughter in a cemetery. We leaned against the rusting gate, eating the ripe blackberries dangling over it, marveling at their sweetness. For an instant I was swept again into my imagined future.
I felt that neither the future nor the past – nor the present with the Blue Angels hanging over the upturned faces of the city’s inhabitants, ready to descend – was as full of menace as it usually seemed. The clouds looked painted on the sky: regal, elegant, and antique as the plumes in a dragoon’s helmet.
It was perhaps the profound stillness that reminded me of a visit we’d made to the Sierra Nevada some years before. At night, we sat on a snow-covered porch, our breath hanging in clouds in the dark air, arc lamps glittering on the blue-white snow crystals on the ground. And my mind was again far away, casting itself out into the emptiness of white stars in a blue-black, frozen sky from which the snow was not falling and could never fall, and pushing away the cold that seemed to enter an emptiness just as vast inside my body, which had become the thinnest membrane around that hollow place.
Another winter had come back to me that night. On the winter solstice, the tenth anniversary of the El Mozote massacre, I stood knee-deep in the tall brown grass of a field where there had once been a town of that name. As many as a thousand people had died there, over the course of three days. The whole town had been rounded up, the men tortured and shot, the women and young girls raped and shot, and the children’s throats slit and their bodies set on fire. A woman who escaped hid crouching in the bushes until nightfall, listening to her children crying for her in terror from inside the church where they’d been locked up while the adults were killed. When darkness came, she fled. The woman, who stayed silent and in hiding for years from fear and shame, had finally come forward.
‘There is no way to live with these things,’ she said. ‘If we remember too much, it kills us. If we forget, we may stay alive, but inside we are dead. We live among ghosts in any case; we are always surrounded by the shadows of the dead.’
As the wind whispered in the dry grass, I attempted to translate the woman’s words to a group of visitors who had come to learn about the war. She did not pause for breath as she told her story. The story lived inside her and expressed itself all at once when it had to be told. So I had to stop thinking about the words I heard, and to speak them as if I were receiving them directly from the other woman’s mind, as if her ghosts were entering my body.
The soldiers burned the empty town to the ground when they left. Only ten years later, the grass had covered everything, and there was no sign that any building, any street had ever been there. The remnants of the thousand bodies – bones, ash, shreds of clothes – were nowhere to be seen. Forensic teams had to come and dig for them to prove that so many people had died in that place. For years the army said it never happened.
Something about forgetting is necessary to inflicting suffering on any scale, from the pain of one person to the murder of thousands, to the assault on the whole web of life. It is necessary to power. You can only wield power over others effectively if they forget something essential about themselves – rights, agency, dignity – in the present, and also about the collective possibilities that existed in the past. You can only destroy the web of life by forgetting you are part of it.
But that was where the ghosts came in; they were insubstantial, belied by the solidity of the physical world from which they had been expunged, and yet they persisted; they were everything that refused to be forgotten completely.
Ghosts – of plants, animals, landscapes, people – may be restored to a contingent life by giving them expression in the mouths of the living. And the living may be rescued from death-in-life by giving their ghosts a voice, unforgetting them. Such witness – not true restoration, which the nature of time makes impossible, but possibly a step towards redress or renewal – is necessary work after great dying, and thus an inevitable task for us now, and still more for those who will come after us.
My husband and I walked the dry hills under the perfect blue sky until we knew the screaming would have stopped. Then we drove back to the city, joining a gathering flood of machines rolling through the twilight along the grey roads.