One September afternoon in 2020, I was recording the narration for Two Minutes Past Nine inside our backpacking gear closet when Joe knocked on the door. He told me that emergency wildfire maps were saying we might need to evacuate. Us? Here? On the edge of Portland? Could that be real? We didn’t have time to be skeptical.
It was a scorching hot late summer day, and the wind gusts had bent our tall trees like paper dolls, folding them at the waist. The smoke from a nearby wildfire had turned everything yellow. Flames were ripping through the Willamette National Forest, and sparks had turned to full-blown fires near Mt. Hood, near Estacada. The southern part of the state was an inferno. It was already the middle of a pandemic, but now the world felt truly apocalyptic. Like there was more left in our downward spiral than I ever could have conceived.
I walked outside and asked a neighbor how concerned he was. He shrugged and said he was watching the maps, too. If we had to go, we had to go.
Back in our house, we were throwing important papers into bags, trying to remember where we even kept important papers, what papers are important. We grabbed crates for the cats (RIP), and staged backpacks and pet food by the door. Those bags sat there, and stayed there. A day later, the evacuation zone receded, like the tide going out. And even our friends who had been told to flee started to trickle back home.
I think it’s fair to say that it was that day that one of the first seeds of my new podcast series, Burn Wild, were planted for me and my producer at the BBC, Georgia Catt. She was on the phone from London as I recorded in the closet that day in 2020. Close by, but far away, when I told her, hey, I think I gotta go. There are fires. I’ll call you when I know more.
But for me, another seed had been planted far earlier — years prior, during an interview for another project with a former FBI agent, who pushed back on my questions about the growing threat of far-right groups in America. He said to remember there are far left extremists, too. “Who?” I asked. Eco-terrorists, he said.
I was skeptical.
For the last two years, Georgia and I have been chipping away at a Herculean task: trying to understand who the federal government considers an eco-terrorist, and why. We tell the story of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) like you’ve never heard it before: from people who were on the inside of a group the FBI branded “The Family,” who broke the law in the name of the environment, and one man who evaded capture for more than a decade.
Throughout the show we ask one question over and over — of both the people we interviewed and of you, the listener: how far is too far to go to save the planet?
Among the many interviews we did is one that will stick with me for a very long time: with Leslie James Pickering — the former spokesperson for the ELF. You can hear a bit of him speaking in episode 1. He said:
“What the Earth Liberation Front did was a massive step beyond anything that had tactically been done in the underground for the environment prior. To send a message to the world that now there are consequences. We all know that you’re used to living in a world where you can destroy the environment and pollute whatever you want, and at best expect a fine that you can easily afford to pay. But those days are over. If the government’s not going to do anything to stop you then there is a vibrant, angry, capable underground that will create a consequence that you will feel.”
From time to time when I interview people, a person will say something that makes it feel like a mallet has slammed against a gong somewhere deep inside my chest. Something that shakes my organs, my bones. This was one of those.
Burn Wild is about people who were asking themselves that vital question — how far is too far to go to save the planet — long, long before the rest of us were. Before we all realized there isn’t a person among us who can wiggle out of climate change.
And it’s also a podcast about consequences.
Between the first episode dropping last week, and the second episode coming out this week, I ventured to a ceramics workshop far out in the woods of western Oregon. Everything was yellowed and dry, and the air — again — grainy with smoke. This time, unlike in 2020, communities across the state were experiencing rolling blackouts: a precaution being taken by power companies to curb further fires from spreading.
All weekend, my fellow potters and I worked all day and at night by lantern. I wiped ashes off my camping plates, and my glasses. We smiled, somehow, through our grim reality that climate change had arrived and we were making pots to pass the time.
I thought about how we got here. I thought about timber heiress running for governor in Oregon who says we need to cut down more trees. I thought about the people fleeing their homes again this year in the very communities where you’ll see Timber Unity signs.
I thought about Burn Wild even when I didn’t want to, because I was thinking about who pays consequences in this society, and who does not. Why do some people pay, and others never do?
When you’re wiping ash off your glasses, are you thinking this, too? When you’re feeling around in the dark, are you thinking about how we got here? Does this gubernatorial candidate with the owlish frames wipe wildfire ash off her glasses and … just move on? Stop thinking about how we got here, and what’s next, knowing it will never affect her?
It’s a complicated story about myths and ghosts, about power and money, about control and beauty. And I really, really hope you give it a listen…
The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A couple of quick notes:
Oregon friends: I’ll be doing a reading of When the Moon Turns to Blood THIS THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15 at 5:30 pm at the McMinnville Library. You can come hear some bits from the book, and I’d be happy to sign your copy.
Paid subscribers: You are directly funding freelance journalism with your subscription, and I have to thank you more than ever for your continued support. You gave me a greater availability to work on Burn Wild, to promote When the Moon Turns to Blood and to get started working on several new projects that I’m so, so excited about. If you’re not a paid subscriber, please consider becoming one.
“What?! Leah, you wrote a book?!” Yes, yes I did. Please purchase one and tell your friends!