It’s unlikely that Mount Tamalpais is the remnant of an extinct volcano, but it’s possible. The eruption, if it ever happened, might have taken place 20 to 45 million years ago — this is according to the boy sitting next to me at the coffee shop; he advised me not to cite him in my essay — and it would have blanketed our currently ergonomic bay area with a suffocating layer of unforgiving black ash. I can see the sky obstructed with smoke for days, maybe weeks; the remaining redwoods and douglas-fir gray and unrecognizable; the tiny skeletons of moles, gophers, and hummingbirds scattered through the cinders.
In time, patches of blue would return overhead. The wind would pick up debris and push it off toward the Pacific, alone undisturbed by the obliteration of a neighboring ecosphere, blue and welcoming as death in her effort to let the mountain be what it was always going to be: a mountain. But before the leaves turned green again and the soil regular brown, crawling with earthworms, before those still weeks of unbreathable air and black sky, before the few hours in which everything was destroyed, from invasive weeds to rare and endangered butterflies — before all of this, there was the fire, and before the fire, there was the longing to erupt.
It’s commonly accepted that mount Tam was formed, not by an annihilating volcano, but instead by pressures formed at the San Andreas Fault. While the origin stories of volcanic eruption and tectonic plate movement both leave us with the same mountain, I wonder if some distinction is born out of which story we choose to tell. Was the mountain that I live on created out of fire-chaos-destruction-rebirth? Or was it formed through the slow, steady, and positive accumulation of mass between two moving fragments of the earth’s crust? In one story, there is no darkness in creation — no death, no fire, no unbearable longing to erupt. The world is built through apathetic progress, positivity, line graphs sloping up. No harm done. No rare butterflies obliterated, but no invasive weeds wiped out, either.
Once-volcano or not, mount tam is now dormant — just like the rest of the bay area, sliding down into pristine mill valley, foggy san francisco, the practical east bay and the steel-blue water between the three bridges. Now I am sitting outside a coffee shop looking out over a nearby park. My hair is clean and the mountain’s green. I am so young. There’s dogs everywhere: they stick to the confines of the lawn, eyes empty, tails wagging. Hair as clean as mine. Everyone here is smiling, including the clear blue sky, including the cartoonish police officer waving hello to the old ladies on their morning walk to town. It’s a very pretty picture. Here I am in the center of it, a very pretty, very respectable-looking girl. A dormant girl. And while there’s something superficially nice in all of that, something nice in the steady linearity of tectonic plates taking years and years to make a mountain, there’s something else, too. A feeling I can’t deny. An ugly longing I can’t suppress. And I think I want it all to burn.
On his cross-country drive, he took a few shrooms in the white sands desert. After sneaking into the park and setting up camp on the dunes, the sun had already begun to disappear behind the flat, unforgiving horizon. When the sky was dark he retreated into his tent, dimly aware of his original intention to lie under the stars but uneasy of the wind blowing through that reserve of strange, pearly sand.
The night passed both quickly and slowly. He made little drawings and tried to write but his mind was fastened to the creature roaming around outside the tent, which he never saw but obsessively imagined. Finally, at an unidentifiable hour and after putting it off as long as he could, he ventured outside to pee. The sight of his tent after returning hit him with a deep and indescribable dread. There were notebooks and pastels strewn across his crumpled-up sleeping bag; a bottle of water had been knocked over and a few loose pieces of paper in one corner were soaking in the mess; something smelled weird. It was colder than he remembered. All he wanted in that moment was for the sun to rise, and the second this thought entered his mind, he could think of little else. Darkness became the culprit for both the mess inside of his tent and his unknowable fears outside of it.
Eventually, he decided to start tidying up. When everything was almost back in order, he thought of something he wanted to write down. Rummaging for the right notebook in his backpack resulted in another small mess and panic began to set in again: would he keep organizing things and then fucking them up again, over and over and over until the end of time? When would he rest? He lay down on his back, eyes shut tight, imagining the excruciating cycle repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating…and lying there, he noticed that each heartbeat was followed immediately by another, and another, and there was nothing he could do to stop them from coming, nothing that could convince him each beat was not simply a preparation for the next…
Time passed in this way. Later, he would sit up, slowly, and write on his left arm in big, clear letters: I WILL REST… Switching the pen into his left hand, he wrote in much clumsier and more cramped-up print: …WHEN THE SUN COMES UP. Why must things start so whole, so clean, so clear, and then become so inevitably messy? Why must we witness and create so much beauty only to witness and create such ugly chaos? He compared the messages on his two arms, disappointed in his work but tired enough to accept it. And much later, when the sun came up, he did rest. But his heart never stopped beating.
I gravitate towards non-linear methods of protest that are an end in themselves as opposed to a means-to-an-end: instances in which disrespectful forms of defiance such as law-breaking, violence, harassment, vandalism, humor, or theft produce an immediate sense of pleasure, joy, self-preservation, or liberation in state victims. Defiance for the sake of defiance asks us to drop our conceptions of scarcity, to embrace heat and darkness, and to accept that however many times we clean the tent it will always become messy again. [This] is not always for [that]. Volcanoes don’t explode so that they can become mountains again; I don’t flip off a cop in the hopes that he will respect me more.
This exists for this.
The boys are like the sky — or the ocean. Vast and blue and beautiful and surging with energy. This now, then that. Light on their feet. If not graceful in their easy successes then full of laughter in their momentary defeats. Once I started to watch, I couldn’t stop. As they rolled a spliff I would fill up and then burst with jealousy. The jam begins — a pause in the steady stream of jokes until it becomes a centerpiece in itself — someone flipped over a crate and now there are drums and now there is singing and now I’m lying down in my spilled pool of envy and maybe this is okay? Maybe I can bliss out in this invisibility? Maybe I can melt into this scratchy boy-bedroom carpeting and maybe my formless rage will dissolve into the floorboards and maybe I can feel at peace with being nothing at all?
Solace comes in the form of one tiny yet indisputable fact: I’ll never be the sky or the sea. But I can maybe be a bird or a fish.
(Small creatures, maybe, but small creatures with eyes.)
On my 21st birthday I was a fish, but a content one, and I couldn’t believe the quantities of love that the blue house could hold in one night. I walked in with my sisters, soaking wet from walking along in the mission in the rain, and the boys were sitting at the piano or had picked up drums, guitars, and were playing a jazzified happy birthday to greet me. Justin made raspberry chocolate cake and in the kitchen they were already listening to Defiance Ohio and taking shots. I singed off most of my eyelashes on my crush’s spliff and drank too many beers and danced a lot and probably cried at one point. In the morning, on the balcony with Maddy, I confessed that I knew I didn’t deserve any of it.
“Lola.” She gave me this look. “Will you quit it with the scarcity narrative. There’s so much flowing out of everyone here, and we still all try to deny it of ourselves. It’s insane…” She gestured haphazardly at the sky and the street and the sun and the garden and our friends eating breakfast in the kitchen. I nodded, understanding her point. It all seemed so precious to me in that moment.
We slipped back into the kitchen and I was handed a burnt piece of toast with jam, and Wild Dog tried to grab a bite, and someone started playing Trees and Flowers on the speaker. Maddy raised her eyebrows at me, and suddenly I was thinking about how the ocean needs the fish as much as the fish needs the ocean, and inexplicably, as I smiled back at her, I felt I knew exactly what she was thinking without her having to say it —
Do you really think any of this beauty could exist without your eyes seeing it… your mouth tasting it…your skin feeling it… your heart racing with it…
Some ideas on exciting and pleasurable defiance:
– Kiss a cop
– Take a trip to the Aleutian mountain range, watch Paviot erupt
– Do the dishes
– Fall in love with one of your friends
– Write down a list of people you would do anything for, then do the things for the people
– Drop the scarcity narrative: instead of melting into the carpet, offer what you can offer
– Observe the flight of a beach bat at dusk
My friends are the long dry yellow grass on the mountain. Sometimes, just here for the season. Sometimes too easy to get lost in. When we are all together it’s usually guitar playing and ocean swimming and making fun of each other. But when conversation edges away from our immediate surroundings and tips into the wider world, I’m often asked about the whole burning it down thing — how is that supposed to work? How can we justify violent and destructive revolution with this sun that feels so good on this beach? With this peach that is so sweet with that cigarette that’s so perfectly rolled with Flo, standing there on the shoreline, looking so beautiful by the waves?
I’ll run sand through my fingers slowly, thinking about the shiny sliver of light we exist in — healthy and comfortable and Californian — compared to the dark struggle that is home to most of the world, everyone who suffers through life so that we can enjoy it. Thinking about how we have to burn it down for those who maybe don’t have the matches or the energy to strike them right now, but who badly need it burned.
But instead of saying all this, maybe I get up and join Flo where the waves are breaking, deciding it’s all kind of bullshit anyways. You can’t split the world up into people living in sunlight and people living in darkness. Even if you could — there’s cloudy days to consider, nights lit up with stars, full moons over the ocean — eclipses. We all contribute to the system; we all hurt because of it. So while I know that my privilege is crafted out of the oppression of another girl on another beach, maybe a few thousand miles south or a few thousand miles east, and while I know that because I have been randomly placed into this position of privilege it would be beneficial for me to bring destruction, chaos, and violence into our space of naturalized calm and manufactured peace, I also know that I am never going to save anyone, nor do I want to. We have to do this for ourselves as much as we have to do it for anyone else. I shoplift and graffiti frat houses and harass cops because maybe it can help even the scales; because even the most immaculate houses can have mold under their floorboards — but I’m not doing it out of any sense of duty, out of any notion that my proximity to whiteness and to wealth and to resources makes me any more capable of change than the rest of the world. At the end of the day, my everyday attempts at “burning it down” come from a few simple motivators. One: I feel like I’d die if I didn’t.
Two: it feels good.
Three: the yellow grass on the mountain. On my dad’s 56th birthday we found out about the tumor in my grandma’s lung. Life is frenzied, complex, buzzing in your ears and whirling before your eyes — and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, life becomes jarringly simple. You live, you age, you die. Your life is not all of the things you might do. It’s not the image you cling to of yourself in a far-away future: backpacking through Argentina, settling down in a house with pink roses growing in the front yard — rest, a clean tent, a sunrise. Life is what you did today, and that feeling you get when autumn begins, and the people you have been loving for some time now. The night of my dad’s birthday, as I leaned against the railings on our deck and inhaled Tommy’s cigarette, I fixed my eyes on a blue star directly above me. Then I looked to the left, at Tommy and Elliot laughing with my mom in the doorway. Both images gave me the same feeling, which was that maybe this is the whole point — looking at stars and looking at you guys and then looking at stars again—little moments where all my layers of feeling take a concrete shape, like a burning blue sun or three people I love in casual conversation — witnessing my life in the split seconds in which it occurs rather than as a series of things I do to reach a specific outcome —
The purpose of “burning it down,” then, goes deeper than our ambition to start over, to create something new. We also have this very human need to warm up by the flames. Admire the ash. Kiss, laugh, and dance in the heat. Participate in that ancient, inexorable pendulum swing between dormancy and explosion; then peer closely at each other in the firelight, noticing what before, we might never have seen.
And when the sun comes up, and when the ash settles, we will rest.