The Things We Bring With Us – Guest Blog from Tessa Hill

Smoke from the Kincade Fire hangs over Sonoma County. October 25, 2019. Photo by T. Hill

A packing list for the climate emergency

As the Kincade fire grew in Sonoma County, the air turned smoky and our sleep turned fitful. On the Friday after it started, I spent time preparing the yard for a wildfire. On Saturday, I packed and organized the house as the news trickled in about a growing threat of a windy night. I never knew how handy all of those online checklists were for preparing for an emergency until I was following each and every bulleted item. Clear flammables from around the houseFill buckets of waterOrganize your paperwork. Grab a few days of clothingStock up on face masks. Prepare pet items for a quick departure.

My husband was away on a backpacking trip in the mountains. When exactly he’d emerge back into cell phone range was a bit unclear. Through the day on Saturday, my texts to him documented my changing sense of urgency. I finally wrote something along the lines of: When you get this, can you please head home quickly. The kids and I are packing to evacuate.

He came out of the wilderness that evening and arrived at our doorstep just in time to help me pack all the stuff I had piled up. It was that last hour of organizing that was the most arduous, because it involved lots of decisions. What do you put in your car to prepare to leave during a wildfire? Once you tuck your children and pets snugly in there, how much room is left for your possessions?

The things we bring with us.

Wedding photos.

Framed family photos from around the house. The kids as babies and the few albums we have of our own childhoods. Photos fill up the floor space and the car top carrier.

Collections. Coins. Shells. Things of beauty.

A few items of kid art. Treasures made with tiny fingers composed of paint and clay.

Passports and documents. Household inventory.

Emergency kit, flashlights, water, blankets.

My grandparent’s biography, his grandparent’s tools.

I paused and contemplated: would more of my grandfather’s things fit? His tools and engineering books? Probably not.

We text friends and ask if they are ready to go. We check in with neighbors and ask their plans. We sleep in shifts with cell phones resting on our hearts to alert us. Around 4 am the emergency alert message arrives indicating a mandatory evacuation. The Sheriff’s Department car coasts by with their distinctive high/low evacuation sirens. I glance at our car and snap at my husband: the car is filled with our knick-knacks but I only have a few days of clothes packed! He replies: we can buy clothes, but we can’t buy back our memories.

We can’t buy back the decorative pillow that my mom gave us on our wedding day, 16 years ago. It seems silly, but it goes in.

My children ask: what should we put in our bag? I tell them, bring things that give you comfort. My younger son fills a bag to the brim with books and stuffed animals. My older son brings a treasured photo of him and his brother in a wooden frame that a babysitter made them. The wind is coming in hot gusts as we load up the car, blowing leaves and ash with it. Around 4:30am we pull into slowly moving traffic moving down our normally quiet country road. In the darkness of the power outage, looking away from the road the only lights we can see are people packing their cars in their driveways. It is more than an hour before our cell phones work again, in a world of darkness and smoke and thousands of people fleeing a threat in the night.

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We are lucky this time. A few days later we are unpacking the treasures from the car and bringing them back in the house. But after the wildfires of the past few years, we know friends who have been left with only what was in their car when they escaped. This is no stretch of the imagination for us, or for our children. The things we bring with us, and the things left behind.

As I am putting things away it dawns on me: we are packing for one emergency at a time but we are really preparing for our collective climate emergency. Every year that goes by where we don’t confront this crisis, the risk of drought, fire, and floods increases for my community. In the next decade, how many days of smoke, power outages, school closures, and evacuations will there be for my family, and so many others? We usually think about climate change adaptation as coming in the form of physical structures: fireproof homes and buildings above rising sea level. I’ve realized that part of our process of climate adaptation is this evaluation of our beloved items, our memories, what we hold dear. What will we save, and what will we lose. This is a component of adapting to our new riskier world.

What is the packing list for a climate emergency? Bring your memories. I’ll pack my memories of this time we are in now, and times of the past. In one of our favorite family stories, Frederick by Leo Lionni, a mouse stores up all of the memories to help his mouse friends through the cold winter: the feelings of the sun’s warmth and the sounds and colors of spring. Like Frederick, we need to store away stories and memories and feelings. Years from now, I want to tell my children how fall used to be my favorite time of the year, before the fires of 2017 came and changed our relationship with the wind. How the fog rolled in during the spring and summer like a blanket on the California coast, followed by late summer warmth, and then rain typically came in October, allowing us to sleep to the sound of the drizzle.

I’ll bring some memories from this fire, too. I’ll remember the friends who texted through the night to make sure we evacuated safely. I’ll remember the dozens of people who offered us places to stay and warm meals. I’ll remember that when we returned home, the morning after the evacuations lifted, the owner of our local grocery store greeted me with a warm cup of coffee at the bakery counter of his shop. We were living in a community with no power, wandering through a haze of smoke trying to see the end of the current disaster, and there were tremendous acts of kindness in our everyday interactions.

I’ll remember that in this same year, children around the world gave voice to the injustice of climate change and that we joined them in any way we could — in marches and letters and calls to our elected representatives. I’ll remember the lump in my throat and the restrained tears that have been present during each and every one of my discussions with school-aged kids and college students about the trajectory we are on. I will hold dear all of the ways, large and small, that we spoke up with our voices and our bodies to keep this planet habitable. I will also remember that occasionally, on drives to school in the morning, my kids and I would daydream about the future. Together we would envision a world that was past the climate crisis. It had new energy sources, but perhaps more significantly, it had new systems — for bringing people’s voices to the fore who had been suppressed for so long, and for reconnecting humans with the planet.

What is the packing list for a climate emergency? Bring things that give you comfort. I’ll bring with me the knowledge that people around the world are rising up and taking control of our collective future on this planet. I’ll also pack my old family recipes and my grandfather’s books, and that photo of my children together. Because sometime in the future, I will need to reassure myself that some cherished things remain true: there are fundamental parts of who we are that will emerge and become stronger as we find our way through this time we are in.

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Tessa Hill
Tessa Hill grew up in the Tacoma, Washington and is a climate scientist and professor at UC Davis in Northern California.
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