The knowledge of our own finitude
California is a beached whale on the American oceanfront: wondrous, gigantic, and decaying at its edges. Natural life grows on its voluptuous body with little effort, even as the body politic fattens itself on a daily diet of ambition, technocracy and trade. It is almost a miracle that any government can presume to steward, far less govern, a State like California that stretches over ten latitude and longitude points. For, to govern suggests an ability to understand cause and effect, a talent to tease out linkages that are both obscure and self-evident, and an humility to recognise the limits of one’s own knowledge in the face of the unthinkable.
And few states in America undergo periodic cataclysms as California does. In 2017, multiple fires burned more than 13 lakh acres. One of those incinerating furies, called the Thomas Fire, spanned nearly three lakh acres alone. For all of the technological miracles in Silicon Valley, the seeming helplessness of California (and the staggering persistence and valour of its firefighters) in the face of dry Santa Ana winds from its desert interiors, poor rains, the La Niña weather systems — all of which birth these infernos — is a reminder of how fragile the human civilisation is in the face of nature’s caprice.
Ironically, these fires that destroy all signs of human civilisation begin in trees, which are California’s public treasures. For the human eye, notwithstanding the presence of basins, depressions, deserts, plateaus, mountains and snow-caked tips, much of California is an empire of trees. Shrubs, pines, conifers, evergreens, riparian, desert trees, grass, succulents — 4,500-7,000 native plants grow in California. Here too, however, much like Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, forests are on the move as average temperatures rise and vegetation scrambles to survive.
The most famous of California’s trees are the spectacular redwoods that rise out of its alluvial grounds and shoot up, like the ambition of its Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, into the skies. It is only on coming face-to-face with these giants that one realises that the word ‘tree’ itself is a compromise through which humans reduce a mighty assemblage of bark, stem, branches and leaves to a familiar expression. But nothing prepares one for the immensity of these arboreal beings that were probably around when the Buddha was a toddler in Kapilavatthu. One can’t but wonder if Vyasa had seen a California redwood, then perhaps Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita might have paused before declaring: “Among trees, I am the ashvattha (pipal tree).”
When near one of these giants, one can only ask: wherein is the ‘tree-ness’ of a tree? The crown of the Redwoods soak in the moisture directly from passing clouds, while the lower reaches of the tree thrive amidst our ecologies and familiar earthworms. Along the way, these behemoths welcome interlopers, permanent residents, and refugees of nature: epiphytes, lichens, huckleberry afros, and even crustacean lifeforms only found in oceans. If different ends of the same structure live in different worlds, much like India, our nomenclatures merely function as adhesive labels to put together diversities of experience.
Boxed within oceans, mountains, forests, and deserts, human life in California thrives. An elaborate network of interstate highways and side roads facilitate this primordial human instinct to explore. On these roads, the oceans seem far and forgotten and yet the Pacific hums its oceanic song. Its froth from the deep and terrifying depths washes the coast’s body relentlessly, diligently.
On California's unending and vast highways, it is tempting to think we, humans, are in charge. Yet, the imperium of nature, is not far. In 2017, many highways were set alight on both sides by forest fires. The remains of the oceans surround the traveller in the form of boulders, shaved rock faces, and crystalline dust. But to see them all as part of a contiguous whole, one needs to learn to see anew.
This is not easy. Nor is our vocabulary to understand man’s place in a constellation of natural forces adequate to the task. The language used by writers, including the great John McPhee, to describe geographies has a flavor of engineering textbooks. Terms like “sea floor spreading, crustal plate subduction, continental suturing” permeate in this genre. These phrases convey a sense of precision and knowledge even if I often find myself struggling to make sense of it all. Geographical systems seem so terrifying in their consequence, so relentless in their march, so impervious to human presence. It is little surprise that geography, or even nature, rarely preoccupies the modern mind except when disaster arrives home in the form of fire or a tsunami.
Yet, as experiences from Fukushima or California’s wildfires attest, irrespective of our linguistic limitations or distractions, our societies rest precariously on the continued benevolence of nature’s forces. Despite such occasional reminders, our modern life and education still remains geared towards wilfully misreading our place in nature. Perhaps we do so, so that we may live yet another day without the anxiety of living with the knowledge of our own finitude. 
A version of this column appeared in The Hindu on February 11' 2018