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Writing in the apocalypse

  • 06 February 2020


In 1986 I had the good fortune to be appointed Scholar in Residence at the University of Oregon in Eugene USA and, during that time, I visited Ashland to attend its famous annual Shakespearian Festival. 

In a recent essay the multi-lingual, award-winning American journalist, McKenzie Funk, describes present day Ashland as a ‘beautiful… surprise cluster of civilisation just north of Oregon’s border with California … It has twenty thousand residents but swells during the academic year with students and in warmer months with tourists, many of them here for the summer-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival… The town’s economy relies, above everything else, on its quality of life.’

In the mid-eighties, neither American residents nor visitors saw any particular irony in the name Ashland. Admittedly, just across the state border there had been ‘wild fires’ from time to time in the Californian forests, and residents were properly conscious of both hazards and precautions, but in those days summer life in Ashland’s ‘flower-filled parks’ and brilliant Shakespearian venues seemed immutable.

I’d never heard of McKenzie Funk until I came across his marvellous review essay, ‘Smoked Out’. He and his family were moving across the country because his wife was making a massive mid-career change. This kind of sudden, decisive reorientation was familiar territory to me and, of course, I had my own, thirty-five year old memories of Ashland. So I eagerly read on beyond the genial opening paragraphs of ‘Smoked Out’. Almost immediately, I found myself on familiar, if deadly, ground.

With their former life in Seattle ‘wrapped up’, Funk and his sons were poised to ‘drive the nine hours down Interstate 5’ and finally reunite the family. But there was ‘bad news: “The smoke started [his wife] said. It came early this year.” Although there was little imminent danger of its spreading to Ashland, the nearest fire — the result of a lightning strike… was just nine miles from our new home… In a town like Ashland, smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burning diminution of the way life here used to be… On the afternoon the boys and I arrived, the town and the Rogue Valley, where it sits, were surrounded by nine separate wild-fires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States.’

Struggling their face masks on and off from house to house, meeting to meeting,