December 21, 2021

At the Tipping Point: So Much for the Pioneer Spirit

Photo: Barbara Davidson. Caption: The town of Greenville, California was burned to the ground in the Dixie Fire in August 2021. Residents have not been permitted into the town as of yet.


Photo: Noah Berger. Caption: A car leaves Chester, California, which is under mandatory evacuation orders, as the Dixie Fire burns on the edge of town on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. The region is under red flag fire warnings due to dry, windy conditions.


So Much for the Pioneer Spirit

By Michael Shaw


Although these photos by Barbara Davidson and Noah Berger were taken in two different towns almost three weeks apart, both document the ravages of this year’s Dixie Fire. They also share something else. That is, the destruction of the California dream. Barbara’s photo doesn’t just document how the fire destroyed one cafe on its way to erasing the whole town of Greenville. What’s painfully ironic here—with a nod to Walker Evans—is the cafe’s name. For so long, California and the west embodied the romantic, entrepreneurial, and spiritual ideal. Well, so much for that pioneer spirit.

Noah’s photo draws on the same fuel. But this time, the context is California’s car culture and the romance with the open road. Record firestorms, however, have managed to singe every connection to Beach Boys lyrics, Friday nights at the drive-in, and Hollywood’s obsession with Route 66 as this fire engine red ’69 Oldsmobile 442 hightails it away from a ridge of flames.

2021 was a tipping point. Fires, floods, heatwaves, and hurricanes scaled up, as did the mass recognition of climate change as an existential crisis. As part of that recognition, many powerful and symbolically-laden pictures crystallized the moment. We are recounting some of the key images of this pivotal year in the climate crisis.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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