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.