Amitav Ghosh, SMOKE AND ASHES & Manjula Martin, THE LAST FIRE SEASON

We talk with Amitav Ghosh about his masterful history of the opium trade, Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories.

Then, Manjula Martin tells us about her personal and “pyro-natural” history of California wildfires — the ones she lived through in 2020 and the ones Indigenous people lived with before white settlers moved in and took their land. Her book is The Last Fire Season.

And finally, we read a poem from Mosab Abu Toha’s book Things You May Find Hidden In My Ear.

Writers Voice— in depth conversation with writers of all genres, on the air since 2004.

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Key Words: Amitav Ghosh, history, opium trade, author interview, Manjula Martin, climate change, global warming, fire season, memoir, podcast, book podcast, author interview, Writer’s Voice, Francesca Rheannon

Narco States of Colonial Capitalism

When Amitav Ghosh finished the novels of his famed Ibis Trilogy, he became curious about the opium trade. The lives of his characters, 19th-century sailors and soldiers who navigated the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, were intertwined with the currents that carried not just ships, but their precious cargo—opium.

He was surprised to find how much that commodity had shaped the destinies of not only India, but of China, colonial empires — and the United States.

What startled Ghosh even more wasn’t just the historical backdrop, but the realization that his own family history was entangled in that trade.

Enter Smoke and Ashes: a book that combines travelogue, memoir, and historical research to weave together threads of horticultural history, the myths of capitalism, and the enduring impacts of colonialism.

Read An Excerpt

Read The Transcript

Fire Season: Past, Present and Future

Manjula Martin traded city life for the serene woods of Northern California in pursuit of a deeper connection to the wilderness of her childhood. Struggling with chronic pain, she sought solace in tending her garden beneath the majestic redwoods of Sonoma County.

However, the very landscape she cherished was under threat from escalating wildfires exacerbated by climate change.

As wildfires ravaged the West in 2020, Martin and countless other Californians were forced to evacuate amidst a global pandemic. The Last Fire Season delves into the intricate role of fire in the ecology of the Western landscape while at the same time shining a critical lens on the colonialist practices that have contributed to their current plight.

Read or Listen to an Excerpt

Read The Transcript

Read more: Amitav Ghosh, SMOKE AND ASHES & Manjula Martin, THE LAST FIRE SEASON

Transcript: Amitav Ghosh

When Amitav Ghosh finished the novels of his famed Ibis Trilogy, he became curious about the opium trade.

The lives of his characters, 19th century sailors and soldiers who navigated the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, were intertwined with the currents that carried not just ships, but their precious cargo, opium.

He was surprised to find out how much that commodity had shaped the destinies of not only India, but of China, colonial empires, and the United States.

What startled Ghosh even more wasn’t just the historical backdrop, but the realization that his own family history was entangled in that trade.

Enter Smoke and Ashes.

It’s a book that combines travelogue, memoir, and historical research to weave together threads of horticultural history, the myths of capitalism, and the enduring impacts of colonialism.

Amitav Ghosh, welcome back to Writers’ Voice.

Thank you very much.

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

This book, Smoke and Ashes, Opium’s Hidden Histories, is really a fascinating look into, as you say, hidden, a history that so many of us in the United States, but also elsewhere in the world, were just completely unaware of.

You were born in West Bengal, which borders China, and you grew up in Calcutta, yet you say that you never understood how central China was to India, and the connection does run very much through the opium trade.

Tell us about how you found out about this, why you decided to focus on this story.

Actually, it was the story that took me into it.

I didn’t intend to write books about the opium trade at all.

When I started working on my trilogy of novels called the Ibis Trilogy, my interest was really in indentured labor.

It was in the journeys of all the Indians who left India in the 19th century, essentially to become substitutes for slaves in Britain’s island colonies.

This was what I really wanted to write about, and so on.

My interest was also in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean.

That’s how I began.

But as I got into the research, I discovered, in fact, that the most important thing that was happening in the Indian Ocean in the 19th century was, in fact, the opium trade.

There was no getting around it.

I just had to find my way into that story.

You say that this story is important not only, let’s say, for understanding China and India, and those connections that you just pointed to, but because it says something about how the world is perceived and understood.

What do you mean by that?

Well, I think the way that we conceive of world history and so on is really a very Eurocentric view.

You know, we conceive of the West and Europe being the center of all the major developments of the last 200 or 300 years.

But in fact, once we start paying attention to what was happening in Asia, we see a completely different picture.

And I think this is a very important thing.

You know, one has to try and understand what’s really going on in the world.

Because as we see now, China has, for millenniums, been a world power, you know, and it’s important for us to recognize that.


Of course.

I found interesting that you uncovered that your own family’s hometown had a personal connection to the opium trade.

Tell us about that and what, you know, what it made you feel.

You know, it was a very strange, it was a very strange thing because the story that my father always told us when I was a kid was that our family left our ancestral village in what is now Bangladesh in the 1850s, and they left because of a terrible flood, which swept away the village.

So then they started traveling and eventually they came to rest in this place called Chapra, which was really, you know, what shall I say, a very obscure, an obscure town in Bihar on the Gangetic Plain.

I often used to wonder as a child why they had chosen that place of all places to move to.

But then in the course of writing this book, I discovered that in fact, Chapra was a major center for the opium trade.

The surrounding district was one of the largest producers of opium.

So you know, I don’t have any proof of this or anything, but my feeling, my suspicion is that they were there because of the economy created by opium.

Talk a little bit about the importance of the opium trade to the Indian economy.

I mean, we’re going to go more deeply into, of course, its role in the British and the American economy as well, which is really the center of your story in this book, Smoke and Ashes, Amitav Ghosh.

But what importance did it have for Indian business?

Before the arrival of the English, before colonization by the British, opium was not an important commodity for the Indian economy at all.

It was a very minor, minor commodity.

India produced medicinal opium in small quantities.

But then once the British began to use opium in order to buy Chinese tea, opium became a very large part of the colonial economy.

So I wouldn’t even say the Indian economy.

I would say it was the colonial economy that was really built upon opium in some sense.

The British Empire in Asia was essentially a narco state, largely funded by opium.

And this is true not just of the British Empire, but also of the Dutch Empire and the French Empire in Asia.

You know, the French colonies in Indochina really subsisted off opium, as did the Dutch East Indies and so on.

So you know, opium was a foundational aspect of European colonial economies.

Yeah, and explain the nexus of which the opium trade was a part and why.

I mean, you just said the British really formed a narco state.

The British imperial power was a narco state, as was the Dutch, and you know, in some ways we can also say the Americans, which we’ll get to.

But connect the dots for us.

Why tea, opium, slaves, coerced labor?

What is the connection with all these?

The story really begins with tea, because tea became popular in England around about the late 17th century.

And by the 18th century, by the mid 18th century, tea was very, very important to the British Empire.

And all this tea came from China.

Taxes on tea were the second largest source of revenue for the British state.

So they were very heavily dependent on the tea economy, and in that sense, dependent also on trading with China.

What happened thereafter is that tea had to be paid for with silver, because European states didn’t produce anything that the Chinese valued or cared for.

So they had to find silver to trade for tea.

So what happened over the years is that silver, which was once plentiful because Europeans were also looting South America, forcing indigenous people and slave labor to mine silver, especially in Peru.

But by the mid 18th century, there wasn’t that much silver in circulation.

So the British had to find some sort of alternative commodity to trade for the tea that they so desperately needed.

And they decided they fixed upon opium.

So over a period of just about 40 years, they increased the exports of opium from India to China tenfold, and then ultimately a hundredfold.

So they created this enormous narcotics-based economy for the colonial state, and the colonial state was completely dependent on it, dependent on the revenues from opium, because opium also created other ancillary industries, for example, shipping and so on.

So it became a very deeply interconnected web of linkages between the British production of opium in India and the whole global economic and financial system.

You know, Amitav Ghosh, one of the most interesting, I wouldn’t call it a metaphor, I think it’s stronger than that, that you use to talk about opium, and I think it really does come in here.

You treat it almost as a sentient being, or you say it’s a plant that has shaped culture and history.

You give it a kind of agency as a non-human entity.

So I wonder if you could help us see what you’ve just spoken about, the development of the opium trade through the lens, through that lens of opium as an agent of human history.

Yes, well, it wasn’t me, actually, who made that connection.

I think many people who’ve, you know, looked at the history of opium, looked at these cycles of addiction that opium creates, you know, many people have come to the same conclusion, including the American diplomat, who I actually quote, you know, he’s a historian and diplomat, and he suggests that opium is in its way some kind of sentient entity.

And certainly, you know, it does seem to me that one indication of this, I mean, it’s impossible for us to know what agency can mean in a plant, but one indication of it is opium’s ability to create, you know, cycles of repetition, so that we see that the opioid crisis that you have in the U.S. today is in so many ways uncannily similar to what happened in China in the 19th century.

Could you say more about that?

Yeah, there’s so many kinds of similarities, you know, for example, in China, the British and American traders who were carrying opium to China always said, oh, we are just meeting a demand.

But in fact, what we see with opium, it creates its own kind of demand.

So what really matters is the supply.

And this is true, perhaps, of many other addictive substances as well.

So similarly, just as the British were able to grow the opium market in China from almost nothing to a fantastic proportion by the late 19th century, where maybe as many as 30 percent of China’s population at that point, which would be like more than 100 million people, were using opium.

You know, similarly, we see a similar kind of cycle in America.

I mean, before the Sacklers introduced toxicontin, there was no demand for prescription opioids.

But within six years, there was an enormous demand and it’s still growing.

Thousands of people are dying of it.

More people died of opioid overdoses in a seven-year period than died in the entire Second World War.

I mean, more Americans died of opioid overdoses than Americans who died in the Second World War.

So these are absolutely staggering figures, you know.

And you know, for a long time, these drug companies managed to get away with it.

And I think that’s a large part of the anger and resentment you see in rural America today, that they just felt that no one was seeing them, that no one was paying attention to them.

And in fact, in China as well, drug merchants used to target, you know, people who are poor, people who had to do a lot of manual labor, because opium makes it possible for you to forget about your aches and pains.

And we see exactly the same pattern unfolding in America, you know, in the 21st century.

You know, the big Purdue pharma actually literally targeted minors in Appalachia and so on, and poor communities in West Virginia and, you know, other parts of other surrounding regions.

So again, the weird thing about an opioid crisis is that the crisis actually unfolds out of sight.

You know, it unfolds indoors.

I mean, you could walk through the streets of many American cities and never know that there was an opioid crisis.

And it was the same in China in the 19th century.

But slowly and surely, this crisis is eating away at structures and institutions of all kinds.

I mean, I can hardly explain to you that there have been innumerable cases of corruption within the American law enforcement agencies.

And this is essentially exactly the same thing that happened in China.

China historically had a good law enforcement system.

But because the sums of money involved in drug trading are so huge, eventually the Chinese law enforcement system also became very deeply corrupt.

And the other thing that it does is that it creates a deep suspicion about institutions of state.

So in the 19th century, the whole Chinese system of governance came to be really beleaguered because people just lost faith in it.

And that’s what we see today in many parts of America as well.

People have just stopped believing in the institutions of state.

So I think you do see these cycles of repetition all the time.

And you think that it’s the opioid crisis that has led to a loss of trust or that it’s just one of many factors?

Many factors, as was the case also in China in the 19th century.

So yes, it is.

But I think it’s a much more important factor than we realize because, you know, what’s happening in the little villages in Appalachia, in many parts of the Northeast as well, is that people see that those people that they trusted most, like pharmacists, doctors, became corrupted, you know, simply by being given some sorts of handouts by the big drug companies.

And this begins to eat away at people’s trust in their societies.

So in America, of course, you know, the 2008 crisis also occurred, a huge sort of financial shock.

But again, that shock destroyed faith in banks and so on.

So I think we see actually a multidimensional crisis of many kinds.

But the opioids are right there, you know, working away, unseen, but, you know, a very important factor in this multidimensional crisis.

Well, that’s so interesting.

And multidimensional also is the role that it played in the origins of the opium trade in the United States.

As you point out in this book, Amitav Ghosh, in Smoking Ashes, Opium’s Hidden Histories, that the opium trade, you know, we tend to think that slavery was the underpinning of American wealth, of the building of the American wealth, certainly of the upper classes.

But opium seems to play at least as important a part.

Tell us about that history, that contribution.

You know, I’m not a statistician.

I can’t tell you which was comparatively more important.

And I think, you know, if you weigh them up, slavery probably played a much larger role in the American economy.

But certainly within the economy of the Northeast, opium was a very, very important factor, you know.

And actually, the big slaving states always pointed this out.

They made a huge propaganda point of, you know, how the Northeastern states had founded their economies on opium.

And this was actually a very important factor within the entire economy of Northeastern America.

And at some point, I’m sure some economic historian will, you know, tot up the numbers and tell us exactly how important it was.

But what we do know for certain is that a very small group of American traders, basically New Englanders, went to China, got heavily involved in the opium trade.

And within two or three years, they would amass these fantastic fortunes and come back, you know, to New York or Boston or Salem or wherever.

And then because they were young men and because the experience of trading in China had taught them a great deal about international credit systems, about finance and so on, they became pioneers of American industry.

Many of them became very deeply involved in railroads, for example.

So many of America’s first railroads were essentially financed with opium money.

This is also true of the banking systems, of insurance, of hoteleering.

It’s interesting also that many of these opium traders were actually big philanthropists.

So many American universities and so on, they got huge endowments from opium money.

Also true of museums, hospitals and so on.

So opium is completely, you know, built into the structure of the early American economy.

The American sort of economic industrial development that happened, you know, in the first half of the 19th century really couldn’t have taken place in the way that it did without those huge injections of capital from opium.

And we’re talking about such folks as John Jacob Astor, the Delanos of the family of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Forbes, you mentioned museums, the Peabody Museum.

How did the U.S. and for that matter, the British, the Western imperialist powers in general, how did they justify their use of opium, basically the creation of these narco states?

Well, as I said, a large part of the justification really, I mean, at least the stated justification came from ideologies of free trade.

You know, this is the immediate period after, let’s say, Adam Smith and David Ricardo and so on.

So they just claimed that, you know, the laws of the market just dictated that the opium trade be continued simply because there was a demand and the demand had to be met by supply and so on and so forth.

So that was the explicit justification.

And England, the British government took this so far that they actually attacked China in 1840 to force the Chinese to keep their markets open to British opium.

This is the first opium war.

In the U.S., many people still think that the opium war was about China exporting opium to the West.

In fact, it was exactly the other way around.

The Chinese were desperately trying to stop the inflow of opium from British colonies, but the British actually forced them by going to war to keep their markets open.

So that part of the justification was, of course, just about free trade, the laws of capitalism and so on.

But there was another justification, you know, as they saw it, which they would not necessarily say publicly, though they did also often say publicly, which is just that they believe that, you know, it was just racism.

They just believe that, you know, Orientals are depraved and corrupt, so they need opium.

So they had no qualms about it.

They thought that their own countries could never be affected by drugs.

They really believed this.

They believed that no white man would ever take opium, which is an astonishing thing, because in the 1860s, actually many Americans took opium because it was an anesthetic that was widely used during the Civil War.

Yet, you know, there were all these racist tropes surrounding drug taking.

And as you know, those racist tropes endured even in the 1960s, 1970s and so on.

So racism actually really had a lot to do with it.

I mean, to themselves, they just thought, you know, we may be harming people far away, but they’re just Orientals.

They’re a different race.

And you have to remember that period also when slavery was still in existence, very much in existence in the United States, when the United States was really waging also these wars of extermination against Native Americans.

So maybe to them, it didn’t seem like a big deal.

I mean, you know, they’re just causing, you know, untold harms to people far away.

You talk in the book, in Smoke and Ashes, you also talk about the anti-opium movement and you draw parallels to the climate movement.

What are the lessons that one has for the other?

You know, from the 1870s onwards, actually, it started even earlier than that, a worldwide anti-opium movement came into being.

And it’s one of the great stories of international solidarity, you know, I mean, the Chinese spearheaded this movement, it was very important in India, it was actually a precursor to the Indian National Movement.

But churches and women’s groups in Europe and in America were very, very influential in the anti-opium movement.

So the anti-opium movement is really an example of a major, you know, social movement taking on a major commercial enterprise.

And you have to remember that the opium trade was then backed and sponsored by the world’s most powerful political entities.

That is to say, the British Empire, the French Empire, Dutch Empire, and so on.

So in that period, those empires were even more powerful than energy corporations are today.

And these empires were also very, very clever in the ways in which they tried to fight the anti-opium movement.

They invented all these excuses and so on.

They essentially invented the whole playbook, which, let’s say, the tobacco industry would later use in relation to, you know, the anti-smoking movement.

So I think the prime sort of lesson of all this is that it is possible for a global social movement to take on very, very powerful entities and eventually to defeat them.

Because because of this movement, all the major European powers had to agree to certain constraints on drug trading.

So I think certainly the climate movement today can take heart from this example.

Well, on that hopeful note, really important note, I want to thank you so much, Amitav Ghosh. This is really a fascinating book, Smoke and Ashes, Opium’s Hidden Histories. Thanks so much for talking with us about it.

Thank you so much, Francesca, for having me. It was a real pleasure.

Transcript: Manjula Martin

When Manjula Martin moved from the city to the woods of Northern California, she wanted to be closer to the wilderness that she’d loved as a child.

She was also seeking refuge from a health crisis that left her in chronic pain, and she found a sense of healing through tending her garden beneath the redwoods of Sonoma County.

But the landscape that Martin treasured was an ecosystem already in crisis.

Wildfires fueled by climate disruption were growing bigger and more frequent.

Each autumn, her garden filled with smoke and ash, and the local firehouse siren wailed deep into the night.

In 2020, when a dry lightning storm ignited hundreds of simultaneous wildfires across the West and kicked off the worst fire season on record, Martin, along with thousands of other Californians, evacuated her home in the midst of a pandemic.

Both a love letter to the forests of the West and an interrogation of the colonialist practices that led to their current dilemma, the last fire season follows her from the oaky hills of Sonoma County to the redwood forests of coastal Santa Cruz to the pines and peaks of the Sierra Nevada, as she seeks shelter, bears witness to the devastation, and tries to better understand fire’s role in the ecology of the West.

Manjula Martin, welcome to Writer’s Voice.

This is just a terrific book, The Last Fire Season, a personal and pyro-natural history.

You begin this book with the start of a fire near your home in Northern California, north of San Francisco.

This was 2020, the first year of the COVID pandemic, and at the start of fire season.

You and your partner, Max, evacuated, put us there.

What was happening and what was it like?

You know, so it’s mid-August in Northern California.

I live in the woods amongst redwoods and other evergreen trees.

And I live very much in the trees, under the trees.

Our fire season here traditionally didn’t start until like mid to late September, October, November.

It’s usually the highest risk time for fires.

But that year was unique in that we had a historic lightning storm, a dry lightning storm.

So no rain or very little rain in some places, no rain where I lived.

So you know, it’s four in the morning and we hear lightning and thunder and it wakes me up and I sort of run to the window to see what’s happening.

We can’t really see the sky where we live because there are very large trees above us.

But it’s very clear that there is a lot of lightning and it’s very close and it’s widespread also.

And so being people who live in a place that’s at high risk for wildfire, we know that, you know, it’s likely some trees are being hit by lightning and will catch on fire.

And so I start packing, basically write that in there.

That evening, no fires made themselves known to us.

It took actually, I think about a day or two for us to really understand that there were large wildfires had been sparked throughout Northern California and basically sort of a ring of fire is what the map looked like to me.

And so that kind of launched off this epic season of historic wildfires, wildfires that are bigger and badder and longer than previous wildfires.

And for me, it really launched this like journey that’s portrayed in the book of coming from a place of being very afraid of fire and fire being sort of like a mysterious specter hanging over me to learning more about the actual history of fire in the place where I live, how it’s connected to climate change, which is something that people who live everywhere can relate to and how that connects with my own very personal experience of being a part of nature.


And you said that this was unique, this dry lightning storm, but I actually read the other day that lightning is going to be coming much more concentrated, many more lightning strikes in one place that that is actually a climate.


And I should add, we have had those lightning storms do occur and have always occurred, but as with many things, they’re getting stronger.

Yeah, exactly.

Now you could escape the fire and you did, but you could not escape the smoke.

Talk about the process of evacuation.

And I just want to quote you before you answer.

You say it’s an ever evolving equation of risk, comfort, and resources.

So tell us what you mean by that and what it was like to evacuate.

Well, you know, there are many different levels of evacuation.

Something that people who don’t live in a place with evacuations might not understand is, you know, you get some warning most of the time, sometimes not, but in my case, I had warning.

And then, you know, there are different stages, like official stages, like they tell you, you know, oh, it’s a threat, it’s a warning, it’s mandatory, you know, there are these different levels and they have the map all sectioned off into areas and that sort of thing.

So in a way, there’s this kind of like odd bureaucracy to it, where you’re kind of waiting for word from some higher authority as to what’s going to happen to you.

And as I think I learned, and many people learned, especially during the COVID pandemic, you know, these systems are not always as resilient as we would want them to be or as on it as we would want them to be.

And so at that time, I had already really had a sense that some of these larger systems in our society really were failing.

So one thing about evacuation is you never know what to believe and you never know how freaked out to get, you know.

We had seen here in Sonoma County time and time again, things getting worse than we thought they could get, and that’s something I think that we can all relate to in the year 2024, you know.

So that was sort of the psychological state I was in when evacuating.

The actual evacuation itself, you know, it’s hectic, you don’t know what to take, you don’t know what to bring.

You suddenly can’t think of anything that would be important to you or anything that, or conversely, you think everything is important to you, you know, and you just go as soon as you can.

For us, we had an evacuation plan, which was to go to my hometown, which is Santa Cruz, California, which is about three hours south of where I live.

And that had always been, you know, our go-to place.

It feels like a very safe place for me.

I grew up there.

It’s a very sort of wonderful town.

And we realized very quickly that, you know, there was also a fire outside of Santa Cruz.

And so this sort of widespread aspect of this fire event was new to me, although evacuating wasn’t.

And, you know, it really, at times, it feels like there’s nowhere to go.

And I’m very aware that that’s an experience that people who live close to the front lines of climate change have all over the world, and it’s not necessarily new for some communities.

It wasn’t even new for my community, but it definitely seems to have accelerated in recent years.

And this was the feeling of that acceleration, you know.

I think there’s an idea that, like, you evacuate, you go to a shelter or you go to a friend’s house, and then you stay there until the danger is over.

But for us, that wasn’t really how it was.

It was every day sort of having the discussion of, like, well, what do we think is safest?

What is doable?

What can we afford?

You know, who do we know?

Can we get ahold of them?

And it sort of just feels endless when you’re in it.

Yeah, I’m struck by a description in the book as you’re evacuating south, going south towards Santa Cruz, like your forehead is glued to the window next to you as you’re watching the smoke just everywhere, just going on down.

It must have been really terrifying.


I mean, I won’t lie.

It was terrifying.

I think in the book, you know, I try to have it not be too—I guess I’m frustrated by narratives that are very sensationalistic around disaster, and so that’s something that I really was trying to counter in the book, trying to portray that fear, but also really trying to portray, you know, the context of that fear and the ways in which those feelings are evolving all the time.

So let’s take a step back.

You go into some of the history of fire in California.

I mean, California is an ecosystem that’s fire-adapted, including, of course, the redwoods.

You lived in or adjacent to a redwood grove.

Talk about California as a fire-adapted ecosystem and how the indigenous people of California used fire to, as you say, garden their landscape.

I just love that metaphor.


Thank you.

The gardening metaphor, I should say, isn’t something that I came up with.

It’s sort of widely used in ecology circles, but it’s one that really captivated my imagination and I think really works when trying to talk to this about, you know, with people who may not know the history.

California’s ecosystems are all fire-adapted.

California has always had wildfires, and since time immemorial, California has also had fires that were introduced by the humans who lived there in order to manage the land, to reduce the risk of larger fires, and also to sort of, you know, restore health to the ecosystem, whether that means, like, burning things to inspire new growth of plants that you can then use, or whether it means burning an area so that the food that deer like is more available to them, and then the deer is your food, you know.

Humans always had this back-and-forth relationship with fire, and always have had.

And that was something that, you know, I was aware of previous to this season, but I think hadn’t really sunk in how devastating the effects of fire suppression and colonialist fire management had been on that cycle.

When California was colonized, part of that campaign was to exterminate the indigenous people here and to displace them from the land, and part of the displacement strategy was outlawing fire.

And you know, as we know, anyone who grew up in the 20th century, you know, Smokey the Bear was the mascot of, like, you know, fire is bad, don’t do fire.

But indigenous people who live here, you know, are still using fire on the land, and there’s actually been some amazing activism and forward movement on that in recent years, led by indigenous people in the West that has been really inspiring, and that I talk to, I talk with folks about that a little bit in the book.

So that’s kind of the larger context.

Yeah, and actually, I want to get back to the indigenous use of land, but also just before that, what was so interesting to me is that it’s not just settler colonialism that did this, but also the conservation movement.

And John Muir, talk about this kind of nature rendered as an abstraction, how the conservation movement fed into the causes of these megafires that we’re seeing now, and how that’s all wrapped up in the attitude towards the indigenous people.

Yeah, the early conservation movement as, you know, embodied by folks like Muir, or Gifford Pinchot, or Roosevelt, they’re often credited with sort of preserving these great landscapes, which it’s true, they did preserve them.

But a lot of the psychology and motivation behind that actually was not super great.

Many of the early conservationists were also really into eugenics, the sort of racist pseudo science that was also taken up by Nazi Germany at some points.

And the idea behind a lot of conservation efforts, not all, but most at the time, was, you know, to preserve these virginal, they thought, landscapes, but only for certain people.

Who has access to these landscapes?

The idea was to sort of preserve them for people like them.

So namely, you know, white people of means.

And again, coming back to that garden metaphor, there’s a story that people talk about a lot of, you know, folks coming to the West and seeing these majestic, truly mind blowing landscapes, you know, and being awed by them being like, these are amazing.

And you know, assuming that what they were looking at was a wilderness, an unpeopled land, right?

When in fact, the land was very occupied at the time.

And the land was being tended by the people who lived here.

And the people who lived here lived in a different kind of relationship to the land than the colonialists and the conservationists.

You know, instead of thinking of the land that was something that was pure and virginal, or as something that was sort of ripe for extraction, there was a more reciprocal relationship.

And so that was tied up in the colonialist attitude around nature, you know, the idea that like, we are separate from nature, we can control it.

And this is a wilderness and we shall conquer it.

In fact, it wasn’t a wilderness, it was a garden.

The people who lived here had been tending it for millennia.

Yeah, I’m going to quote you now, because this is such a beautiful sentence, I think that really expresses what you’re talking about in terms of the indigenous attitude toward the land.

You write, culture is land, land is spirituality, spirituality that values a reciprocal existence with the other than human world is also survival.

Say more about that.

I think that’s something that, for me, is really the thrust, the whole sort of larger point of this project is really looking at the deeper relationship that people have with our surroundings.

So it’s not just that the land needs fire.

It’s not just that we need fire on the land.

It’s actually really looking at like the attitudes that we hold and these attitudes, which can be very spiritual and very deep about sort of how we fit into the ecology that we live in.


And there’s this very human hubris that’s like, you know, we are somehow accepted from all the rules of nature.

We are somehow outside of it, you know, we have large scale impact on it, we can control it.

And while we do have large scale impact on it, as we’ve learned with climate change, we can’t really control it.

And that’s something like intellectually I’ve always known, you know, and a lot of people are aware of that cycle of sort of culture and survival that’s involved in humans relationship with our surroundings.

But it wasn’t something I really wrestled with changing and challenging and experiencing in myself until the events of this book and then the process of writing the book.


And it really expresses it perfectly.

I mean, just before we started this conversation, I was reading a report about the ocean circulation system that is going to shut down sometime between 2025 and say 2075.

And you know, here we’re creating that because we are causing the ice sheets to melt into the ocean.

And once that happens, it will be millennia, many millennia before that can be reversed.

So it’s a perfect example of that.

And it will really make, I think one scientist said, adaptation will become impossible for places like Europe and North America, you know, the Northeastern coast where I live.

Yeah, I mean, yeah, you all know up there as well.

I mean, I think, you know, there’s a lot of talk right now in environmental circles about like, you know, what they’re calling climate doom as opposed to climate denial, which is this idea that like it’s too late to do anything, you know, and that is something I really dug into in the book because we are having these historical events, these unprecedented events.

In fact, it seems like every day there’s another unprecedented event, you know, right now as I’m talking to you, there’s like unprecedented winter storms where I live and trees are falling on houses in my neighborhood because of the wind.

But I think for me, that sort of binary between either you have to like, be really sort of like, we can fix it, we can do it.

Or you’re a doomer and you’re negative and you’re not taking action.

I feel like that’s a really limiting paradigm to set up for people, for regular people especially like I’m not a climate scientist, you know, I’m a writer.

And that was something I really wanted to get into in the book was sort of this idea of what, you know, I talk about this in the book, what the writer Donna Haraway calls staying in the trouble, this idea of living in this really messy in-between place where like we have these dire predictions, the dire things are actually happening right now.

We know that the people who have the power to really affect change at the climate level are not doing that over and over again.

The people with power are not, you know, taking any action that would bring about any solutions.

And so where does that leave us, right?

Is it just like, oh, we’re screwed, you know, or is it like, oh, we have to have hope for like a magical happy ending.

And for me, my experience of daily life during this climate change era has been very in-between those things.

And I actually find that, and I explore this in the book, in the action of sort of allowing yourself to live in that mess and in that sort of uncertainty and chaos and finding ways to connect with community and other people during that time and finding ways to take action during that time.

Like to me, that’s where the hope is and that’s where the power is.

It’s not in some sort of idea about, you know, a certain temperature goal or something like that, something that me as an individual person, like I don’t have a lot of control over that, right.

But I do have control over the kinds of communities that I’m forming, the kinds of actions that we are taking and over my relationship with the place that I live.

That’s beautiful.

And speaking of which, talking about the kinds of communities people are building, let’s talk about the Indigenous Conservation Movement, TERRA, Tribal Eco-Restoration Alliance.

Tell us about them.

How are they dealing with fire?

How are they practicing good fire?

Yeah, this is a group that I spent some time with in the book, in the course of researching the book.

And, you know, they’re one of many groups, I think, probably anywhere in the world, but certainly anywhere in North America, there are local Indigenous groups doing sort of amazing work protecting and restoring right relationship with the landscape.

And I would encourage listeners to seek out those groups in their communities and learn more about what they’re doing and really try to follow their lead and also to donate to them.

So this group is called TERRA.

They’re in Lake County, which is the next county over from Sonoma, and is far more fire prone than where I live, actually.

And it’s a really cool project because it’s a small nonprofit.

They’re in association with one of the tribal nations there in that community.

And it’s not just that they’re practicing good fire and doing prescribed burns and cultural burns, which they are doing, but they actually have this secondary goal of creating jobs in the community that are good jobs.

So it’s not only that the work they’re doing is like restoring these good relationships with the land, it’s also that the jobs that they are doing are restoring sort of economic justice to the people as well.


And you and your partner, Max, also worked on reintroducing fire to the woods around your home.

Well, we haven’t done that yet.

That’s a long term goal.

You know, there are a lot of bureaucratic and sort of labor challenges to getting there.

But we have been in discussion with a lot of our neighbors and done some stewardship work days with a lot of our neighbors to sort of do what we can to clear dead fuel from the forest floor and hopefully to prep the land for good fire in the future.

You know, and that’s an option that’s available to me because I am relatively able bodied.

I have time to do it.

My community is enthusiastic.

It’s not always an option for everyone and certainly not for people who live in more urban environments.

But for me, that’s a way that I have been able to really directly change the way that the environment that I live in is responding to potential fire as well as other potential problems.

You know, the other way that that really comes into my life is, of course, which is a large thread in the book, is through gardening.


And it’s a very healing place for you because there’s another intertwined thread in your book.

One is fire, of course, but the other one is illness.

And you just said you’re relatively able bodied, but boy, that’s a hard won able bodiedness.

So talk about the interrelationship between what happened to you physically, your own body, and, you know, how you weave that into the thread of this book.


I mean, the main narrative of the book follows this journey of the fire season of 2020 and, you know, it jumps forward and back, bringing in research and context and some of those interviews that I’ve done with activist groups and that sort of thing.

But the other main thread of the book is an experience that happened to me at the same time that the wildfire crisis has increased, which is that I have chronic pain.

And the chronic pain stems from very long series of horrific surgeries and interventions that happened to me.

But initially, it was I had an IUD, a birth control device that basically malfunctioned and attacked my body, and in the course of trying to remove parts of that IUD, a lot of other things happened that were also bad, ended up having a hysterectomy.

And that has all left me with chronic pelvic pain, which I talk about in the book as something, you know, that’s ever present in my life.

And to me, I think there was a there was a really strong corollary between sort of this idea of like living in pain, and the idea that I might always live in pain, with this idea of living with fire, and, you know, on a larger scale, living with climate change.

And those are both things that are really huge events that you don’t have a lot of control over, but have very specific physical and emotional impacts in your life.

And they’re also events that are somewhat resistant to narrative, which I found to be an exciting challenge as a craft challenge.

Yes, I wanted to talk with you about that, because you you mentioned Amitav Ghosh, who I actually spoke with last week.

Yeah, he has a new book, right?

Yeah, it’s about the opium trade.

But I also had spoken to him about one of his novels previously.

And he’s written a book also about narrative and climate change.

So telling climate stories, I mean, this is, you know, one of the ways that we do live in this in between time, a time, maybe not precisely of unrealistic hope, but nor of unrealistic doom.

I mean, we just are going to be doing what we need to do, right?

So talk about the climate narrative and the way you crafted this book within that context.

Yeah, you know, this is one of the reasons why it was very important to me that this book be actually be a memoir and be a personal story.

I could have easily written a book that was like a lovely reported, you know, journalistic work on the wildfire crisis, and other people are writing great books like that.

But to me, that wasn’t the whole story.

You know, part of, I think, and something Ghosh talks about in his work is, it has been really difficult for humans to make culture around climate change.

There are a lot of reasons why and that is always changing to, you know, the book that I cite in my book, you know, he wrote in 2016.

So things have changed a bit since then.

But he ultimately framed it as like a lack of imagination, I believe the phrase was, that is basically a result of this larger denial that people have, which is that this is really happening, right?

And we even though we know that we just cannot deal with it.

And so for me, the way to deal with it is to actually allow it into my life, my whole life.

And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to include this, this more personal story about pain.

The other sort of strong connection between the pain narrative and the wildfire narrative is that in my process of recovering from my surgeries, I got really into gardening, which, you know, it didn’t literally heal me like gardening is not actually good for my physical problems.

It’s hard work.

But the experience of creating beauty, what I found to be very restorative, and my garden is mostly a flower garden, it’s flowers and fruit trees.

So a lot of great beauty we’re talking about, right?

And so for me, you know, it was it was the act of gardening in the wake of my health crisis, that really put me more into direct relationship with literally the ecosystem that I live in.

And that was sort of what allowed me to, to, to understand the greater crises in the ecosystem around me, including the fire crisis, as well as many others, and to really connect those two.

So for me, this, the garden was this, this physical site, that sort of literally and metaphorically connected all these experiences in my life.

And that’s threaded into the book as well.

You know, a lot of the scenes in the garden are scenes where I’m sort of making these connections between personal experience and a larger pyronatural history.

And it’s such a beautiful, really inspiring book, Manjula Martin, the book is The Last Fire Season, A Personal Empyronatural History.

Thank you so much for talking with us here about it.

Thank you so much, Francesca, it’s been lovely.

Manjula Martin is co-author with her father, Oren Martin, of Fruit Trees for Every Garden, and has written for the New Yorker and other publications.

She edited the anthology, Scratch, Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.

Listen to or read an excerpt from The Last Fire Season at writersvoice.net.