The Phenomenology of Smoke

Smoke filled skies on the path to the field brought with it a mixed bag of emotion, stirring up reflections that have served as a prelude to my fieldwork in Alberta. When wildfire smoke becomes part of everyday sensory experience how does it shape the individual or collective emotionality and meaning related to climate change, ecological grief, or denial?

by John Neufeld 

Smoky haze over Vancouver Skyline. Photo by the author

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I was following the news closely about the fires burning in B.C.s interior and feeling a little uneasy about flying to Vancouver for a two-week holiday along the coast with my partner before my fieldwork in Alberta. Truth is, the record breaking heat that settled over the western provinces a few weeks prior scared the hell out me. The B.C government declared a state of emergency in areas of the lower mainland and residents were to be ready in case of evacuation. Smoke was moving from the west, eventually reaching the eastern coast. From my window, the usual clear view of Mont-Royal was blanketed by a grey haze, and the sun glowed red from the smoke which rolled in from northern Ontario. Across the country, everyone it seemed was experiencing the smoke.

We arrived in Vancouver late Saturday evening feeling exhausted. Our friends left a note telling us to help ourselves to anything, along with a list of restaurants, cafes and attractions located a short distance from the apartment. They signed off with, “enjoy the view ☺”. Looking out the picture window in the daylight, the view looked much like the one I left behind in Montreal. Was there something beyond the towers and the grey shroud of smoke hovering over the city?

Some friends were meeting us for Sunday brunch. A married couple who had just recently moved back to Vancouver from Montreal. They told us the day we arrived was the first day Vancouver experienced smoke since fire season began. A season that seems to come earlier and earlier each year. The smoke however was not coming from the interior; rather it had drifted up the coast from California and Washington, where wildfires were also burning out of control. I was eager to ask them about their experience with the unrelenting heat that had planted itself over the west coast those first two weeks in July. When I did, their eyes went wide and they both leaned back into their chair with a seriousness in their faces that changed the mood of brunch. My friend looked at her son and looked me squarely in the eye. “It was fucking scary”, she said.

The smoke started to lift by the fourth day, bringing into view the mountains that were hidden by smoke on the drive up to Squamish. I still couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling that followed me from Montreal. Fires continued to burn out of control in the interior and Okanagan Valley, and locals pleaded for tourists to stay away in order to make room in hotels and other vacation rentals for those displaced by fire. Strong winds were pushing the fire, smoke, and swirling embers eastward, leaving the coastline momentarily unaffected. For the locals in Squamish, talking about smoke was like talking about the weather; their memory of summers affected by the amount of smoke in the air, rather than sunshine or rain. A few told us that we “arrived at the perfect time”, or “how lucky we were”, now that the smoke had lifted so that we could finally enjoy the views. Looking eastward towards the mountains, knowing that on the other side people’s worlds were burning, I began feeling that it was my own privilege that made me feel so unsettled since leaving Montreal.

The smoke from the south did not return until our last day in Vancouver. The mountains at the opposite side of the strait were barely visible, a combination of smoke and vapor rising from the water from another sweltering day on the coast. For weeks I was consumed by smoke and during that time learnt that it has way of playing tricks on me. It is spatially deceiving; as if the trouble takes place at a distance; with the intensity, or threat being seen, but not close enough to act upon. This is the phenomenology of smoke: the current reality of climate change in the present tense which is experienced unevenly depending on when it happens, where it happens and who it is happening too. We learn to live with smoke rather than try to put out fires.  Is smoke becoming as common as the weather, increasingly shaping our experience and our memories? 

Howe Sound from the summit of Stawamus Chief. Squamish, British Columbia. Photo by the author.

I finally arrive in Edmonton after saying goodbye to my partner who was returning to Montreal without me. There has been so much anticipation leading up to my fieldwork in Alberta, culminating over the past 18 months of the pandemic, with no certainty it would take place at all. During our vacation we shared similar questions about how long this can go on. The this, we were referring to had less to do with the pandemic, and more to do with the luxury of travel itself. I flew to Alberta to conduct fieldwork on ecological grief and mourning, and it was becoming clear that my own feelings of mourning drifted in and out, consuming me with different degrees of intensity; much like smoke. The phenomenology of smoke speaks to the material affects and emotional entanglements in worlds of socio-ecological relations.  My ethnographic fieldwork, I realize, is as much about observing ecological grief and mourning as it is a response to it. 

I throw my luggage in the back of my cousin’s jeep and drive away from the airport, merging onto Highway 2. Along the highway I see for the first time the black tanker cars slowly hauling crude oil to the coast in the direction from where I came, and I can’t help but feel that I have found the source of the smoke, and perhaps the grief, that I’ve been experiencing on my path to the field. My cousin points to the tank cars; “now tell me, does that look safe to you?” Her comment more of an insinuation that the oil would be safer running through pipelines underground. Looking out at the long chain of cars against the smoke filled sky I start to get that uneasy feeling again. 

“no, it does not look safe at all.”

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