A View from Inside Armageddon

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” reaches into a smouldering sky

September 15, 2020: The skies over San Francisco have cleared, finally, and the Air Quality Index has moved from Red to Yellow – still not something you’d want to go outside and exercise in for an extended period. But a week ago we woke to a Day of Darkness like nothing many of us had ever seen — or hope to see again. This (below) is an account of that day that I posted on Medium.com. but somehow managed not to post on this, my forever site.

It’s Armageddon. The Apocalypse. Those are the terms most frequently being tossed around, alongside “Really? Can you believe . . .” “This is surreal . . .” Nobody seems able to come up with words expansive enough.

Temple Emanu-El (rt) overlooks an apocalyptic scene

Mostly, however, there is an eerie quiet. Everyone looks around wide-eyed, behind their masks, speaking in whispers or small-child voices.

Northern California awoke to dark, burnt orange skies that created an impression of early evening at nine in the morning. We were already shaken by months of uncontained pandemic which by now has killed at least one or more we knew and loved, and sickened others who live with after-effects still unknown. Then came the racial unrest erupting in our cities and neighborhoods. Followed closely by the wildfires consuming beloved parks, forests, homes, communities. Uncounted mornings began with a cautious look at the air quality index, realizing it was too toxic outside for a walk around the block. And now this? Pitch dark at 9 in the morning?

The day of darkness was disorienting even for 2020.

But here is an on-the-ground report about the good news. Confronting the Apocalypse, people turned calm. And kind. This reporter needed to leave the safety of my securely quarantined geezer building, with its giant air purifiers on every floor, for a medical appointment at noon (when it looked like, oh, 8 PM.) So I made a couple of brief detours before heading home. First stop was the parking lot of a small neighborhood shopping center where I periodically buy flowers at the grocery store – because the flowers are outdoors out back, and someone will always take my credit card inside to pay for my selection. (I do not enter non-medical enclosed spaces.) There were lines of cars moving in and out and around. They moved very slowly. People stopped to let others have plenty of time to move in or out. Nobody honked. Around the back of the store where the flowers are there were probably several dozen people – talking about how it couldn’t possibly be midday, with all the lights on inside . . . But people spoke in hushed voices, frequently with soft laughter. (Apocalyptic times invite laughter. Who knew?) Everyone gave everyone plenty of social distance, but while we were moving around we smiled behind our masks as if sharing some awful but negotiable secret. While I stood with my armful of lilies and roses and my credit card held out, two customers and one store employee heading out on lunch break offered to go inside and take care of my transaction.

Then I drove a few blocks into the Presidio, where Inspiration Point is a celebrated spot for taking photos of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz sits, jewel-like in the water, across an expanse of evergreens. The walkway and low wall are ideal for selfies and photos against this quintessential San Francisco backdrop. Immediately across the road from the small Inspiration Point parking area is Andy Goldsworthy’s soaring sculpture “Spire.” I lived nearby when “Spire” was created. We watched Goldsworthy and his assistants daily in 2008 as they built his towering monument of 37 Monterey cypress trunks bound together to reach 100 feet into the sky. Like others of Goldsworthy’s beautiful creations, Spire will eventually be absorbed back into nature, as surrounding trees continue to grow. On this Armageddon day, Nature has turned sculpture and surroundings alike into a glowing ember-like forest.

The view from Inspiration Point still inspired. But it was nothing like what photos in millions of tourist albums show, sailboats drifting around Alcatraz below blue skies and billowing clouds. It was a sepia-toned picture of suddenly colorless shrubs, with an umber haze settled around a few blinking lights of houses in the distance – a distance without Bay, sailboats, Alcatraz or the otherwise familiar.

And again, there was the eerie quiet. The ever-present mix of excited children’s voices and friends calling to each other was replaced by a hushed, slightly fearful wonder. Cars came and went, but slowly. There was no birdsong. I don’t know where birds go in times of distress, but they go silent. I read later that lights had to be kept on at the San Francisco Zoo because the animals were disoriented by the daytime darkness.

I had a notebook tucked under my arm while taking pictures around Inspiration Point. As I turned to get back into my car the notebook dropped with an unseemly noise. “Here,” said a soft voice as a gloved hand reached for my notebook. “Let me help you.”