New Mexico sky, Arizona smoke.
We’re choking here. As Arizona next door burns in one of the fiercest fires in state history, we’re smothered in smoke plumes visible from space. A white film dusts the air. It’s as though we’re living in the folds of a lacy veil. We wake to kitchen counters sprinkled in ash. The eyes burn, the throat goes raw. The evening sun is a crimson ball; the moon hangs like a sliver of pumpkin.
We’ve had these skies many times before, in Asia. When the rains cease through wintertime, farmers set their fields afire. For weeks that stretch to months, smoke blankets the hills linking Burma with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The valley around Chiang Mai, where we used to live, traps that smoke; it lingers until a heavy rain can wash the air.
We used to have a fifth-floor condo facing Doi Suthep, a holy mountain with a national park and a temple on top. Half the year, our balcony faced a verdant wall of forest green. Half the year, we saw nothing but smoke:
View from our old condo in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Thick smoke from agricultural fires obscures the sight of a mountain half a mile away.
Last Thursday, when I opened the door here in New Mexico and stepped into the first whiffs of Arizona haze, I couldn’t believe how much the air reminded me of Thailand. Here I was, sniffing the life of Southeast Asia.
There is something strongly evocative about the scent of fire, as though it recalls our ancestral roots. As much as I hate the wheezing, the hacking, the puffy eyes—we as humans evolved through fire. We learned to cook, and some scientists argue that makes us human.
There is a fine balance between the good and bad of smoke and fire; a tenuous line between that which kills and that which feeds our needs and desires. Indoor smoke from cooking fires prematurely kills an estimated 1.6 million people a year. I’ve written about this issue in the past.
But we also need smoke and fire. Fire kills pathogens and keeps us warm. It nourishes soil. Smoke cures the meats that sustain populations through fallow times. It fights mosquitoes carrying deadly disease. And it adds flavor to traditional meals. Fire is method, and smoke is spice.
A few months ago, I bought a package of organic Lapsang Souchong Fujian smoked black tea at the New Mexico Tea Company. When I opened the canister, I inhaled years of memories from village homes. That tea is smoke; its essence is captured in the package.
Jerry and I often talk about smoke water. If you travel to a rural village off the beaten path, anywhere in Asia, inevitably the hosts will offer a cup of boiled water from a blackened kettle. It’s not just water. It’s purified liquid infused with smoke; it’s hospitality in a sooty mug. As you sip that water around the smoldering logs, chatting through a haze that fills the room, it’s impossible not to think of the yin and yang of fire. Who would we be without it?
A Laotian boy sits amid smoke in his family’s smoldering rice field, burned before the next season’s planting.