Looking in the Eye of Global Warming

Bernie and Cat Krause were three minutes from death
when the fire reached their house.

Story David Bolling  
Photos Steven Krause

There is a fiendishly harsh irony in the fact that, when Bernie Krause looked out the glass panel of his front door and realized that what he saw was not a reflection of the TV set showing video of the firestorm incinerating parts of Santa Rosa but actual flames encircling his Glen Ellen house, he knew at once that he was looking into the eye of global warming.

Bernie Krause owns and archives the soundscape of Planet Earth. He has recorded nature in every extreme, he knows the lush soundprint of a healthy forest, and he knows the profoundly sad silence of a forest clear-cut or burned to the ground.

He refuses to sugarcoat the phenomenon with the favored phrase “climate change,” because he insists that the one, calamitous, scientifically verifiable fact is that the earth is warming at an alarming rate, and the results are coming home to roost.

The heart-touching term he and his wife, Cat, use to refer to the soundscape of nature, to their nonprofit foundation, and to the location of their home, is “Wild Sanctuary.” It is layered with meaning.

“The Wild Sanctuary was very important to us,” he says. “It was important to us when we lost everything with the fire. Everything on the property was destroyed. All the trees. All the vegetation. The animals that used to live there, the foxes, and the coyotes and the owls. Everything else was gone. And when I came back to report, even now, the place is dead silent. Whereas before, there was a vitality to it, and it expressed a voice that was so luminous.”

The house they shared was built of rammed earth by Sonoma developer, designer, author, artist and philanthropist Suzanne Brangham. When Bernie and Cat bought it, decades ago, the insurance companies insisted for years it was fireproof and they didn’t know how, or weren’t willing, to write a policy. Eventually they did, but the house, long since insured when the fire attacked, clearly wasn’t fireproof. To see it now is to view a faint skeleton lying in the dust.

“The loss, the physical loss, is not so much an issue for us,” Bernie says, “although the place was, for us, a work of art. We collected very few things, but those things we did collect from travels and stuff were symbolic of a real love of our work, and also caring for the habitat that was Wild Sanctuary. We never thought of property as our own, whether we owned it or not. We always thought of it as, we’re around for a short period of time, and we’re caretakers. I never much was into ownership of stuff. But that loss is really pretty devastating.”

Bernie’s archives contain soundscapes that no longer exist, from parts of the world that no longer exist in any recognizable acoustic form. They are supremely important as a record of where we have been, where we’re going, and the price we’re paying to get there.

“Much of the data in the archive supports the science of global warming,” Bernie explains, “so we were very careful about preserving that. As a matter of fact, because so much of it was funded by federal money, when the current administration got into power and began to decimate the science of the EPA and NASA, particularly climate science, I thought in March of last year when we went to France, I was going to take a copy of my archive and make sure that it was safe in another place just to be sure. Because a lot of my friends and colleagues in the science of climate were very concerned about it and had got their stuff offshore, as well.”

Bernie’s digital archives were duplicated several times over. One of them, almost complete, is in a Santa Rosa bank vault. Another, the only fully complete record he has—a 10-terabyte hard drive as big as a loaf of bread—is in the hands of a nonprofit foundation in Paris. He estimates it holds 4,500 hours of sound and the voices of 15,000 species. Three others that were scattered in the house are now carbon dust, along with 50 years of field notes, all his analog tape recordings, and numerous other artifacts.

And still, there remains a very important story to tell, many stories, actually, one of them right here in the Valley of the Moon. A series of recordings Bernie made in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park reveal the markedly different soundscapes occurring during different points in the multi-year drought California recently experienced. Recordings from two years with adequate rain are lush with sound. But one year the recording is virtually blank.

“It was actually the first silent spring I ever heard in my life. And I’ve been a lot of places. The habitat was OK, but there was no indication of anything. So, we’ve got a really good story to tell. And actually, what’s neat about this archive is that we don’t have to interpret it or tell the story. The story is the narrative, it’s all there. If we can shut the hell up, we’ll never have to say a word. It’s all there. People get it right away. And it doesn’t matter what age you are.”

Bernie is now 80 and fit enough to keep recording, but he and Cat barely made it out of their house with their lives.

Alerted by a friend’s phone call that there might be fires somewhere, Cat could find no evidence in the air or the deep night sky. She was recovering from a knee replacement, eventually woke Bernie, and neither could find evidence of fire at first. It was only when Bernie realized the flames visible in his glass front door weren’t a reflection of the TV news.

Cat was about to retrieve their two pet cats, who had crawled far beneath a low-slung bed.

“Then, Bernie goes to the front door, and he looks at me with a face I’ve never seen on him before, and yells, ‘Cat! Run! Now! Car!’ And I’m like, ‘Huh?’ And I looked out the door and I could see that there was fire coming up both sides of our driveway, and actually sealing off the driveway. It looked like there was this wall of fire in front of the car and both sides were on fire. At which point I said, “I’m not going anywhere without the cats.”

She never got there. “Just then, through the window, the whole property, all the way around us, it was like someone threw on a klieg light. It went whomp. And the whole thing was really like a lava tsunami. It was all red. It was all orange. At once. And Bernie’s yelling at me, really screaming, ‘No! Now! Now!’ And we were out the door and in the car and off. We had to drive through quite a wall of flames, about a third of the way down the (quarter-mile) driveway. At the gate I said, ‘We have to go back and get the cats.’ I looked back of us. Everything was on fire … it’s still hard to talk about nine months later.”

Cat estimates they escaped their own incineration by about three minutes. “Three minutes is not enough time,” she says. “And maybe the climate deniers won’t deny it quite so much when it comes and sits on their own front porch.”  

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