Konrad Steffen Was a Prophet of Climate Change, and its Victim
He is 73, with a long, woolly beard, like someone’s version of Father Time. He lives in a hand-built shack with no electricity or running water, nearly eight miles up a forgotten dirt road in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, a mile from a creek named for a long-ago settler — Waddell — who was killed by a grizzly bear. They call him a hermit, a holy man, the Unabomber. He could care less. On the night of Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, a heat wave with temperatures well above 100 degrees brings a rolling cloud from the ocean as the old man sleeps under a canopy of redwood trees. When the lightning comes, it sizzles and snakes, consummates with dry earth.
We all start somewhere — and end somewhere too. But how did he come to be here, feeding the jays and squirrels each day, under the redwoods? His vow of silence, one he takes in his early 30s, makes him an enigma to others, for silence is one of our great American fears. But still, he hasn’t annulled himself. He has a history too, born a middle child, to a mother of blighted artistic ambitions and a father who was a traveling salesman, with two sisters, living in a comfortable Sears Roebuck house in Columbus, Ohio. He loved camping and fishing with his father. He loved animals, rabbits first. Patiently played with his younger sister, Jill. Was gravely ill at one point and probably concussed himself after hitting a tree with his sled. He went to college and rambunctiously flunked out. He went into the military, in 1967, and was sent to Germany instead of Vietnam, growing to hate authority figures and command chains. His inheritance was an anger that kept growing; almost a substance: even now it smolders and ignites.
By the next day — Monday, Aug. 17 — the lightning has set the grasses and underbrush on fire in the mountains around Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Within miles of these growing fires lives the old man in the remote enclave of Last Chance, in a gully beneath the ridge. He has no plumbing and stores his supplies in plastic barrels. Once a month, he rents a car in town, in Santa Cruz, to procure his supplies, including 800 pounds of seed to feed the animals, and to visit Windy, a friend’s 43-year-old daughter whom he helped raise. Until recently, she had never heard his voice as he took the vow of silence back when Jimmy Carter was president, communicating by chalkboard and jottings on paper. She has only ever known him as that wise, constant presence in her life. “The Bay Area is made up of many microclimates, and the one I am living in is particularly nice,” he tells Windy in one of his letters. “I don’t have the heat of inland or the fog of the coast. So I’ll stay here as long as possible.” The spot fires, left unfettered, now grow and begin to converge. In some places there is 50, 100 years’ worth of fuel on the ground. Though there has been no call for evacuation yet, you can smell the smoke. The forecast projects more heat and wind.
Booze, weed, the Sixties. Tad Jones, for that’s his name when people use it, lives in a school bus, on Sanibel Island in Florida, with a girlfriend. After they split, he lives for a time with his other sister, in her barn. His skin turns a green pallor perhaps because of “alcohol mixed with pharmacology,” as Jill puts it today. But at some point, he lifts himself up and turns himself into a seeker. He finds yoga, which helps with his scoliosis, and a guru: Baba Hari Dass, an Indian yoga master he follows to California. Like his guru, he renounces all but essential material possessions — and seemingly sex too — and takes a vow of silence. Baba Hari Dass wrote: “One who doesn’t want to possess any thing possesses every thing.”
At first it’s hard for the Jones family to understand this retreat, his wanton rejection of American society, but he keeps repeating his mantra: He doesn’t want to inflict his anger on the world. Or his growing paranoia. “How uncalm he was,” Jill recalls. “If he was outside his realm, he was overwhelmed.” He carries a knife for protection; he’s careful to wear neutral clothing so as not to be confused for a gang member. He lets his beard grow out, until eventually it reaches his knees. He braids it and often rolls it up, then unfurls it to the surprise of new acquaintances. He lives inside the trunk of a redwood tree, in time with it, in opposition to industrial time, replicating those happy camping trips with his father. In the 1980s he moves out to Last Chance, a back-to-the-land community fed by cold springs and an August barn dance. His work here is to become part of the fauna, to enter the understory, to encode himself in nature. He writes in a letter that the skunks brush up against his legs, not once thinking to spray.
We could use more contemplation, more self-reflection. America — us — we could use more silence. As radical as it seems to subtract yourself from society, to cancel your own voice, and add yourself to the forest floor, the old man, it turns out, is not really radical. He likes the band Rush and the movie “The Big Lebowski.” He reads National Geographic, articles about faraway places and these extreme changes to our environment. The wind direction shifts now from the northwest to the northeast, and the fire leaps into alignment with the topography, lighting duff and branches: More than 43,000 acres are about to burn in a matter of hours.
Windy, who adores him, saves all his letters, which are full of advice written in his big loopy handwriting: here’s how to interact with your grandparents, here are the pros and cons of having children. (“[T]he earth doesn’t need any more people, so if you do give birth you want to give the child a reasonable chance to succeed.”) He tells her about the Mexican radio station he listens to, with the woman’s voice singing so lovely. He cracks slightly profane jokes about Donald Trump. He says he has set redwood trunks in ascending order to a little pet entrance to the shack so the cat can keep safe from predators. When he’s overrun by arthritis — his knees and shoulders and hips, walking with two metal canes — he goes to town to see the doctor, to stay with Windy. “Word is the crabs are meaty and good,” he writes her. “I am including a hunny B” — a hundred-dollar bill — “to buy the dinner.” Guinness beer too. He writes, “Remember I am speaking/talking now so don’t be shocked.”
After nearly 40 years of silence, the old man starts talking again, at first to communicate with the doctors. It’s 2017, and he still swears like a sailor. Jill, his sister, speaks to him over Windy’s cellphone, and the first words out of his mouth are “How do you make this goddamn thing work?” It’s as if they’ve never missed a beat: he still has that mellifluous, bemused voice, that Midwestern accent. And that hair-trigger temper. As the fire encroaches, on that Tuesday, he buys feed for the animals in town — then returns to Last Chance. The wind is blowing, harder now, created by the fire itself, it seems. A community is its own ecosystem — like a forest — connected through pulses, half aerial, half subterranean. Every person, every cell, communicates in a chain. Still, almost no one here knows the old man’s last name. The fire conjoins and rages, from oak to oak, redwood to redwood. In the mesmerizing face of it, your own anger isn’t much. Even by 8 p.m. no evacuation order has been issued by the state. The residents of Last Chance, over 100 in all, think they’re safe. Only when the smoke blows clear does the fire marshal see wild flames from the ridge, the fine, dry leaf matter catching hot. By the time the conflagration jumps Waddell Creek, she take matters into her own hands, no longer waiting for state officials to raise the alarm, and the evacuation plan goes into effect.
By about 9:30 p.m., all but three people are accounted for at the gate that leads out of Last Chance. The old man — the hermit, the holy man, Unabomber — tries to drive the road out in his rented minivan, but fire suddenly blocks his way. He turns, and drives back, but now more fire blocks the back way. It’s as if napalm has been dropped on the forest, everything lit and storming. Fire personnel are nowhere to be seen. One resident spends the night in a field, fighting off rivers of sparks; another takes to a pond in his backyard, breathing out of a hose to escape the inferno. By 10:30 p.m. Last Chance has mostly burned to the ground. In the days after, only one person remains unaccounted for.
Later comes the recovery mission. People with chain saws, an incursion to reclaim what’s left of home. Many of the redwoods are still burning inside and will die later. The old man is found — his bones, his ashes — near his two metal canes and the minivan not far from his shack, next to a scorched ravine, the fire so hot the van’s windows have been vaporized. Jill says there’s a way of seeing her brother’s demise as “terrifying” but “glorious.” “A slow, rusty death — that wouldn’t have been good for him,” she says. “It would have been awful.” After 70,000 people evacuate and nearly 1,500 structures are lost, Tad Jones ends up the only casualty of what comes to be called the CZU Lightning Complex in the most rampant fire year California has ever seen. “He burned on the ground of the place he lived,” Windy says, “the land he loved, the forest he walked through thousands and thousands of times, and he became part of it.”
Michael Paterniti is a contributing writer for the magazine and is working on a book about the discovery of the North Pole.