The poet and essayist Anne Boyer is the inaugural winner of the Cy Twombly Award for Poetry, from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and a 2018 Whiting Award winner. Her latest book, The Undying (2019), won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.
It would be easy to blame architecture for all that had gone wrong, and as the world began to fall apart, some of us did. The extraction, manufacture, and distribution of building materials, the ubiquity of air conditioning and heating systems, and the billions of stoves, refrigerators, and electronics appeared inextricable from the rise of the bad weather. We believed buildings should be held responsible, too, for the erosion of any possibility of happiness or real feeling between us. Our suffering looked suspiciously adhered to everything we inhabited, and not only to buildings, but to all that was inside of buildings: bosses, conference tables, novelty-coffee-mug collections, families. Without walls, we reasoned, there could be no prisons. Without headquarters, we thought, all the institutions would disappear, and with them bureaucrats, greed, waste, and wickedness. Every gas station, elementary school, museum, and single-family dwelling rose from the horizon as a stark monument to what had failed.
We hated buildings, but the legal consequences of destroying them were too great for most to bear. There was nothing, however, to stop what happened next, so in the spring of 2021 some of us began to refuse to go indoors. Eventually, thousands and tens of thousands refused buildings, sleeping on the streets, gathering in parks or on lawns, lobbying whoever passed by to take a position, too, against skyscrapers, strip malls, post offices, duplexes, and vacation homes.
At first, we all went outside—some to look, some to be looked at, each of us captivated by the atmosphere of the unthinkable. It was difficult to distinguish those who’d come to marvel at the converted from those who were the converts. All were old and young, poor and rich, a mix of types, and the line between onlooker and believer easily dissolved with a single decision. Those who stayed were the faithful. Those who went home were not.
No one knew under what category to file the events in the first days, but those who stayed outside began to write impassioned tracts that were first read out of curiosity, then imbibed as an elixir of conversion. This, they declared, is not politics. This, they wrote, is not madness. This, they insisted, is divinely inspired. To stop going inside had become, because we had no other term for it, a religion.
The refusal of shelter at first seemed partial and provisional, but after a few weeks it became clear that the believers intended to stay outside for good. It was mass psychosis, the rest declared, triggered by the bad news lately about storms and scarcity and extinctions and elections.
Some communities sent mental-health workers into the crowds only to find that the social workers and counselors, too, were absorbed into them. The old religions sent imams and rabbis and pastors, but so many of them became converts that churches, mosques, and temples instructed their followers to stay away to protect themselves from this contagion, to pray for their lost loved ones from afar. Yogis wandered away from ashrams. Activist groups sent organizers, who, upon absorption into the streets, abandoned their causes and never returned. Journalists sent to cover the story converted, too, and their investigative reports turned into live-TV admonishments to come outside. Eventually, there were too many stories to tell: minor celebrities who posted ecstatic conversion vlogs, retired athletes bringing with them constellations of girlfriends and assistants, entire units of firefighters, elementary school teachers who took the third graders out for recess and then drifted away, leaving pensive, confused children at the slide.
Someone asked me later if I found it strange that when so many seemed newly riveted by the possibility of good, I was headed toward peak evil. Surely, they said, with all this religion in the air, I knew I was doing something wrong. This is what I answered: now, it seems like our history is divided only into before and after, and all that came before was dropped the moment after the new feeling arrived. It is easy to believe that the light from heaven had come down and everyone could see it, but to me it did not look like a light. It looked like more of the same foolish and empty nonsense. Whatever light people saw was not an authentic illumination, but the same tired and deceptive glimmer. Besides, I reminded them, I had started my work in the weeks before the conversion event, that time when so many of us believed in nothing and thought we never would. I had no faith before, and I didn’t have any faith after, at least not for a long time.
Despite the rumors, no leader of this new religion ever said outright that its followers should allow themselves to die of the weather. Most even argued, at least on the record, that it was a spiritual responsibility to vigorously fight to preserve one’s life and the lives of co-religionists in order to feel more fully, and across a long life, the effects of the destructive habits of our species. To be alive meant to experience the elements—however benign or terrible—with receptive, sensitive bodies. The religion’s primary sacrament, then, was that of feeling damp, or heat struck, or chilled, or windswept, or desiccated, or endangered. Death would be feeling’s evasion.
Regardless of what anyone said about not going out of one’s way to find death, it was still true that if anyone did die from lack of shelter, they joined a forming canon of heroes. There were hurricane martyrs and flood saints, and the beloved and virtuous who perished of earthquakes, heat waves, and blizzards, all of them memorialized in online hagiographies at weathersaints.com and climatemartyrs.org.
The worst thing a person could do was sin against the present, or at least this is what the believers claimed, and they believed that the worst sin against the present was any attempt to escape its misery. By misery what they meant was not the regular misery of all the human centuries before, but a new and special kind: the angry new weather and its consequences, the megastorms taking over the sea edges, the fracking quakes in the interiors, the droughts and deluges and die-offs, like how in September the Canadian geese began to fall dead from the sky, denting cars, injuring toddlers, and terrifying everyone else. The only way for our species to be redeemed, they argued, in the wake of what we had done to the world was to feel the hard consequences of our sins against our own sensate and naked skins. The believers were thus drenched by rains, punished by wind chills, paralyzed by heat, singed by brush fires, bored or lulled by placid and balmy nights.
The conversion event was global but it took on local variations. North Americans flooded to regions with notorious weather: the Gulf Coast, the Burning West, Tornado Alley. Elsewhere, favelas and shantytowns once avoided by the wealthy became pilgrimage sites for some of the newly faithful who believed that in a special dispensation the poor had already, in their open-air, weather-saturated, and violable forms of living, been practicing the faith as prophets. Other converts joined existing refugee camps dotted throughout Europe as climate missionaries, bringing what they claimed was the capacity to transform the seemingly pointless suffering of political and economic consequence into what they offered as the ennobling frame of faith.
Law enforcement hated the new religion, as did architects, health inspectors, the construction industry, HVAC repair people, mortgage brokers, fascists, and landlords. Only weeks after the initial conversion, the children of the faithful were being taken away from their parents and placed in indoor foster care, forcibly enrolled in indoor schools. There were protests, lawsuits. Within eighteen months of the conversion event the Gutierrez vs. State of California case had traveled to the US Supreme Court, which then decided that a religious doctrine against shelter was protected through the separation of church and state. The children could live outside with their families as long as they were adequately educated, cared for, fed, and protected from the most deadly or debilitating effects of the weather. That decision at least nominally restored families, but as the conversion expanded, and more and more people were without homes, the law expanded too. Cities and states responded by intensifying trespassing, public-urination, and indecent-exposure laws into felonies. The jails and prisons filled up, and with this new population came hunger strikes, protests, and agitation for outdoor prisons in which the faithful could practice their sacrament of exposure.
Eventually the faithful began to escape the law by accumulating vast holdings of private land for open-air living. Each convert who owned a home gave it, as a mode of baptism, a ritualized demolition and opened the land to others. First the possessions inside the house were sold to outsiders in a public auction, then the faithful worked to destroy the building from the outside, ardent as termites as they tore down the house, ripped off shingles and planks, careful to never once enter under a horizontal beam or framing until the whole home and everything in it was taken apart.
Congregations the size of villages lived on this land, the fundamentalists among them refusing to cover their bodies, too, hoping that by this they could feel the angry climate to its fullest effect. Naked or mostly naked, open to the wind, their skin leathered and their hair faded, these converts of the new religion huddled together under the starlit skies, their exhalations mingling with the heavens, waiting for the future to arrive.
Once my work began in earnest, I regretted that it only took a few days outside for my own skin to tan, for my own hair to grow lighter, my own complexion to become rougher, but what I regretted more was that the more time I spent among these crowds of converts, the more I felt the tragedy of my contempt for them. Good obviously thrived among them—mutual aid, joy, comradery—but my belief did not. The faithful weren’t the hypocrites I’d presumed them to be, at least not all of them. Most of them seemed to truly believe, but in what was the question.
Like any religion, this one also had its mystics and its legalists. Among the legalists, debates drew out for hours over the nature of sin, whether thinking of the future should be allowed or prohibited, and if one shouldn’t think or talk of the future, as many asserted, how long a time “the future” was meant to be. They didn’t, however, talk much about God, referring to the divine mostly as “that which has turned its back” and “that which has walked away.” There were panel discussions and lectures for the livestream, attempts to define “shelter,” attempts to define “atonement,” attempts to define “season.” Rest under the shade of a tree was allowed, but not the shade of buildings. The faithful were allowed to walk through but not to linger too long under bridges and overpasses. An afternoon spent under a natural rock overhang was allowed; covered stoops were to be avoided. People could enter a cave but not claim one as their home, and they could dig a hole for a latrine, even erect privacy structures around it, but only if they left overhead an opening for the sky.
One of the most contentious debates took place over whether to use a piece of canvas, Mylar, or plastic attached to a tree, or staked to the ground, as shelter in a storm was a sin. Some believed this kind of provisional shelter was not a violation, using as analogical support the dams of beavers, the dens of foxes, and the nests of birds. They argued that the real abomination was to be found inside permanent structures, that it was indoors that was the original sin, and as long as the air that they breathed, that hit their skin, and the temperature in which they lingered was that made by the earth and the atmosphere, what they were doing when putting up a tarp in a storm was not a sin at all. A piece of fabric over a branch or some other supporting structure was to some no different from a sweatshirt or an umbrella, both of which were allowed, though the umbrella was met with suspicion by those whose greatest desire was the purest sensation of the weather. Others believed that a piece of fabric overhead was shelter and should be forbidden as such, even if it was so inefficient at protection that it remained shelter’s crude approximation. Even bad sex, they offered as their own supportive analogy, can constitute fornication.
Some believed, at first, that this religion was yet another extension of the movement toward the natural. The nature-lovers, however, were the religion’s earliest heretics, active at first but purged from the faithful within months of the conversion, sometimes beaten, spat at in gauntlets, mocked on social media, then setting up camps of their own. None of this new way of living was about conforming the behavior of the human species to nature, the righteous said, which anyway involved a fiction about our species that had always served to absolve it from its peculiar criminality: that we were either outside of nature or an error of it and our only hope was to fit ourselves in. The natural and the desire for it were like a perfume sprayed in an outhouse, they said, its only function being a superficial and transitory appeasement of a mutual condition that smelled like shit.
The mystics did not concern themselves with arguments. The mystics looked up at the thundering clouds and waited for the freezing winds and said that this was a religion with a single, urgent, unflawed commandment: atone. And what its believers had to atone for was that the earth itself had been ruined—irrevocably, tragically, and without remedy. To atone was the purest exercise of love, they said, and a crystalline perfection of grief. To atone was the only possible act of humanity, which had known from the beginning that it could never survive. These were the believers who sought to feel climate change most keenly of all, to lament and to suffer as dramatically as possible for the sinfulness of the built world, to take on the burden for all of humanity and perhaps all of creation. What these converted seemed to want most, as a form of redemption, was to be directly restored to all the terrible consequence that human ingenuity had once protected them from. They wanted to know by their every sense not the falsehood and fabrications of society but the brutal, vivid effects of nature exceeding its course.
All who were unhappy seemed susceptible, and so many of us, in those days, were unhappy, that a lot of people I knew ended up leaving the inside for the out. I see now that like anyone else I could have eventually believed with the believing crowds, but at the start of the second week of the conversion event, I saw what I needed to harden me against them for good. It was my ex, Claire, with her new partner, their arms and faces raised to the sky, eyes empty and wide, assuming a pose of ostentatious conversion, taking a photo with a selfie stick. They posed as if begging for the rain to fall on them or the lightning to come or the sun to come out of the clouds and beat down on them, but whatever the posture of devotion meant, it only existed for the camera. For Claire, any trend had always been embraced like a necessary life-saving procedure for which no expense was too great. The street of converts seemed with her in it as banal as any music festival, and this new way of life as ephemeral as an app or an oatmeal restaurant. In a few weeks something else would call to Claire and all the others. They would rush to what was next, I was certain, hoping to soften whatever pain of the present with ever more extreme forms of novelty. Then when that failed, they would, as most did in those days, rush again, stupidly, convinced of something else.
The day I saw Claire on the street I hurried back to the house where I rented a room. I turned on the air conditioning. I turned on the oven. It was only May, and the flowers bloomed and birds sang as if they still believed in spring and had never read the news cycle’s dire predictions. The house didn’t need to be cooled, nor did I need to cook, but I did need the assurance that I wasn’t one of the lunatics in the streets and never would be. I flipped up all the light switches, pulled the cord on the ceiling fan in my bedroom until it spun as fast as it could, filled up a plastic glass with ice, filled up another, and set them both down to melt. I ran the dishwasher with only three plates in it. I transferred the recycling into the trash bin. I peed in the toilet and flushed four times, changed my tampon, meditated on the beauty of the pearlescent plastic applicator and the lavender plastic paper that had wrapped it. I was a person who lived inside a building, and I planned to stay that way forever.