(or, PANIC like the house is on fire)
I hear about the house from an online acquaintance.
It’s one of those rare moments when doom scrolling pays off. A photograph of the sky-blue, four-story ruin goes from south to north on my screen. I almost pass right by it, but my fingers comes to a screeching halt: there, in the thumbnail, peeking out behind some dead trees in winter, stands a structure. Its bright color cuts against clusters of gray and black tree trunks that line a road I don’t recognize — yet. (I learn later it’s Route 28, a county highway that ascends into the Catskill Mountains from Kingston.)
My eyes flicker. I note the geotag: Kingston, NY.
How can this be — ?
I’ve driven Route 28 hundreds of times.
Up to Woodstock, to commune with my ancestors at the Artists Cemetery.
Up to Phoenicia, to dip my toes into cool Esopus Creek waters.
Up higher still, past Big Indian, Pine Hill, to Palmer Hill Trail, where I go looking for the ghost of Rip van Winkle, Henry Hudson, and his entire crew.
There’s soothing magic in the Catskill Mountains. It echoes across the ridges and peaks and whisks me away from the current state of affairs whenever I need reprieve.
How can this be — ? I wonder.
How is it possible I’ve never seen this sky-blue, four-story ruin before?
I send the photographer a message. He responds quickly. The next thing I know, my car is parked at a seedy motel, and I’m backtracking behind a thick metal guardrail that hugs the side of the road until I reach a driveway leading down a slight hill to the property.
What I don’t realize as I make my final approach to the threshold between the real world and another wormhole to the past (which, side note, was once the entrance to Kingston’s now-demolished Sunset Drive-In) is that someone — or several people — have transformed this derelict house into a gigantic work of art. A monument, to be more specific, a shrine dedicated to the life and work of climate activist Greta Thunberg, the eighteen-year-old Swedish sensation who somehow, disturbingly, became a symbol, overnight, for modern-day environmentalism and a movement that challenges world leaders to act swiftly against rising ocean tides and raging forest fires and an atmosphere choking on CO2 emissions.
A lazy chain dangles and droops across the driveway, a shrug against the gravel, doing nothing to prevent trespassers. This is nothing new; most abandoned spaces that I’ve come across aren’t trying too hard to keep folks out. There’s often this unspoken rule: trespassing is “illegal,” yes, but if you do decide to break the law, “just… don’t get hurt. (And try not to vandalize the property.)” (Which is in and of itself a sticky conversation because there are two sides to the graffiti debate: is it vandalism or is it art?)
The graffiti question is swiftly answered as I scuff down the driveway to an old marquee and lights display where I begin to realize that indeed this property has been transformed into something special, unique, like no abandoned space I’ve been to yet. The marquee has Greta Thunberg’s name painted on it in sloppy block letters. I smile, unaware of the fact that I’m about to witness the precipice of a truly miraculous work of creative genius. The driveway wraps around the house, snuggled up to its front porch, then dips down further still and continues to press up against the foundation of the house as it reaches its lowest point at the structure.
When I reach the bottom of this small incline, I look up above the double-door garage at the four stories hovering above me and gasp. Splattered there in enormous, fiery letters sits a message, spelled out like poetry:
LiKe the houƨe iƨ on fiRe
The message flies off the splintered wood siding and penetrates my stomach, hard. There’s something overtly commanding and covertly complicated about it. Flying out some of the windows are flames, painted red and orange and yellow, and between each garage door are burning hearts, floating up into the painted blaze.
As I stare, completely dumbstruck, I begin to wonder if the phrase “PANIC LiKe the houƨe iƨ on fiRe” is a song lyric. I pull out my phone in the middle of this muggy Hudson Valley june afternoon and type the phrase into the Google: “panic like the house is on fire”
The first search result that pops up is a video. It’s Greta Thunberg. The title of the video, published by the World Economic Forum, snags my eyes: “Greta Thunberg: Our House is on Fire.” I open it.
Sure as shit, there she is, talking to a group of people in power. She seems nervous, afraid, or both, glancing down and up, down and up at her paper.
Her voice trembles but commands the certainty of what she’s saying, the certainty of why she’s saying it.
“Our house is on fire,” she explains quietly. “People like to talk about success, but… on the climate we have failed. And unless we recognize the failures of our system, there will be unspoken suffering.”
I peer back up at the house and read the message again, this time out loud.
“Panic like the house is on fire.”
This house, this abandoned sky-blue, four-story ruin, isn’t just a home left to rot.
It’s a visual commemoration honoring Greta Thunberg — and Mother Nature herself.
My head fills with images of all the abandoned fortresses I’ve been exploring since May of 2020 (and really, since I was a kid, creating entire universes at the abandoned dairy farm down the hill from my house). The AFI Packaging Plant in Port Jervis, NY; C&D Battery Technologies in Huguenot, NY; the Al Tech Steel Corporation in Colonie, NY. These deteriorating warehouse relics encapsulate moments on a timeline: the Industrial Revolution, the Steel Boom, and the subsequent genesis of the Rust Belt when blue collar jobs were exiled from the United States to places like China, India, and Mexico.
They also embody, in all their former glory, the evil side of capitalism and the war it’s waged on the planet. Every single one of these estates of greed has been contained and branded with an environmental scarlet letter, deemed hazardous by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation or the EPA. Toxic do-not-enter zones, budding Superfund sites, dozens, hundreds, thousands of dangerous wastelands across the United States where large, careless corporations made billions of dollars by care-freely poisoning the planet through various cheap means of production, all to turn a quick profit.
And it’s not just the manufacturers: it’s everywhere. So many of these abandoned complexes are virulent to human exposure, littered in asbestos, surrounded by noxious bodies of water that were injected, ad nauseam, with harsh contaminants. The decay of these All-American ruins flows freely, the trickling residue of powerful men who were more interested in making as much money as possible, rather than protect the planet or pay their fair share of taxes. As I’ve ventured out across the United States pursuing these portals to the past, I’ve considered the notion of greed locked behind the walls of every abandoned place I explore, and I’ve discovered, time and again, that so many of these mighty structures have been left to rot, frozen in time, either because they were levied by the government or a bank or because the encompassing acreage was pulverized, decades of havoc wreaked on the surrounding land and water and air.
And so I’m always torn, a fascinating feeling to experience as I wander through these spaces full of wondrous remnants that allure my imagination to run hog wild, just as it did when I was that kid living in an alternate reality and talking to ghosts at the abandoned dairy farm from my childhood. The enticement of playing pretend to keep my spirit (and strangely, my body itself) safe from the chaos of the outside world. Sanctuaries born out of the wreckage of the past. And that’s where I live between the lines, between that beauty and serenity or the brutal and malignant reality that many of these places represent: greed, dishonesty, apathy, and the unmitigated pain of generations tortured by the unforgiving, unrelenting actuality of the current state of humanity.
I could see it when I explored the abandoned couples’ resort in the Poconos of Pennsylvania where I recognized my white privilege after narrowly escaping a run-in with law enforcement for trespassing.
I considered it when I took my expedition to the abandoned air force base overlooking the horse track in Saratoga Springs in New York, where I time traveled into the Cold War and thought about my mom perched under her desk in elementary school during bomb drills.
I dove into my own past as I drifted through the abandoned bunkers and batteries scattered across the Marin Headlands of California, in the summer of 2021, where, five years before, I’d made a private, painful (and subconscious) realization, even before it began, that my marriage would end in failure.
And now, I’m standing on the borderline of a makeshift monument to an eighteen-year-old climate activist and to Mother Nature herself. My brain begins to swell as I think about the increasingly violent ocean waters and ferocious fires and nonstop CO2 emissions pummeling holes into the atmosphere. Global asphyxiation.
I explore the aging house anyway.
I enter room after room of ancient decay, the lingering evidence of squatters and old appliances and caving ceilings and sunken floors and wall after wall coated in painted messages that somehow comfort these end-of-days thoughts I can’t help thinking. Thoughts about the worldwide mental health crisis and food shortages and violence against queer folks, my people, and I envision what the planet might look like if we, humanity, just disappeared and left nothing but these American ruins to rot and inevitably be reclaimed by the planet as if they (and we) had never existed in the first place.
As these thoughts continue to batter the sides of my skull and make dents in my spine and cause rapidly mounting, ever-present heartbreak, I exit a second floor kitchen full of vintage appliances and retro cabinetry and turn the corner down a dark, dimly-lit hallway, and I nearly collide head-first with a bird catapulting towards me at breakneck speed. I duck just in time as it whizzes around the corner and out a kitchen window. I turn back, my aorta pumping gallons of blood a mile a minute, and walk a few paces down the hall when my head turns towards an open doorway on my left and my breath fishhooks my lungs.
I hold very still.
I allow my eyes to adjust to what they think they’re seeing, and they are.
Flying circles around this dingy bedroom full of mangled clothing blanketing the floor is another bird, like a twister, over and over and over, round and round the perimeter of the room, full of song, lifting its voice and inviting me to pause and take stock of the message painted on the wall:
I love you more each day.
- the World
I take a step into the room. The bird panics and soars out above me, down the dark corridor to another part of the house — and I kneel in front of the note on the wall. I close my eyes. I know it’s true: yes, love, in its boundless power, will always combat the dark. That’s how it’s always been. That’s why we stay and fight against it. Because of love. As much as the people on this planet are failing, I’ve discovered a way to love them more and more each day. By reaching back in time, exploring these abandoned spaces, to understand the present and what might come in the future.
To pay my respects to the humanity that already lived. In this crumbling house, I open my eyes and allow the light to settle and breathe in love.
For my country.
For my continent.
For my planet. And for all the people, even the “bad” ones, who I’ve been lucky enough to witness as I adventure across the United States in search of these American ruins, which I will continue to do until a new type of sanctuary comes along.
Yes, we can and should panic like the house is on fire.
But after the panic settles, all that remains is the love — and the sheer guts it takes to face this world with that love, and only love, no matter how hard it might be sometimes.
Want to go further into your imagination? Close your eyes and click here to listen to the immersive audio podcast version of this story.