The Great Heat Death

Artist: Lonnie Holley

I had intended to write about heat. Heat death. Fascinating and terrible that extreme heat events – consistently the climate-related disaster with the highest rates of mortality – have, until recently, not captured the attention of media and minds. What is it about heat that wants to remain unseen? Or, what is it about ourselves that would prefer not to see it?

A heat wave is a magical phenomenon to observe. It seems to warp reality. Like magic given ephemeral body, it snakes upward, drifting on air currents of its own design and spreading out like lengths of shimmering gossamer breath. Humans have developed all kinds of poetic language to describe these phenomena. Mirage. Fata morgana. Haze. Shimmer. Twinkling. The Novaya Zemlya effect. Schlieren. Astronomical seeing. Heat bends light. Or, to be slightly more accurate, when air temperature varies, it can refract light, distorting the image and producing an optical effect for the viewer.

Artist: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

Brownian Motion. The term we’ve assigned to the hypnotic patterns of gasses moving. Particles randomly propelled. If there is anything holy, perhaps it is this movement. Achingly delicate, yet unstoppable, dependable and unpredictable. A reminder that everything is in motion. Everything is breath. Gas exchange provides the parameters for life on this planet. 

Heat disrupts this breath exchange. It seduces patterns of gas to follow its searing shape and form, scorching and coaxing ever closer to a different kind of chemical transformation. Heat is a duality. It holds proximity to the comfort of warmth, ancestral survival, and the glory of being held and seen by another. It is also a precursor to terrifying destruction, the cruelest pain, and air that chokes from the inside out. A tool. A torture. A bastion. Heat is life.

The Stellar Cycle

In stellar terms, it is energy and consumption, both. Of all the extremes of the temperature spectrum, what an incredible thing that we exist in the narrow window that supports carbon-based life. Where exotherms, endotherms, and yes even kleptotherms can thrive in the same biome. And what does it mean for us to so thoroughly transform the conditions of the biosphere that we are effectively wrenching shut that window? And what will it come to mean for the children of our children? Will they fear our sun? Will warmth be detestable to them – a physical stench? How far underground will they live? And who among them will get to live there?

Artist: Henry Darger

We talk about the heat death of the universe. And I wonder. What will be the intimate, small heat death of my own universe? And can I claim to have such a thing – internal and personal and strange? What does it mean to believe that we are witnessing the end? And – if I believe this – am I doomed to despair? The halls of hope and action locked shut on me? I feel no despair, but also I feel no hope. A strange liminality. Much like that window, maybe. 

Creatures that are most active at dawn and dusk are called crepuscular. They make a home in the borderless phases of light where the sky slides across itself. Morning. Evening. Twilight. To discuss aquatic creatures in their three-dimensional realm, we slice the ocean into layers. Zones. Very little light from our sun travels to the ocean’s twilight zone. The creatures there have, on occasion, evolved to create their own light. Tiny glowing orbs nestled in delicate bodies. Light for great purpose. Light for light’s sake. In anthropology, a liminality is tied to ritual. Growth and change are rites of passage, and a crucial feature of earning passage is learning how to navigate the unknown, the unnavigable. It is the state between pre and post. Between was and will be. It is. We are. Maybe the liminal is the present. Maybe to seek to give liminal a definition – a designation – is to miss the point entirely. Likely there is no point.

Artist: Aubrey Beardsley

I set out to write about heat and like all things human I struggle not to reflect myself instead. See myself in the heat. A familiar stranger drifting behind a cooing fog. Am I my own ship? My own Morgan? Rising up, all ceremony. Bowed beneath boughs to hand myself a watery blade. Knowing at some point, that point will stab my child not yet born. Preparing to cradle a dying fruit while hoping some new seed will take. Energy and effort, expended and essential, and all of it ending – despite our best efforts – in cold.

I wish I could cradle the world. I wish I could offer myself to the trees for forgiveness. But the heat death is long. And energy is ferocious. Life is a fearsome creature and full of awe. And worthy of doing battle and ministry for. Cada cabeza es un mundo. There is splendor in and around our heads. Nocturnal creatures have, at the back of their eyes, a layer of tissue called the tapetum lucidum. The shining tapestry. At night, the filigreed fibers of the iris contract, opening wide the pupil and allowing particles of light to flood inside the ocular sphere. As the light drifts across this silky space, the tapetum lucidum catches it like a mirror, reflecting it back into the great cathedral of the inner eye. In this way, nocturnal animals double the light available to them. Something as simple, as elegant, as a reflective surface allows sight in dark places. Tucked away. Protected. Honored. Waiting.

Artist: Antigoni Kavvatha

I set out to write about heat. I have been working closely in this lab process with Jenna and Nicole. Grappling together with the strangeness of finding camaraderie over great distances, of imagining futures and mourning the likely ones. Developing a language for social workers to use in relation to climate grief and trauma. Developing a language for ourselves. I imagine myself as other people.

my nanu tells me

we used to go outside

not me



and when they were outside

the air was fresh

and good to breathe

grass on the ground was green

and people stepped on it

sat on it

squished it down

strangers walked next to each other

on sidewalks

and the sun didn’t burn them so fast

and the heat wasn’t dangerous

it was nice outside

nanu says 


the sidewalks were lined with trees sometimes

sometimes bushes

sometimes flowers

entire homes 

just sitting


lots of the homes had yards

a flat garden they didn’t share

to sit in or play in

nanu says

the homes had windows

to let the light in

and that was okay

because the light wasn’t angry yet

the windows opened

to let in cool breeze

like the ohtu circulator




it’s hard to picture

where wind came from

nanu says

the windows had screens

to keep the bugs out

hard shells like jewels

soft wings like paint

they were just


buzzing humming

nanu says when she was growing up

the bugs started dying


and no one noticed

and no one cared

i don’t understand

if they saw the bugs dying

if they felt the heat coming

why didn’t they do something

Artist: Jade

Written by Lillian Beaudoin, MSW

Lillian holds a Master’s degree in social work from California State University, Northridge, where her research centered around climate justice and disaster preparedness at the national level. She is fascinated by the intersection of language and action, and has spent over a decade working in advocacy and art spaces in Los Angeles. Her work with the lab is an ongoing exploration of communication, climate response, digital spaces and ecogrief. You can follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or the grassroots initiative Cool Down LA.