Wildfire season is upon us and it’s terrifying this year. In recent weeks, dozens of wildfires have ravaged West Coast states. Washington lost 626,982 acres in five days last week. Oregon and California have stopped counting, or are too busy trying to contain fires with too few people to stop and estimate acreage, but millions of acres have burned and millions are still actively burning. Lives lost, homes and communities destroyed, heartbreaking stories of terrified wildlife trying desperately to escape the flames. Though we are comparatively well off here, today’s wind brings an acrid mix of heavy fog and smoke; smog, to be precise. As a child, I remember learning that word and being told that kids in Los Angeles weren’t allowed to play outside because the air quality was terrible. I’d look up at the blue New England sky and wish I could send clean air to children shut indoors on a pretty summer day. I still wish that.
Last Tuesday, I woke up at 4:15 am coughing and choking. As I rushed around shutting all the windows, my phone pinged with a notification that the air quality was at “dangerous” levels, well over 300. That same morning a friend was woken up by his smoke alarm going off. Since then several friends have had smoke alarms go off when they were changing air filters, and this is in the less-affected areas. I’ve been hearing from friends all over Washington and Oregon and California that they’re experiencing far scarier air quality levels, with counts in the 5-6-7-800s and even one over 1,000. That’s past the purple zone into unfathomable murk.
Visibility In Yards
This morning air quality is Very Unhealthy and the smog is so thick that my phone is measuring visibility in yards (about 225) instead of the usual miles. Like a stubborn fool, I went outside for a few minutes to pick up the mail and take bread and tomatoes to a few neighbors. Now I’m back home coughing and sneezing. Sore throat, stuffed up nose, blocked ears all remind me that smoke is toxic. This smoke is not just the death’s breath of forest and animals; it’s bearing the bones of houses and businesses, laden with far worse toxins than mere wood and flesh. I went out again to water my plants, but this time I wore two masks, a slightly battered N95 and a triple cloth one. It’s hard to breathe through that much filtration and all I could think was, if I can’t breathe here, how are people managing in a 100+ degree heat wave with triple the bad air quality? It feels important to water the wind battered plants, to rinse some of the sticky ash off the foliage and help them breathe better. For a few days, we didn’t see or hear any birds or bees at all. Today the birds are back, hopping around the garden, splashing in the water bowls and buckets, nuzzling nectar from the hardy fuchsias. Some fly through the spray when I hose down the taller plants, appreciating the refreshing clean water.
I keep wondering what it will take to move the dial on public opinion about climate change, to shift us from apathy to action. It’s daunting to realize that the current regime is still assuring people that climate change is a liberal hoax designed to make people feel bad. Our collective unwillingness to feel bad is a huge part of how our beloved country got into the horrendous state it’s in right now. Until we learn to grieve, to accept the weight and burden of sorrow, to honor those inconvenient truths we all know about, little will change. I’ve been wondering lately if the East Coast were burning up, would politicians be more interested in mitigating climate change? Would ordinary people be willing to see what needs to be done and actually take some simple steps towards reducing our huge and harmful carbon footprint? It feels like climate change denial is a second pandemic, infecting people with willful blindness.
Seeing Our Way
It feels like willful blindness is also making racism a third pandemic. A few days ago sheriff departments in Oregon reported floods of calls about antifa terrorists setting fires in forests and on public land. Turns out that some folks were confused by signs posted by the Bureau of Land Management in such places, seeing BLM and thinking Black Lives Matter activists were infiltrating the wilderness. Seriously. To me, that implies that the relentless fear mongering America has experienced for decades now has brought us to a boil and the result is blindly spewing hatred.
Fear can blind any of us, especially when we are nudged off base over and over and over again. We may self correct a few times, but eventually it’s horribly easy to forget how to center back up. And funny how it’s so easy to see blindness in others but harder to spot our own areas where focus isn’t so sharp. I’ve been thinking about that lately as I find myself growing angrier and more judgmental; who’s interests are served by my blindness? Who prefers a family, neighborhood, community, state, country divided? Most importantly of all, what can I do to counter the sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle influences that foster and encourage disconnection? If we are still making those daily calls and writing letters and showing up for protests, those are all actions AGAINST blindness and brainwashing, and rightfully so. Yet part of me hungers for peace, for unity, for community, for a place in a more just and equitable society where I can put all my energy into being FOR things I care so deeply about.
See What We Are FOR
When I ask myself what else might be helpful and healing right now, what comes up immediately is nurturing community. Building bridges across gaping gaps. Forging connections with younger generations, fiery with passion and purpose. Each of us has our own skill set, our own trail to blaze, our own chosen work, and I find hope in all the richness of work that brings people together. Weirdly enough, the generous, compassionate response of our deliberately divided Western communities to these devastating fires gives me hope. Let’s not wait until the whole world is burning to be our best selves with each other. We can all see how well we can cooperate in adversity. Let’s work harder to see our way clear together, now and into the future. Onward, right?