Standing in Wildfire
Yesterday, my husband Gary and I began a drive to Montana. We live there parts of the year. Just outside a really small community tucked into muscular folds of the Intermountain West. With water and trees, with big mammals like Elk, Moose and Bear – with Eagles and Hawks, and this past spring, with a mama hummingbird nested just outside our window.
It was early when we left Portland – the place we live for our city-based work. This time, we drove south to Salem, and took a left to wind through the Willamette National Forest and over the Santiam Pass into Bend. Happily, we had meetings there, and so a great opportunity to be in the beauty of that stretch of American wilderness.
At the top of the pass, we pulled off the road for a rest stop in the Whispering Falls campground. No evidence of falls, but we didn’t have time to search. Just minutes earlier, we’d been driving by the Detroit Lake Reservoirs and seen only drying mud flats. And, by the time we stopped in the campground, the air was heavy with smoke from one of the fires stomping across Oregon. Overhead, we heard the heavy wing beats of forest service helicopters – hauling giant buckets of whatever water could be found to do what could be done.
From there – the typically pristine summit of the Santiam Pass – up through eastern Washington, to now just over Fourth of July Pass in the pipestem of Idaho – the sky has been thick, opaque with a seamless cloak of smoke. Our eyes itch. Our lungs are tight. Reflexively, our bodies seek relief with frequent dry coughs. “What must it be like for the humans and animals living here?”one of us says. Then, almost as an echo, “What does this do to the ones fighting the fires?”
Two days ago, Gary and I were in my office. We were removing the last few personal items – things I’m keeping as, entirely too soon, I’ve chosen to leave the security of my career as an academic. Seeking, now; building a next professional offering. This vocational rendition a revival and assertion in keeping with my commitment to give these years of professional effort to their best possible effect in the world.
Late career change is recently not a new experience for people in their 50’s in America. Especially since the economic landslide that started in 2008. For workers as privileged as I am, the possibility with these circumstances is to re-imagine – to take on the hard financial hit and give a go at life outside the system. But for the vast majority of workers, the choices have been far more stark. Do it our way – (i.e., turn your back on all creativity, most dignity, and any ‘say.’) Or, more frequently – Sorry, we can’t pay you anymore. Maybe see you around. Good luck.
Way too immediately, and for an astonishingly wide swath of American workforce, the economic reality has been like this summer’s wildfire.
Wild fire is never good news to the particular trees and wildlife that die in its course. Paradoxically, from the macro view, we know from biologists, conservationists, and people who have lived with the land across a stretch of generations, that wildfire can actually be a boon. It can function to nourish and sustain ecosystems.
This, however – what we’re driving through right now – seems too big an exception. The inordinate number of fires raging in so many parts of our nation and with such intense frequency across the globe is, on balance, devastating.
I find the immediacy of this very real circumstance rubbing up against this moment in my life as a working person. The way it looks from here, my work now is to do what I can to support the best choices humans can make in the face of this damage.
These days, Gary and I are pursuing deep investigation into the broad and fundamental reach of ecology. The ecology of humans in relation with each other. The ecology of humans in relation within themselves. And the immediate impact of these two on the ecological health of the environment that sustains human life. The land and climate that, in the beginning and in the end, are life.
This is where my remaining contributions, both professional and personal, will be expressed. I can pursue this path because of my privilege. For me, it seems the only way my next years can be responsibly applied – to be of highest integrity – to be most real.
All around me – and, right now, quite literally – wildfire blazes. Intelligent and skilled emergency response is needed. It is of urgent focus. Of incalculable value.
I’m on the periphery breathing the smoke-laced air. It irritates my eyes – obscures my vision. But, I’m not in the direct burn.
Any of us not surrounded by flames have the responsibility of culling out what is most essential. For me, this assignment has been intensely close at hand as I’ve walked for the last time out the door of my office, leaving all the remaining contents there for reuse or recycling. Leaving thirty years of career to incineration in what I can finally discern as a healthy burn.
My place in ecology is in clearing the obstructions. Right here, close to the bone. Right here in a life spared from devastation in the fire storms of climate change, of economic change. And as a result of such fortune, a life that can surely contribute to repair in this weary and grieving world.
I take confidence from the roots, from the countless living branches of the indestructible force of human kindness. This is a force of which I am certain. It fights fire and it offers the clarity essential to recovery.