Love in a Burning Time.

“All politics is local” the saying goes, and so to is environmental catastrophe. Looking back now this moment was inevitable. Decades ago I remember standing in the long light of the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. I had wandered this way in search of a relocation; five years in the constant damp of the Puget Sound called for a change, and the land of sun and high peaks seemed a good idea from afar. Standing in pines as the sun set through the trunks with peaks red and gold, the dust rising like smoke from the ground. No ferns or salal covered the bare earth, it was all sand and dust. Something was missing, as no sound of falling water broke the silence. The duff was half dry needles and explosive as wheat chaff in the heat. We made no fire that night and listened to the owls call late into the night. 

Back then, in 1992, global warming was debated, I had just read James Lovelock’s Gaia and small questions had started forming in my mind; why in Maine old timers spoke of Bays freezing that never froze, why Canadian Foresters were changing how they planted trees, moving trees northward as summers lengthened and permafrost retreated. Small things, but they itched at my mind and after a long trip I turned north and west and have lived along the Pacific coast ever since. 

Twenty seven years, two marriages, five kids, a dozen addresses, two houses later I was standing in my front yard burning the latest victims of global climate change; the Doug fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) on my property had suffered various indignities; poorly thinned, compacted roots by cattle, too close to the house but the killing blow is the heat; every year the summers get hotter and drier until this last one, which though still hot by historical standards at least had some rain. Sadly this reprieve was not enough, the trees browned, dropped limbs and split, leaning towards the house and threatening the health and well-being of my home and family. There was no other alternative but to cut.

It was sad to lose the trees. Much as they blocked the view, dropped limbs on the power line and shaded the valuable morning sun they also cooled the afternoons, filtered the breeze and added the aroma of fir that is the Northwest in my mind. Cutting them down meant replacing them with new trees, and as our climate at the south end of the WIllamette becomes more California-like California black oak, Quercus kelloggii, better withstands the heat and dry we find more and more. But before that can happen there is the matter of the slash left behind. There were issues with the logging and I was out of town when it happened and by the time the Dept of Forestry showed up the damage was done. At the end a thousand feet of fencing lay wrapped in piles of limbs and butts 14 feet tall around the property. It’s hard to see trees that had crowned our little hill laid low and so abused. But the alternative was waiting for one to crash into the house or burn. So I thumbed through tree catalogs while tending their funeral pyres. A week they burned, giant piles reduced to ash and twisted metal. The metal went off to recycle, the fence replacement worked out with the logging company that did the damage, the ash to be spread in the field. Plants to order for the spring. 

One could argue we live at the southern edge of the Doug fir biome, and it is true. Down here firs grow better higher up and on northern facing slopes, but rope always frays at the edges first. Doug firs used to grow to the river’s edge unless without restraint and the whole oak prairie was a product of native burning, but new firs won’t grow in the open but wither and die, and the oaks thrive. Fires grow bigger and hotter every year. I am not a conspiracy theory/ armageddon junkie; I think “end of time” preppers are crazy but 11,000 scientists seem to think something bad is coming and my own anecdotes back that. It’s sad to see the change but ominous for so many live places more likely to fray; Mumbai gets hotter every year, as does the part of the world home to a Billion people around Shanghai and South Vietnam could be subsumed before my daughter is old enough to collect Social Security. Even as I try and take care of my own I wonder what will happen to all those people trapped in the hot and desiccating parts of the world? Are their children any less worthy of air and water then my own? What will the anguish of a billion dying children leave on those that survive? The death of the last whales as the ocean acidifies and destroys their food? If there is grief in the pyres in my field is the preamble of the upcoming century to come. 

The birth of a time is never precise; the present Millennia really began for me when fires engulfed NY and seventy-five years of self-centered, short-sighted foreign policy came home to roost on the edge of Wall Street. Now two decades later fires burn year round in California and heat threatens the very power grid that defined the last century and I see my future when looking southward. The real tragedy is not that this is inevitable, but because it is even now at least partially preventable. But the same greed that brought us here will carry us forward, and as our world grows smaller change becomes harder. We argue about the obvious; are gay people people? Do trans people deserve to use the bathroom? Do women deserve control of their own bodies? Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic we seem determined to rise up until we slip into a dark and ominous future. 

Often I find myself awake in the dark and lonely hours of the night; however tired I am three AM finds me looking at the sky and questioning my own choices, should I have had children? What sort of future awaits them? As much as I love them, find meaning in parenting and generally identify as a parent before anything else was I selfish? Was my hope that things would get better misplaced? 

I used to make fun of people who prayed. I am not proud of this now but it is no less true. “Why do people pray?” I would ask, “they should go do something instead”. 

Now I know people pray when whatever they do will not be enough, when failure seems assured. So I pray for my children and the future that awaits them. I pray for my children and the children of India tomorrow, Syria today caught in the unintended consequences of our electoral college, Afghan girls who want to read and Rhoinga displaced in Bangladesh a country slowly drowning in a rising sea. My prayers are for the strength to keep planting trees.

Often I wish I could reach back and time and slap my smug twenty-something self, so enmeshed in that American fallacy that all things are solvable.  I used to live on a combination of hope, black coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes. My smoking days are done with an occasional guilty slip, there is cream in my coffee and hope has been replaced by love; maybe the end is inevitable but for love I will try and change it or at least delay it as long as possible. For love requires nothing less.


2 thoughts on “Love in a Burning Time.

    1. I did. It’s hard to believe, and I think of all the people who worked so hard to make it an institution and keep it going. I think college is going to have to change in many ways but this cannot be good change in my opinion. There will always be places for the traditionally successful but Marlboro believed in the outcast, the marginalized and overlooked. They gave me a chance and while I moved on that chance propelled me to where I have gotten in a lot of ways. I hope Emerson folds a little of that willingness to extend a hand to the outsider into itself.


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