A week ago last Friday I was awake at 3:30am and it was beautiful. I could hear the rush and churn of the Blackfoot River only about twenty or thirty feet from me. There was enough light from the stars, even with wisps of cloud in the upper atmosphere, that I could see around me in the darkness. The moon, obscured by branches, was shining through a stand of ponderosas off to my left; a thick mist was rising, gathering strength as I watched. The air was damp and wet, and though the edges of the tarp I was stretched out on were wet, the sleeping bag I was half-in, half-out of was warm and dry, as was the puffy blanket I pulled over me. I had to wipe the lenses of my glasses clear of condensation when I put them on to see better, and I remained awake for some time just reveling in the experience. "I love this," I thought to myself. "This is why I am here."
The "here" I refer to could mean a couple things. Existentially, here on Earth, to be riverside and free of a roof to block my view? Yes! Certainly! But most literally it was the second night of this workshop I led for the Freeflow Institute, my fourth or fifth thing I've done with them, and that riverside, existential waking-up-in-the-dark experience is a large part of why I do them. Why all of us, I'm sure, the people who participate, the people who bust their asses to make them happen, do it. To get closer to the grit and grime of the real world. To disconnect. I don't think it's even accurate to say I "led" the workshop. I mostly just facilitated discussions about all kinds of things writing-related; I doubt anyone left with any particular insights worth pursuing based on how I choose to approach things, but the conversations were good and the Blackfoot is ... well, the Blackfoot. It is a magical place.
Returning to the "real world" is the hard part. Because the real world often sucks, and it does right now. For example, the ocean being literally on fire in the Gulf of Mexico—that sucks. Or the governor of Montana declaring a statewide drought emergency even as a letter arrives from the jackasses who own the development I live in reminding all residents they are required to keep their lawns green and tidy and inspections will happen in August. Inspect THIS, Lahey. IT’S A FRIGGIN’ DROUGHT! I'd be more indignant if I thought they would actually do it, but this lawn care bullshit is really an example of that old saw about the band playing on as the Titanic or whatever sinks. Seeing sprinklers going non-stop all around me sucks, just so people can have green grass for all the local free range rabbits and dogs to shit on anyway.
The ramifications of these choices, this business as usual, is all around us. Looking out my window this morning, if I didn't know better I might think it was the kind of day I love. Cool, damp, with morning arriving slowly because of gray clouds and mist. But while it's not hot yet it will be, and those clouds and mist are smoke from burning forests located at various points around us. The air quality index is over 150, which is officially unhealthy. There's a fire raging just over the ridge at the top of Lolo Pass where I ventured a couple weeks ago to see the camas blooming. Last I checked the highway was closed. We have weeks, months, to go before this fire season can reasonably be over. Fall can't arrive soon enough, then it's just a case of wringing our hands for a few months over rain and snowpack in an effort to predict how awful next year is going to be.
Is this what we have to look forward to? Hot summers featuring unrelenting drought? Incessant, uncontrollable burning all across the landscape? Is it too late to turn it around? On my best days I think it's only probably too late. Every other day I figure we're doomed.
In a new piece for the Guardian on this desperate climate emergency, the magnificent Rebecca Solnit writes, "A turning point is often something you individually or collectively choose, when you find the status quo unacceptable, when you turn yourself and your goals around. George Floyd’s murder was a turning point for racial justice in the US. Those who have been paying attention, those with expertise or imagination, found their turning points for the climate crisis years and decades back. For some it was Hurricane Sandy or their own home burning down or the permafrost of the far north turning to mush or the IPCC report in 2018 saying we had a decade to do what the planet needs of us. Greta Thunberg had her turning point, and so did the indigenous women leading the Line 3 pipeline protests."
What about our turning point, collectively, as people? We make a habit of pointing our fingers at the people we elect and screech, "Do something!" But what are we doing, individually, collectively, with or without the assist of those out-of-touch bozos in government? Who among us can say we are truly making an effort? We won't solve the problem with more air conditioners no matter how energy efficient they are. Nor is there anywhere in the world we can flee to to get away from it.
I feel powerless on my own. I do my best to try not to feed the juggernaut but it is almost unavoidable unless one checks completely out. As attractive as entering into a mountain and closing the door behind me sounds, it's not my reality. But again, what if we act collectively? In small groups that become larger groups?
I'm thinking about all this because of that river trip. There were a dozen or so of us. Unless someone was in deep cover I'm pretty sure we all see ourselves as left-leaning, progressive individuals to varying degrees.
Like-minded people or not, there remained ample opportunity for disagreement but we hung together even while having some tough conversations. We allowed each other space. Listened. Worked together on tasks related to getting boats on and off the water, loaded and unloaded, camp set up and struck, all that. The second night a storm rolled in, temperatures plunged more than forty degrees and the clouds unleashed rain on us. We spread a big tarp thing over us and gathered beneath it and had a great time. Shared tents. Some of us took our chances in the open air and risked continued rain and were better for it. We overcame all these little adversities and ended the trip in high spirits. We made it work.
We have to make change work.
In an essay called "Where are the Intellectuals" that appears in the third anthology by offline publisher Analog Sea (and may be read in its entirety HERE), Argentine-Canadian writer Alberto Manguel writes, "Since at least the days of ancient Athens, to bear witness in troubled times is considered a citizen's duty, part of a civic responsibility in maintaining a more or less well-balanced society. To the laws and regulations of officialdom, the individual must constantly oppose questions: it is in the tension (or dialogue) between what is ordered from the throne and what is objected to from the street that a society must exist."
We've seen small groups of opposing forces—think "environmentalists" and people from the hook-and-bullet crowd, or ranchers—get together to hammer out policies for the good of everyone when facing a common threat. And there is no greater threat than what we are all facing right now with this changing climate. And it's not just the threat of the climate, it's the threat of people whose loyalties are to elements of our culture not inclined to consider the good of the many. We must bear witness to their actions, even as we begin to flex our own ability to make change. Is it too late? Probably. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. But it means actually doing stuff, not waiting for someone else to do it. We have to be calm, we have to be patient, but we have to be firm.
Think about it. The ocean was literally on fire. What are we going to do?