The following is part of a series of reflections CEC’s CEO Sigrid Wright occasionally sends our leadership team about the current state of the world, including some curated poems.
I want to talk about our future. But first, a story.
Last Monday – Labor Day – I had just sat down to make a few notes before transitioning out of vacation mode. I was still damp from the Calapooia river and was sitting on the deck of our family home in Oregon, the last person remaining after our annual gathering, held mostly outdoors for obvious reasons. As I sat there, the trees began to sway chaotically from a strong, directionless wind. There was a faint whiff of smoke in the air. And then suddenly, more smoke. And then much much more. My journal notes end abruptly, with a trail of ink from an unfinished sentence.
The next set of scenes involve the rapid packing of tents, coolers, book bags. A bruised wall of purple orange smoke enveloping me like a tangible force. Me on the highway, in a ponytail and respirator, as towns in all directions scramble for an exit. A 3-day drive through Oregon and California that snaked through or past more than a dozen fires that had exploded when hit by hurricane-force winds. One that looked like an atom bomb, with a thundercloud structure that shot straight up. One that blew up on I-5 moments before I arrived, forcing me to make a long, wide day-long detour along the coast. Several that lurked unseen, darkening the mid-day sky to a reddish black, leading to road closures soon after I’d slipped past.
Anyone who lives in the West has known their share of hot days and wildfires. But what we have been through in the last month is worth noting, in part because the indices surpass our current measurement tools. Meteorologists are having to find new ways to color-map extreme heat – often using purple, brown and white when temperatures exceed the far edges of dark red. The Air Quality Index (AQI) struggles to convey threat levels, as parts of California and Oregon go so far beyond ‘hazardous’ that no one knows what it means for health. “If a particulate level of 301 is hazardous,” asked one media outlet, “what is 807?”
And yet as I navigate my way home to Santa Barbara, I’m aware that this is about more than data and satellite images.
The smoke imbuing my hair and clothes contains the particulates of redwood trees and oak savannas and native grasslands, as well as the creatures that lived in them. Perhaps I’m inhaling now the coyote that woke me in my tent in the small hours of the night. Or the doe and her two fawns that tiptoed into the blackberry-ringed field each morning. Or the bald eagle that flew over the river at treetop height as I swam backstroke – us mirroring each other, belly to belly.
Talking with many of you, I have a sense now of a collective emotional rupture, as we careen from crisis to crisis. Our frameworks are shifting; familiar points of reference sink into a haze and we literally cannot see what’s ahead. The starkness of our landscape is both reflecting our condition and shaping our reality. In the age of the anthropocene, writes David Farrier, we are conjuring ourselves as ghosts that will haunt the very deep future. We grapple with the knowledge that we have the power to blot out the sun.
Flocks of birds careen wildly through the air as I make my way south. I drive in silence – no music, no audiobook, only the sound of an occasional confused cricket chirping in the darkened noon. I want to give this my full attention, as part of what’s being called from us is to bear witness to the world around us. But there is something more. What is also being called from us, in the words of poet David Whyte, is to become an ancestor of our future happiness. Ah, deep breath there. The ancestor of our future happiness. That feels so much better than trending fears of the #Apocalypse, screenshots of eerie orange urban landscapes alongside scenes from Blade Runner.
So how do we channel our future ancestors, when our eyes are stinging from very real and present dangers? For me this means staying present, practicing extreme care, for myself and others. It means storytelling, peering through the haze for a new horizon, even if sometimes feeling our way along blindly. On one positive note, the public narrative has shifted this week, with more and more news outlets overtly naming these extreme heat events and increased wildfires as patterns attributed to the climate crisis.
Living life in a way that honors future ancestors also means grounding in the language and images of a healthy, natural world – of which we are a part. I imagine us, collectively absorbing the feeling of loss and the power of forces brought on by a changing climate, and then working to pull up systemic problems by their roots. Advocating for change at all levels of government, and sinking our time and energy into our local communities. I imagine us combining forces, like a great wind, like a rising tide, like a school of fish, like a flock of birds.
More of My Reflections.
- The Right to Breathe – And as George Floyd’s breath was crushed from him, any remaining pretext that the current social and economic code merits an obligation to play by its distorted rules was, in my mind, extinguished.
- Navigating by New Constellations – Lately, with our collective navigational instruments on the blink, dials spinning uselessly, I awake from sleep and find myself curled into the shape of a question mark, as if to reflect back all the unknowns of this time.
- The Long Emergency – The societal bonfires of the past decades – human health, economic, social, racial, political, environmental – have now unarguably grown into one large Complex Fire and are forcing us to seriously assess the sanity of returning to “normal.”
- Burn Your Maps – After months of pandemic-induced disruption at so many levels, I find it liberating to realize that the times we are in may just be asking us to let go of where we wish we were, set a new course, and burn our old maps for fuel.