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Smoky Skies and Compassion

5 Sep 2018 8:58 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

by Tim Burnett

Dear Friends,

It really hit home for me this week. It was upsetting and difficult to work through, especially difficult to "breathe through" but I came out the other side feeling stronger and more grounded. More real. Determined to do what I can.

I'm talking about climate change. And I'm thinking about how we learn and how we resist. I'm thinking about mindfulness, and most of all I'm thinking about compassion.

First the back story

I've been trying to make it a priority to spend more time in the mountains this summer. Hiking, camping, just being there. I find it really helps me regain perspective, calm down, and sometimes a flower or a landscape just feeds me with pure delight. I've been especially intrigued by mountain streams. The wonderful sound. Watching the water. Mossy rocks. The solidity and fluidity of it. Amazing. And there all those mountain streams are, just waiting for us to visit. Wonderful.

Last Sunday I was getting ready for a 3-day backpack with my dear friend. It had been challenging to schedule, but we were finally going out. Somehow this trip felt extra important for de-stressing and reconnecting. Both the mountains and the good company of my friend were calling me loud and clear.

And then he's texting me: "are you sure? so smoky!" But I'm determined to go. I talk him into it. And off we go. I discovered in the process that you can check air quality online so easily. Googling "Bellingham air quality" gave back 51, just barely out of the green "good" zone. Fine!

Off we drove towards Darrington and our destination mountain off the Mountain Loop Highway.

And it just kept getting smokier and smokier. Arriving in Darrington we couldn’t even see the enormous Whitehorse Mountain just south of town. Just smoke. We still had cell service so it finally occurred to me to check "Darrington air quality" - 161 Unhealthy. Yikes.

We had momentum so on to the trailhead for at least a day hike - we're here for goodness sakes, this has been planned for months. Up to a small lake where we would have spent the night before ascending the mountain. And the smoke was hard. Mild headaches. Nausea. Eyes watering. There were a pair of lovely Barred Owls fishing and perching at the lake, something for our trouble. But I started to get out of my determined-to-do-this head and notice my actual mood more clearly. The tension in my gut and jaw. The upset and anger starting to arise. This is awful. Noticing my desire to put a positive spin on it anyway – and not getting much traction.

Accepting reality - painfully

Back to Bellingham we drove. Next morning I'm on the couch. The day wide open but I couldn't move. Depression set in. And despair. The very air is unhealthy. How could this be? I felt helpless and burdened.

It’s not like I’m ignorant of climate change. I've known the science of it since I studied Environmental Studies in the 1980s! And yet I'd somehow kept it arm's length. Seen it as a problem that affects other places. The Pacific Northwest will be fine, right? I don't know how people will keep living in Arizona with 115 degree days but we're okay. 

Until we're not.

It's so clear that the hotter drier conditions that are the new normal thanks to climate change - whatever you think about the politics and possible solutions, I think this bit is very clear: it's getting hotter in the West. Hotter in the winter means less snow pack, less spring melting and drier soil. Hotter every summer mean even drier soil and plants, which means more fires and more intense fires. Fires that can't be put out but only contained (if that) until they eventually run out of fuel or the weather changes in the Fall.  All those fires fill the entire West with unhealthy air. Frightening.

Eventually I roused for a solo overnight at lower elevations where it seemed a bit less bad but I'm sure it wasn't very healthy to be outside nonetheless. But I needed to sit by the Skagit River and think and write and feel. And what I started to feel I eventually recognized as compassion. 

Turning toward compassion

Compassion requires a willingness to turn towards suffering. The suffering of our changing climate had finally hit home. I had to have the experience of my long-awaited hike being scrubbed by smoke for it to land. Compassion requires a willingness to face that and try to help. Even in the face of overwhelm. Even when we don't know what to do. But face it with whatever strength and wisdom we can muster. And face with support and good company. We need each other. 

I still don't know what we'll do. It still feels much bigger than me. Much much bigger. And with so many layers to it. But we're in it together, that helps. We humans contributed to this mess so it's got to be that we humans can help fix it. But only if we show up. Only if we're present to it. Only if we feel it, and that's not easy.

I do think our practices of mindfulness and compassion help. A lot. They help us to face huge difficulties like this. I hope that as the smoke finally eases, we don't just forget about it ("Whew, that's done, thank goodness we can breathe again!"). But that we find ways, big or small, to turn towards our big problems. And do that with feeling. And do that together. Being with our fear, with our despair, and feeling through that somehow - I don't really know how it works - that we are also strong and capable and wise. Let's find a way.

Tim Burnett

Addendum: I may have been assuming a bigger link between climate change and forest fires. Cliff Mass reminds us that a major cause of the increase in forest fires is our history of fire suppression which matches what I learned when I did my degrees in biology and environmental studies. Not to say that climate change isn't a very serious problem and a part of the problem with our wildfires but it might not be the main cause in this case.

Wendell Berry - The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

 and I wake in the night at the least sound

 in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

 I go and lie down where the wood drake

 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

 I come into the peace of wild things

 who do not tax their lives with forethought

 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

 And I feel above me the day-blind stars

 waiting with their light. For a time

 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


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