On the evening of Labor Day I counted 45-plus cars and trucks on the edge of the ocean at Bay Avenue in Ocean Park, spilling people out to watch the glorious sunset. Locals and tourists alike turned their eyes westward. It was a balmy evening, the wind was unusually warm. I met friends I hadn’t seen for weeks, many of us in shorts and T-shirts. I’ve gotten blasé about having the ocean so close, and I generally avoid the beach crowds on a holiday weekend; but the reflected glow from my bayside home made me think this evening looked to be something spectacular.
The sunset did not disappoint. As one friend said, it seemed like the sun dipped lower, then decided to rise up again just to prolong the effect, as if the earth had stopped turning to give us a longer look as the blazing colors broadened and filled the sky. Dogs, kids on bikes, barefoot teenagers, young couples, older folks holding hands — we all stopped, mesmerized, to gaze at the glow, the fire in the sky.
It wasn’t until later that I thought, “We were saying goodbye to summer.” Then the other realization hit: the sunset was spectacular because we had the initial taste of what was just beginning to blow our way — smoke from the burning West Coast forests and towns. The beauty of our summer was turning beastly.
The new normal
The West is a dry place. It has always been, though many have tried to convince farmers and cattlemen otherwise. Crops and herds can only do well out west when the rains come in some kind of regular way; and when they don’t, croppers and farmers and homesteaders go bust. There may be wet seasons for a decade of so but then the drought conditions return and recently arriving folks who haven’t lived through the dry times, and are fooled, find that they too are subject to the whims of nature. Dusty land, broken down corrals, and abandoned shacks are left behind as settlers move on to other climes. (Yakima only became the ‘Fruit Bowl of the Nation’ once irrigation arrived.)
Our new century has shown us a more dramatic side to this story. Not only do dry times come, but fires follow; fires so big and out of control that just going bust would be a godsend. Fires kill.
Two years ago friends Kathy and Janet barely made it out of Paradise, California in time. They live on the upper end of the ridge in an area called Magalia. It was touch and go as they waited for Janet’s mother, who lives just a few blocks from them, to decide what to pack. Hair raising. They didn’t lose their homes, but most of the rest of Paradise was gone, burnt to a crisp, and 85 people were dead. When fires near Oroville, just 20 miles away, started up last week, their fears were reignited and they started packing the car, again.
Fortunately they dodged a bullet this second time around too. But this is just the beginning of fire season on the West Coast, which generally runs through October. As Gov. Jay Inslee said this past weekend, “These are climate fires not wildfires. The only moisture in eastern Washington was the tears of people who have lost their homes and mingling with the ashes. And now we have a blowtorch over states in the West, and we know that climate change is making fires start easier, spread faster and intensify.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom put it this way, “We’re in the midst of a climate crisis, experiencing weather conditions the likes of which we’ve never experienced in our lifetime. We are experiencing what so many people predicted decades and decades ago but all that is reality now.”
And here’s Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, commenting on Trump’s attributing these fires to poor forest management: “It’s just a big devastating lie. The Cascade snowpacks have gotten smaller. Our forests have gotten drier. Our ocean has gotten warmer and more acidic. These changes are the consequence of a warming planet.”
Climate change is now
There are virtually no scientists now who discount climate change or, more accurately, climate disruption; yet we have a regime in the White House that has overturned or weakened 100-plus environmental policies and, against all reason, disregards the now obvious effects of the earth’s climate disaster. (Perhaps we might recall certain words as all too prescient today, “You’re fired.” Yep.)
Do we need to list again ad nauseam the record-setting high temperatures in all parts of the world; the extreme fires in Australia, Greece, our beloved West Coast; the increased number and intensity of hurricanes and storms; the tidal surges and sea level rise; the melting of glaciers and ice shelves? These conditions have been called a “slow motion emergency” and are nothing humans have had to understand or deal with before. We’re used to responding to things right in front of our noses, crises that are events — like the downing of the Twin Towers — not ongoing processes that creep up on us over an extended period of time.
And we’ve never had a disaster that requires this kind of global cooperation. It’s so easy to point fingers at other countries and say, “I won’t change unless everyone changes” or “You change first.”
I thought that the combination of our fragile and divisive political situation overlaid by the pandemic and sheltering in place was bad enough. But now, in these last five days, not going outside unless absolutely necessary has put the capper on it: yellow skies and air quality in the “hazardous” range [“like smoking 25 cigarettes a day”] has really set me back on my heels. I suppose locusts are next. (Or the swarms of mosquitoes in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura that are literally sucking the blood out of and killing cows and horses in Louisiana.)
What will it take for us humans to make changes, to take responsibility for being guardians of the earth with all its precious beings and beauties? Every astronaut who’s looked back at earth from space has had the same reaction. As space traveler John Herrington says, “You get a much better view from the astronaut perspective of how precious our planet is — particularly when you see the thickness of the atmosphere — how small it is, it’s only 62 miles thick — that gives you so much more motivation to want to protect it.”
We need to bear up, attend to what’s happening, update our point of view, and begin corrective actions that extend out into time. We need to take a lesson from the German church of St. Buchard playing John Cage’s piece called Organ/ASAP (As Slow As Possible), which will take 639 years. The performance started on Sept. 5, 2001 on Cage’s 89th birthday, and last week many showed up at the church to experience the first chord change in seven years. (The next chord change happens on Feb. 5, 2022 — you can reserve a ticket to attend.) The piece won’t be finished until 2640!
As a note, Cage meant his piece to be an optimistic nod to the “existential challenges of modern life” and the hope, the chance that there will still be humans to complete the playing and hear the end of the composition in our uncertain future.
We won’t be around for the (we hope) jubilant conclusion of Cage’s composition, but at the very least we can vote on Nov. 3 for political candidates who honestly acknowledge the problems in our world and are willing to work with us to immediately begin needed changes. Let’s ensure that Organ/ASAP can be completed.