I’ve been trying really hard not to write about how difficult this summer has been, but I can’t seem to find a way around it. I want to be cheerful, really I do. I’m so tired of being filled with fury and grief.
I thought I knew something about grief, having lost both brothers, one as a child, the other as an adult. I thought I knew about grieving after our father left the country when I was in my twenties, after our mother chose the bottle over us time and time again. I thought I knew how to do this. I thought I had strategies. Strategies that would apply in some useful way to the climate disaster, that I’d be able to use my experience as a metaphor somehow, salvage some nugget of solace.
But I’ve got nothing. I’ve been deep in the weeds of depression and rage for weeks now. My beautiful home has turned into an apocalyptic hellscape and I don’t know how to handle it.
We’ve been socked in under opaque, smoky skies since early June. Some days you can taste the burning forests, other days it’s just this scrim that’s descended over everything. The light’s all weird. It’s glittery. Temperatures are soaring into the high nineties, low 100s, day after day after day. Nights aren’t cooling down. The authorities have closed afternoon and evening fishing across the state, and Yellowstone park has banned fishing entirely. The roads are clogged with tourists, who are camping in all sorts of places that are not actual campsites, and the vibe is one of frantic excess. Driving down valley to walk the dog has become a terror. It’s a two lane highway, and the RVs, or SUVs pulling boat trailers, or farm equipment sometimes slow traffic, which backs up, and then impatient people try passing multiple vehicles. You’ll be driving along and suddenly there’s someone coming right at you, in your lane. I’ve nearly been driven into the ditch more than once.
I’ve been stuck indoors with the blinds drawn against the heat and my ears ring from the constant whir of fans and air conditioners. It’s too hot to do anything outside, including enjoy my garden. The trails are crowded (and Hank is not good with other dogs) so I’ve been walking him along my beloved irrigation ditch, the one I’ve written about before. It’s a good walk for him because he’s in and out of the ditch, which is clean water, and keeps my black dog with the heavy coat cool. There are swallows to chase, and gophers to try to dig up, and sometimes there are big raptors in the cottonwood tree — bald eagles, red tail hawks, osprey. The ditch has been leaking for a while, I think it’s the gophers, and I called all the authorities I could find to report it. But no one has fixed it, and so there’s this swampy area at the top of the cliff along the Yellowstone, just north of the official fishing access and campsite. Sometimes Hank likes a little wallow there, lowering his nether regions into the cool water, rubbing his face in the long wet grass.
Despite the death defying 10 minute drive, it’s been my one place this summer. The one place where I didn’t feel like I was under siege. The one place where I could walk in peace, where even though I can hardly see the mountain range three miles away through the smoke, at least there were birds, and the river, and the burbling ditch. I’ve been saying the Heart Sutra there in the mornings, trying to bring my frantic mind back into some kind of headspace that isn’t all anger and despair.
The other morning, I came down the hill and found the damage in that photo at the top of the post. Someone had unlatched the gate, which is posted “No Motorized Vehicles” and had driven down the two-track, and onto the flat area at the top of the cliff. Because the ditch has been leaking for weeks, it’s swampy, and they clearly got stuck, and tore it all up getting themselves out.
I was heartsick.
I am heartsick.
I go down there in the mornings now and there’s this scar on the land. And it’s not going to go away. Despite the leaky ditch, this is high desert. The tracks from whoever came this spring to clear debris out before they turned the water on, they’re still there. The grasses never bounced back. And now this.
I’ve known climate catastrophe was bearing down on us for as long as I can remember. I moved here in large part because the Bay Area seemed utterly unsustainable. There were too many houses, too many people. There were earthquakes and fires and rolling electrical blackouts even then, 20 years ago when I left. I came to Livingston because there were writers and artists here, because houses were still very cheap, and because with the Yellowstone river and these three mountain ranges, it seemed like someplace the water would hold out.
And now houses are expensive, an entire generation of writers have died, and our snowpack and summer water supplies are dangerously low. The great forests of the western United States are on fire. We’re breathing them in all day long.
I’m trying to roll all this ruin into my Heart Sutra practice. I’m not really a Buddhist but I’ve had a tiny practice for decades, largely based around Gary Snyder’s translation of the Heart Sutra. He gave it to us during the one astonishing class I took from him in grad school, a class on Zen and classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. In my toughest moments, I’ve turned to the Heart Sutra. Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are all likewise like this. I’ve been standing at the diversion gate all summer, looking down the ditch toward the mountains I can hardly see through the smoke, trying to remind myself that, as Snyder once said to Terry Gross in an interview, when she asked him why there were poems about his truck in a book about nature: “It’s all just phenomena Terry.” The ditch and the ruts and the mountain and the Sandhill cranes and the river are all just phenomena. We like some of them better than others, but that’s sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness.
As we hurl into this era of climate catastrophe, I’m trying to accept the ruin. The careless, or perhaps deliberate ruin of those ruts. The ruin of our smoky skies. The ruin of a garden I can hardly keep wet enough to grow anything this summer. The ruin of people so bamboozled by propaganda and greed and fear that they won’t wear a mask in a pandemic, won’t get vaccinated to help stop it, won’t stop coming to our town as tourists and spreading it.
Middle age is a funny space. You were humming along thinking you’re building a life and then you turn around one day and it seems to be built. For better or worse. This is your life now and it’s kind of too late to go start all over. There are relationships and responsibilities and you kind of just are what you are. And then the world changes around you. Your town full of artists becomes a town full of rich people. Your clear skies and fifty mile view of the valley surrounded by mountains fills with opaque smoke and your mountains are now just shapes.
And so you look for small things to cling to.
The wizened black cat who returned after a year. The red tailed hawk scrying into the air over your dog walk. A chance encounter with an old friend, the discussion circling around as it does these days to “where would we go?” We’ve had Christmas together for nearly 20 years. Where would we go? Who would know us like that?
This too is phenomena. These tiny moments. Sometimes they’re enough. Sometimes we just have to have faith that they’re enough.