After the United Nations produced its we’re all going to die climate report in March, Al Franken looked into the camera. “A shoutout to my baby boomers!” he said. “Feels like we got the last chopper out of Saigon.”
That’s the stuff, Al. Let’s race to the end, balls to the wall. All of my strenuous moping over the environment hasn’t done a lick of good, so I went from mope to dope. After a lifetime feasting on the world’s resources, I get to leave without paying the check. How great is that?
Man, I thought I was on that chopper. But this week, I’m slipping off the skids.
I put my N95 back on. It’s been only three weeks, since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the Covid emergency officially over, that I’d gone back to walking around bare-faced. (A friend called me an “upholder” for masking so long. I think she meant “ninny.”)
This time, though, the mask is not for when I’m indoors with strangers but outdoors in my garden. It’s causing me massive distress because it inverts my deeply held “outdoors good, indoors bad” belief system. When the full smoky catastrophe of the Canadian fires dawned on me, the first thing I worried about – before the babies with asthma, the elders with COPD, or the laborers panting under a lurid orange sun – is when I’d be able to go hiking and kayaking again. Like the child I never had, I worry first about my fun.
Still clinging to those chopper skids! I refresh the air quality map and the fire location map, desperate for any clue about when the fires will ease, when the storm offshore will stop pushing noxious gases back into our lungs. I usually check the weather page for openings for outdoor adventures, but now I’m looking for rain, a drenching rain that will restore our spring greens, our blue skies, and, please, please, please, our peace of mind.
In this column I’ve written about other dramatic events changing the environment, like the hurricanes and superstorms that have altered or even demolished some of our favorite trails. I wrote about the creepy experience of watching invasive snakehead fish jump over the falls in the Neversink Gorge, propelling themselves high enough, after many tries, to continue their sinister journey. And, yes, I even wrote about a fire, in the Shawangunks, that was so fierce that even its famously fire-loving pines failed to rejuvenate on their own.
Other trailside changes have happened more gradually. I’ve seen invasive plants like stinging nettles replace trout lilies and other natives along the lower slopes of some mountains in the Catskills. I’ve seen stands of hemlocks that I knew as kingly giants bleached of life by a fearsome parasite. I’ve hiked and picnicked on local ridges wearing only summer clothes in weirdly warm January weather.
But this. This feels different.
The scale is, literally, breathtaking. It feels like the pandemic is back, this curse afflicting the lungs of millions, but without the blessed relief of hiking, softball or outdoor parties.
Just as the smoke started to descend this week, I was at a nursery in Shohola filled with cheerful gardeners picking up flats of flowers. It was prime planting time. No one remotely suspected we’d be planting in air as bad as New Delhi on a high ozone day. We were mugged in broad daylight, a suffocating hood thrown over our heads, robbed of the simple joys of spring. Two days later, my petunias are still on the kitchen counter. My lettuce looks fabulous, but picking it while gagging through a mask feels like an end-times activity rather than its usual rustic pleasure.
It’s at about this point in a column about environmental Armageddon that a writer will urge prescriptions for change, and argue it’s not too late for us all to join together to reduce the greenhouse gases that produce heat domes, superstorms, polar vortexes, atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones. But I’m not in the mood. Right now, I’m reading about how the fires may continue through the summer, ebbing and flowing according to their own logic, and beyond our control. Part of me is a spoiled brat frustrated that I can’t go out to play, but a much bigger part will be grateful just to stay here, even smothered in my home, rather than have to run from a fire in my own woods.
If this nightmare scenario is brief, as I pray it is, I know that I won’t soon recover. Forty plus years of fretting about the environment didn’t really prepare me for I feel today. I feel changed. Do you?