Good Air

Wildfire smoke turns the sky orange over Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, CA. (Photo via Sterling Lanier)

Today, for the first time in almost a month, the air quality meter I have become accustomed to checking every morning (and afternoon, and evening), read ‘Good’. Good! It was an almost unbelievable surprise, after weeks and weeks of ‘Unhealthy’, or the slightly less toxic ‘Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups’, and ‘Moderate’ at best. I couldn’t open my shutters–and my window–fast enough. Once before, during the Tubbs fire that burned through Santa Rosa, two hours north of here, we had a weeklong stretch where we couldn’t open any windows, but this time it has been so much worse. For three weeks, I’ve been staring out my closed window each morning like an animal in a zoo, my room a stale chamber of held breath, looking out at a world that I can’t reach. But now, at last, a reprieve.

It’s amazing what a little non-toxic air can do for your spirits. I want to hop and prance around my yard like the little cottontails who hide under our ceanothus bushes, but like those cottontails, I feel a sense of foreboding even in my excitement. There’s a part of me that’s on constant alert now, no matter how blue the sky looks, a part of me that thinks it would probably be safer to sit perfectly still in the shadow of a curved branch, not moving a whisker until I know for sure that the coast is clear. The human narrative says that I should seize the day, and take this as a chance to reflect, to be grateful for simple, elemental things like sky and air. But the more ancient part of my being, the part that is solely concerned with keeping me from dying, knows that when a single glimpse of clear sky seems like a miracle, you’re probably not out of the woods yet.

So, it’s a mix of emotions today, Good Air Day. Thankfulness, a sense of marvel, of wonder and levity. But also, weariness, heartbreak for all that has been lost and will be lost, and the 1,000-pound mental weight of knowing that we are not going to overcome a raging wildfire season to return to normal, a raging wildfire season is now normal. A few years ago I joked that Autumn should be renamed to Fire Time, All The Time, but today my shoulders drop as I realize how utterly appropriate and un-funny that really is. In California, and much of the West, it really is fire time, all the time–anytime it’s not actively raining, a fire could begin in some corner of our critically dry terrain. Every landscape is now a fire-prone landscape, even the fog-wreathed redwood coast. Last month my family embarked on a short trip to Timber Cove, a rocky oceanside hideaway in Sonoma County, in desperate need for a temporary escape from the monotony of COVID isolation. Shortly after we arrived at our rental, the landlord informed us that the stretch of coastline we had driven up only hours before was now on fire. The fire burned almost all the way down to the beach. The beach! My brain has not caught up to the reality of wildfires that burn straight down to the ocean. I pictured myself swimming out into the Pacific for safety, looking back at the land, helpless, adrift. I thought of all the animals and other creatures around the globe whose brains and instincts can’t keep up either, who are struggling to stay alive for one more generation, let alone another one after that, as they try to figure out how to manage the breakneck pace of disaster. Then today, as I looked up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture wobbling in wide circles above me, black feathered fingers splayed, I sensed that the vulture was as happy to see the ground from up high as I was to see the heights from down on the ground. I sent up a mental hello. Hello, hello, nice day, isn’t it? Let’s just hope it lasts.

Good Stuff: Mostly Bears Edition

First, a note: Weekly Roundup is now called Good Stuff. Okay? Let’s get to it! Exclamation points!!!

I found some fun, random stuff to share with you lovely folks this week! Most of it is about bears, because bears are top-notch summer role models. One of my drafts for this week’s post about summer weirdness involved a whole tangent about how I’d rather be a bear than a human lady in July and August, and even though that bit got (rightfully) cut, I stand by my wish. I have twice seen a real live bear with my own eyes in the summertime: one bear was ambling along beside a sparkling high Sierra creek, sniffing at wildflowers without a care in the world, and the other bear was eating part of a pretty decent-looking pizza from an unsecured dumpster. Not too shabby!

Brown bear, don’t care. (Photo via Elizabeth Meyers)

The grizzly bear live cam at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is going OFF right now, y’all. This is must-see TV Internet. Grizzlies filling their bellies like it’s their job (it basically is), salmon frantically leaping like their lives depend on it (they do), even a casual bald eagle or two—it’s all there. It’s a live-action nature show with no commercials, and a fine, fine virtual escape from…you know, everything. Don’t forget to check out the secondary cams too.

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Goodbye To All That

Grow, rest, repeat. (Photo: Dakota Roos)

I’m going to be honest with you friends– getting a blog post out in late July has been absolute torture for me. Not because I don’t like writing this blog, but because every summer I fall prey to a phenomenon I can only describe as “getting weird in the brain”.

Weird in the brain is hard to explain, but basically what happens is that my ability to focus or adhere to any kind of set schedule totally evaporates by mid July. What’s funny is that if I don’t write myself any kind of to-do list, oftentimes I’ll find myself busily doing all sorts of cool stuff, so clearly, it’s not that my summer brain hates activity. What it hates is being told what to do. If I ask it to go left, it takes off to the right. If I try to do something I enjoy, it tells me I don’t actually enjoy that thing anymore after all. There’s no distinct rhyme or reason to it, but it seems to impact my ability to do creative work most of all. I’ve chatted with other creatives about this, and it seems to be a fairly common thing, which is comforting. Still, we all handle it differently.

I get really down on myself when my brain gets summer-weird, telling myself all kinds of mean stuff about how I’m not measuring up, not doing the things I should/would/could be doing if I were a different, more focused person—that I’m failing at that most beloved American pastime, being productive. I can go for weeks in the summer, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, wracked with anxiety that I’m not doing life right, I’m not succeeding as a creative person. I’m not exaggerating. It is truly exhausting, not to mention a bad way to nurture the creative self. This is supposed to be fun, right?

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Weekly Roundup: Diversity Outdoors Edition

Photo: Justin Dream

What’s this? A weekly roundup on a Wednesday? Yes, friends. Sometimes, when the world hands you centuries of systemic racism, schedules get thrown to the wind. I did some reading and researching after I wrote last week’s post about the invisibility of POC in mainstream nature writing and the outdoors, and I found all kinds of good stuff to share with you. Follow these links, and you will find new understanding, helpful resources, and dare I say it, hope for a better future. Click and share liberally.

This Outside piece by Latria Graham, “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us.” is required reading for anyone who loves spending time in nature, or who has ever seen, interacted with, or even heard of the concept of nature. Everyone should read it, is what I’m saying. Born and raised in the South, Graham writes beautifully about her family’s farm and her own love of the outdoors, while providing powerful insight into how lack of access and representation create and perpetuate the idea that Black people just aren’t that into nature–the “no reason” I alluded to in my own piece. Graham’s article was originally published back in 2018, and it feels even more relevant now.

Continue reading “Weekly Roundup: Diversity Outdoors Edition”

No Reason

Photo: Nikhila Kulkarni

Last week, I felt my country crack open. Not along a new fault line, along an old one– the oldest one of all, in fact. And now, as we have lived through days and days of tremors, I am tired. I. Am. Tired. Not from this most recent version of these events, but from the reverberations of institutional racism and ignorance that have echoed through my body my entire life. 

Today I am remembering the time I drove through Yosemite with a friend, and remarked on how there wasn’t a single person of color in any of the crowds that stood marveling at the granite expanse of Olmstead Point, the glacial waters of Tenaya Lake, the broad refuge of Tuolumne Meadows. “Does that matter?”, she asked, “I mean, we’re just out in nature. Just because people aren’t here doesn’t mean it’s for a reason.” No reason. No lack of access. No absence of outreach, no failure of inclusion. No subtle suggestion that white people value nature more than people of color do, that they deserve it more, that they are it’s rightful protectors. No no, nothing like that. A coincidence!

This, I have come to understand, is what many white people think of the inequalities that are present in our outdoor spaces, if they notice them at all. They see no source, no history, no pattern–no reason. Maybe Black people just don’t like hiking–no reason! Maybe Mexican-Americans just couldn’t make it to the lake today–no reason! Maybe one hundred percent of the great American nature writers are white just because–no reason!

Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Diné/Navajo), aka Monument Valley (Photo: Cayetano Gil)

I remember my old boyfriend, who balked when I said I didn’t like how Edward Abbey spoke about Navajo people in his books–as though they were mute, ignorant lumps, pushing sheep around blindly across the desert, an aberration in a majestic Southwestern landscape. “Maybe that’s just how people thought back then,” he replied, irritated by another example of me ‘always looking for the negative’. And that’s where his examination ended, with how those people thought back then. No reason to follow their thoughts to their actions, no reason to trace those beliefs to the official government policies that dehumanized, removed, or aimed to outright exterminate those faceless sheepherders. No reason to think twice about a white writer implying that the very people who had inhabited his beloved Southwest since time immemorial were undeserving of the land, unable to properly utilize or “appreciate” it, the way white people could. No reason to let obvious racism get in the way of enjoying some great nature writing. No reason for us to argue. No reason, just me again, negative, noticing, always noticing, who knows why–no reason.