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.

Continue reading “Good Stuff: Mostly Bears Edition”

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. 

Weekly Roundup: Bird Edition

via Boston Public Library/Unsplash

Hi guys! Happy Friday! For your weekend enjoyment, here’s a quick list of links related to this week’s topic: BIRDS, BIRDS, BIRDS. Click, read, listen, and share.

Merlin, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird identification app, is my favorite app of all time. Not just my favorite nature app, mind you, my favorite app period. It’s unbelievably easy to use, gratifying, and super fun (especially the birdsong recordings). Plus, when you successfully ID a bird, that info is shared with the lab, which helps them track and better understand bird populations around the globe. Important stuff, people!

While you’re at it, check out some of the Cornell Lab’s live bird cams, and see how the other half lives (if the other half is birds). I watched a Bermuda petrel chick sleep for five minutes this morning and my serenity levels went through the roof. Staring at another person for five straight minutes while they sleep might be kind of creepy, but with birds it’s totally encouraged.

Continue reading “Weekly Roundup: Bird Edition”

All Together Now

Lately when I wake up, I can hear birds outside my window. And not just one or two birds, but a whole song-shower that rings through the entire neighborhood. I still hear the usual leaf blowers too (can you really say you live in the suburbs if you don’t wake up to a leaf blower?), but the rattle and roar of cars is mostly missing.

An America Robin perches on a brach
Oh, were you not up yet? (Robert Thiemann/Unsplash)

When my family first moved to this area about 20 years ago, it was remarkably quiet–a little too quiet, as far as College Era me was concerned. I was put off by the eerie void of human sounds, with only the wind, leaves, and birds announcing themselves. But now, the empty rolling hills that used to surround us have been developed, covered with waves of houses, divided by roadways that are predictably packed. At some point during the last year, I stood in our backyard and just listened to the traffic, feeling small, and helpless, and sad. As I listened, it hit me that the quiet I had once found creepy was well and truly gone forever—unless there’s some kind of giant catastrophe or something, I thought.


Continue reading “All Together Now”

Greetings From Quarantine

Well! When I set out to start a new blog, “global pandemic” was not the atmosphere I was hoping for on launch day, but I certainly can’t complain about a lack of material for writing. Also, although it’s definitely no fun being stuck in quarantine, or lockdown, or self-isolation, or whatever the particular brand of required immobility is called where you live, there is something weirdly uplifting in knowing that at this moment, most of us on earth are muddling through together, all sharing some version of a similar experience. I’m not going to get too excited about it, obviously, but it is a kind of solace. Unity in tragedy, and all that.

Anyway, how are things where you are? Today is a bright, sunny spring day here in the Bay Area, probably the kind of day I should be celebrating. Instead I’m wishing it was dark and rainy, the kind of day where you don’t feel bad for wanting to do nothing but sit in bed and watch the same episodes of Britain’s Best Home Cook with Mary Berry that you’ve already watched at least eight times (it’s no Bakeoff, but it’s pretty good when you give it a chance), and maybe stare at the cover of a book that you may or may not actually pick up and read in a little while. Let’s be honest, spring is a little bit of a nightmare, isn’t it? I mean yes, it’s wonderful to see life zipping back into action after the cold constriction of winter, and the burst of flowers and new leaves is great, amazing, incredible, but it is a lot of pressure. “Spring forward” is way too cute a phrase for a shift that feels like having the covers yanked off me in the middle of a deep sleep, by someone yelling that there’s a huge breakfast waiting for me downstairs–and could I please get my butt to the table now, this instant? Now, I love a big breakfast, almost more than anything, but give me a minute to adjust and wake up before I have to put my napkin on my lap. Let me rub my eyes for a few more minutes, Nature, dammit! And don’t even get me started on allergies.

Right now, though… right now it’s a little different. The comfort of all this sunshine and birdsong and fluffy white cloud-ness is real, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Sure, I’m still wishing it would rain (to be fair, in California this is a constant, unending wish), but there’s a big part of me living in a continual state of weepy gratitude for anything pleasant, refreshing, alive. Maybe I randomly started crying yesterday when I saw new leaves on the ornamental pear tree next to my neighbor’s driveway, I don’t know. As far as nightmares go, the irritating delights of spring are a pretty easy choice over the stupefying reality of coronavirus. Oh, I can potentially die just from going outside and standing too close to another human person? Yeah, that puts things in perspective.

It sounds like a cliché, but I am humbled by the helplessness I feel in the face of forces so much bigger and more complex than me, both negative and positive. There is much we can do as humans to mitigate the toll of this virus, yes, but the fact is we will continue to be visited by pain and suffering for quite a while longer, despite our best efforts. But at the same time, the big wheel of the year keeps turning, and nature is in renewal and abundance mode despite our current state of human tragedy—life goes on, life enthusiastically surges forward with shockingly little effort, even after the deepest, most frigid pause. Those damn flowers just keep showing up, the ducks won’t stop quacking, and wide-eyed cottontails insist on chasing each other around like they think Walt Disney himself is taking notes.

There’s so much to unpack, so much to absorb and digest, most of it happening much too quickly to be understood in this moment. So, today I’m going to go ahead and watch vast quantities of Mary Berry, not because it’s a gray and rainy day like I wish it was, but because the world is upside down and locked behind a heavy door. And at the same time, I’ll give thanks for the comfortingly familiar and plainly beautiful springtime annoyances that I am fortunate enough to endure, and hope that wherever you are, whoever you are, you too have a curving branch of floaty pink blossoms or an absurdly cute little bird to roll your eyes at. And if you happen to shed a grateful, confused, overwhelmed tear while doing so, I am right there with you.