I had a blog post all ready to go, but it was full of blue sky and soft sea breezes, crashing waves and soaring pelicans. I just can’t bring myself to post it amidst this unsettling, almost apocalyptic scenario laid out before me, with so much suffering, loss, discomfort, and confusion all around.
A ferocious wind blew in from the east last week, bringing a cloud of smoke, acrid, dark, and unbreathable. Smoke covered the sky, turning everything yellow, making the sun look like a tiny distant star. The lights stay on all day, as if it’s winter – except when the power goes out.
The wind gave a big heave to one of our enormous top-heavy tomato plants, toppling it into the green beans in the next bed. Willow whips and curled, yellowing leaves from our neighbor’s giant old tree rained down over the entire yard.
It was only just days ago… wait, I don’t know actually… Along with losing my sense of time and smell, I don’t trust my judgement either. But some days ago I breathed in the scent of basil as I pinched off the top leaves, the greenness of fresh carrot tops, the beet’s sweet leaves, the raspberries drying on the vine, sweet as jam.
Now we can’t go outside; it’s a quarantine on top of a quarantine.
The powerful east winds stopped, but the rest of Oregon caught fire. Shifting winds scooped smoke up along the Willamette Valley from the south, and the sharp smell grows heavier each day. In normal times this softer breeze readies the many acres of vineyards for harvest. Now falling ash harms the grapes.
Today the sky is a dusty grey and fog rolled in, mixing with the smoke.
I update fire, evacuation, and air quality maps repeatedly. We are 30 miles from the big fires, and not personally threatened, but the “green zone” that tells us to be ready to leave quickly is only five miles away. The weight on the state, on the west, and the world, is just so heavy, crushing us after already feeling depleted from the pandemic and quarantine.
I thought I’d left all this when I moved from Santa Barbara to Portland six years ago. The half-dozen fires on my doorstep during my 30 years there left me jumpy, but resigned and tough. I expected that by coming here, even with combustible forests everywhere, the rain and damp would keep us safe.
Usually the weather is small talk, which I hate. But now it feels crucial.
Each day is a chance for things to get better in this suckiest of sucky years, but disasters keep mounting. Usually they seem far away, but now the smoky skies bring them as close as my own skin and breath. My head hurts, my eyes sting, and my shoulders are crunched and aching. Change means that it’s just as possible that good things will come, not just bad. It’s just that it’s hard to settle and I feel twitchy and unmoored, like the hummingbird that flits from fuchsia to fuchsia blossom, never lingering long.
I step outside briefly in the mornings. Yellow sky, noxious smoke overhead, drifting through the tree limbs, on the ground like a heavy fog. The foliage looks tired, beaten by autumn and smoke. It feels like a dome over my head, shutting out any thought about fall color, the usually delightful juncos and flickers, or even thoughts of breakfast.
It might be like this for a while.
The grandkids arrive masked, shutting the door quickly behind them as instructed. Our son-in-law brings us a brilliant air purifier made from a box fan, filters, and duct tape. With our double paned windows we’ve been mostly comfortable, but barely, and today I woke with stinging eyes. I admired those windows when we first moved here because they kept out cold in winter and heat in summer. I never thought they’d have to keep smoke out as well. Now a little creeps under the doors and through hidden cracks, and the house smells like heaviness, like depression. I’ve learned about AQI, air quality index, as our numbers range from 400 to 500 and off the charts. I imagine the microscopic particles caught up in the now visible air are full of burnt leaves, burnt insects, burnt houses, burnt lives. They envelope me with their smells, and murmur, “There there.”
I can’t see color anymore. I’m blinded by shades of brown, gray, sickly yellow, gradations of fire, waves of loss. A neighbor’s maple is always our harbinger of fall color, but today as I look out across the hazy street the hues are dulled, instead of something more innocent like change, or equinox, or life cycles, or inevitability, the things I try to remind myself of.
We all keep asking each other what could possibly happen next? The Trump presidency, worsening climate change, economic woes, unemployment, a pandemic and seemingly endless quarantine, a family death and bizarre travel, a Portland summer of protest, anger, violence, and shootings. Of course, someone jokes, there’s always the Big One, the 10.0 earthquake that’s been predicted for a long time. Gallows humor isn’t very funny.
I breathe into the anxiety, reminding myself it’s part of a much bigger cycle. I know that every day brings us closer to a new president, to less rancor and anger, to children released from cages, to Black lives mattering, to hate getting shown the backseat once again. Right?
Our resilience is tested but we keep getting up again – because what choice do we have? We rise again and again, we fight, we send postcards, we donate, we hold out a hand, we hang out with children, we look to the helpers, especially the ones who run towards danger instead of away. Sometimes resilience feels like a beacon in the dark, and if I could I would breathe more deeply.
I know there will be regeneration. The forest will live, many houses will be rebuilt, most people will buy things again, colorful clothing, toys, furniture. Rain will come soon and the fires will be dampened and eventually go out. I know all this intellectually, but while the smoke hangs heavy it’s hard to think about anything but here and now, and wonder about those who won’t recover.
I’m privileged, I’m lucky, I can wait until the sky turns blue once again and I can walk outside and admire the maple trees as they turn brilliant shades of ochre, crimson, and coral.
Soon I’ll tell you about blue skies and crashing waves. I can wait, I can wait, I can wait.