Eleven years ago today, I spent my birthday at Glacier National Park. That was back when I owned a house in northwest Montana, and I spent every possible moment there. And because it was my birthday, I wanted to go to Glacier, because I love Glacier. I looked back at my ancient blog Trailheadcase (I’ve been blogging continuously at one site or another since 2005), and was reminded that it was chilly enough up at Logan Pass to require a coat on my almost-four year old (now almost 15), but warm enough to play in Lake McDonald in shorts and a t-shirt. Such is life at elevation.
Tonight, eleven years later, Glacier is on fire. A lot of it is burning. The venerable Sperry Chalet, one of Glacier’s famous backcountry lodges, was overtaken by flame. I’ve been watching this beloved place of mine — all of Montana, really — burning for weeks on the news. I spent a day in Glacier the last time it was this tormented by fire, in 2003. It was a hellscape, and my lungs were scratchy from smoke inhalation at the end of the day. These fires are immeasurably worse.
At the same time, the Columbia River Gorge — a place I lived near for three years around the same time — is alight as well. The story is that a teenager tossed some fireworks into a a canyon for lulz, giggled, and walked away, trapping more than 100 hikers on a trail I can recall hiking about exactly ten years ago. At the end of that trail is Punchbowl Falls, a sublimely chilly pool where a smallish, homely bird called the water ouzel plows into the falls and skims the bottom for food before popping up again, calm and collected, to enjoy its meal.
The trapped hikers made it out. I don’t know the condition of Punchbowl Falls, but as of yesterday, the fire had spread to 30,000 acres, enough to threaten all of the other wonderful trails in the Gorge and some historic structures, some of which I was lucky enough to see again when I was there last month. Although everyone wants to junk punch this teenager, his casual maliciousness could never have had the effect it did had this July and August not been the third driest on record in Oregon.
On the other side of the country, Hurricane Irma, among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, is on trajectory for a head-on collision with south Florida — another place I’ve spent significant time, both in my childhood and as an adult. I took my first steps at the Kon-tiki resort in the Florida Keys. I wonder about my grandparents’ old house west of Ft. Lauderdale. I worry about my stepdaughter in Orlando, working as an intern at Disney. I worry about my aunt in Ocala, and my dear cousin in Palm Coast. I worry about the monkeys on the Silver River, and the willets on Marineland Beach.
And this is all on the heels of some of the worst flooding in United States history in Houston, which saw my husband’s childhood neighborhood drowned.
I lived out west about ten years ago, and it was there I became acquainted with the reality of climate change, as so many of us did. Climate change somehow became a political question, and a refusal to believe the established science became a tribal litmus test for the right — to the profound and devastating misfortune of the earth. I don’t know how much longer that denial will work for people, as one out-sized natural disaster after another befalls us. Sadly, I fear that the denial well is nowhere near as dry as the woods in Montana and Oregon.
And so this is likely to be what the last half of my life looks like, watching these gorgeous and meaningful places die, not to come back in my lifetime. I suppose I’m lucky I saw them while they lasted; my kids’ generation isn’t so fortunate. The earth will outlast us, of course. Whole books have been written about that. The World Without Us talks about what an earth suddenly unstressed by human occupation would look like. Some things, like plastic, are here to stay. But the carbon in the atmosphere would clear after many thousands of years.
These things aren’t so much about the earth, exactly. Climate change has always been more about what we take from ourselves, and from the wilds. And whether we admit it the cause or not, we are starting to lose a great deal.