Smoke and Ruin

Oddly enough, I feel it in my stomach first. It’s the feeling that I’ve swallowed mouthfuls of ash, and those mouthfuls have collected into a giant clump of black tar in my digestive system. Eventually, my eyes burn and it hurts to breathe. Outside, the light is pale, subdued, tinted yellow. Even noises are muffled – the sound of your own footsteps might struggle to make it to your ears. Everything is dim, contained. At night, the moon turns blood red, and you could be forgiven for thinking that it feels like the end of the world.

When I was a kid, I used to hear stories about the Yellowstone Park fires of 1988. I have vague memories of being able to see the smoke in Billings, but it’s hard for me to know if those memories are real or not. What I do know is that people talked about that fire as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Smoke making it all the way to Billings was rare, and in the 15 years that ensued, I never once experienced the feeling of having forest fire smoke invade the place that I live.

In 2004, things started to change. By that time, I was living in Missoula, and for much of that summer the valley was shrouded in smoke, and it hurt my lungs to run. At the time it seemed like a unique event, but every summer after that seemed to involve a similar event – at least one fire whose smoke hung over the valley for a week or so. Before I knew it summer smoke became a feature, not a bug – and during that time the same became true of my hometown of Billings.  

In late 2008, I moved to Portland, and summers went back to normal. I never experienced summertime smoke from forest fires for my first six years living here. The first time it showed up – three summers ago – it was treated as a unique event. Of course, it’s happened every summer since, to the extent that we’ve become accustomed to it. And today – as we are watching some of our most iconic landmarks get engulfed in flames – it feels even more stark. It feels unique.  Will we grow accustomed to this as well?

I’m now able to track many of the important changes in my life to the fires that were raging and the smoke that I was breathing in when they happened. After almost six years of working at the Albertson’s at Eastgate Plaza in Missoula,  I spent the majority of my final night shift in the loading area behind the store, sitting by the river. It was July 10th, 2008, and Mount Sentinel was literally burning across the river from me. Watching the fire creep up the mountain was completely mesmerizing. So it was that my shift from difficult low-wage labor to some vestige of an easier, more “educated” lifestyle was marked by fire. 

Last summer, Laura and I spent the last days of our honeymoon north of Fairbanks, and we were awakened on our last morning by the intense smell of smoke and an unsettling uncertainty as to where the fire that was causing it was coming from. So it was that our transition into married life was marked by fire.

This morning was Simon’s first day of daycare – and after we brushed all of the ash off of the car, we drove him east, towards the fire, leaving a wake of gray dust behind us.  And when we dropped him off and headed back west, I was keenly aware that we were leaving him closer to the fire than we were.  And though the fire posed no risk to structures within city limits, I couldn’t help but feel that we were putting him in harm’s way.  It was deeply irrational but unsettling nonetheless.  This will be another indelible memory that is added to the collection – a series of events in my life that have been punctuated by the destruction of the world around me. It’s shocking, disheartening, oppressive. So it was that our transition into parenthood has been marked by fire.

One of my inaugural acts as an adult in my early 20s was driving to Portland from Missoula for the first time.  When we pulled over in Cascade Locks, I was overwhelmed by how green everything was – it felt like I was in a tropical rainforest. I still feel that every time I go there. My favorite trail runs since I moved here have been on Eagle Creek trail and the trails that wind behind Multnomah Falls towards Larch Mountain. My best hiking memories with my closest friends are all in that area. It’s all burning now. Will we mourn it, or will we just get used to it?

It’s all starting to blend together. It’s all starting to become commonplace. The debate in Portland over the next couple of weeks will be over the appropriate use of fireworks by individial actors, because we are absolutely incapable of grasping the larger global event that we are witness to. You can see already that the outrage generated by this fire will be misdirected.  The actions of these individual kids will be scrutinized endlessly, the location of their parents at the time of their actions will be speculated upon by an anxious public looking for a place to direct their outrage. “Kids these days,” people will say, ignoring the objective reality that it’s the “adults these days” who have allowed this global catastrophe to take place in front of our eyes.

There’s a reason that our ire will be directed at the actions of these individual kids. Our broken political and economic system is collapsing and we have two political parties who are fundamentally committed to maintaining the status quo. And while we are in desperate need of a radical change of direction, there is absolutely no collective will to make that change happen. That’s why the only collective action that we’ll likely be able to muster out of this tragedy will be the institution of a harsher carcereal punishment for future kids who do stupid things. Our focus on them will allow us to continue to ignore the rot that exist at the very core of our system. It will allow us to continue to ignore our own complicity in allowing this broken system to continue.

None of the solutions that are coming down the pike will do anything to address the central problem that caused these fires. There will be genuine outrage, but it will be funneled into the only acceptable practice that our system allows- punching down instead of up. Bashing “kids these days” instead of the political and economic system that is allowing climate change to happen. Slamming the actions of these 15-year old peons while our leaders and the 1% that they serve continue to feed their insatiable lust for wealth accumulation on the backs of the people whose labor they are stealing, at the expense of the planet they are destroying.

The fire is coming our way, and it’s moving much faster than we think. Yet here we are, dropping our children off in its path. We’re driving away from the fire and leaving them behind. No matter what anyone tells you, WE are responsible for what happens to them.  Not some dumb kids with fireworks.  Not some thoughtless parents whose location we can’t determine.  It’s us.

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