Fires have, within recent memory, sprouted up in New Mexico every summer, but they used to be small and were extinguished within a few days at most. Some days fire crews could go out and be home for dinner. But now the fires burn hundreds of thousands of acres and can’t be contained for months. Each year the number of acres burned surpasses the previous year’s record. And each year fire crews are gone longer and longer. My friend Anamaria’s husband is a firefighter and summers have become the hard, hot season when she cares for the children alone. Even when fires are under control in New Mexico, firefighters are being called further and further way to Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. As I write this the 1,000 acre Vallecito fire has at last been contained in Colorado. Rain – not snow – is helping to put it out this weekend. It is November. Our “summers” in the Southwest have no determinable end.
And as I write this people in New Jersey and New York City are still reeling from the aftereffects of Superstorm Sandy and the snowstorm that followed in its wake. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without power or heat. Friends who live there describe the city as “apocalyptic.” The photos I’ve seen of flooded subways, submerged piers, and underwater taverns confirm this. A particularly haunting image of a floating and illuminated merry-go-round, encased in glass, has become my own personal interpretation of the tidings Superstorm Sandy has brought.
This image brings many musings to mind about the unsustainable nature of our way of life, but it primarily reminds me of the simple joy I felt as a child, mounting a plastic pony with a pink mane and riding in circles to a jingly tune straining through crackling speakers. It was a rare treat for me. In the ’80s I was the girl who roamed 99 acres of piñon, juniper, and scrub oak in the Sangre De Cristo mountains. And while most scientists agree that the climate was already changing then, the world as I knew it then seemed only to shift with each passing season. With each goodbye, a promise of return. I knew the curled green leaves of parched summer chokecherry bushes would welcome July monsoons, and I knew crisp, scalloped oak leaves would blanket the ground in the fall and acorn caps would rain from the branches, providing fairy cups for my imaginary tea parties. I knew the winter would bring snow we would measure in feet and that sometimes our mile-long driveway would be navigable only by foot. I knew the hummingbirds and raccoons would return to our porch in the spring, fresh and twitching with recharged energy in emerging from winter. And I knew the cycle would then begin again.
Just as I cannot recapture my childhood, I can no longer revisit these seasons or landscapes either. Snow is measured here in inches if we get it at all. 70 degree Februarys are as commonplace as the Februarys that dip to negative 20 and shatter plumbing. Which is to say, there is no normal, no cycle. The new normal is much drier in the Southwest but we can’t be certain of what each new season will bring. Farmers who live downstream of the trickling Rio Gallinas in San Miguel county are moving; the river has dried out and their farms cannot survive without water. To add insult to injury, oil and gas companies are coming in looking to start hydraulic fracturing – a process that is devastating in its own right, but one that also requires millions of gallons of water we don’t have.
How do we find the balance in embracing what we have and fighting for what we hope might be a meager future in which we might survive? How do we bear witness to the tenacious animals, plants, and landscapes that are still here and allow them to fill our hearts and root us to the earth? I don’t want to look around me and see the charred remains of apocalypse, even as I stand in the still-present radiance of snow capped 14,000′ peaks and thick, healthy vegetation. For now, it remains, I remain, and gratitude may be as vital in moving forward into an uncertain future as activism and civil disobedience are. But hurricanes and fires wreak havoc on my perception and it is easy to despair. Despair is mirrored in many of the poems I write. I share one here, written last year:
The sky does not belong to Exxon. They cannot keep using it as a sewer where they dump their carbon. If they do, we have no future on this planet. –Bill McKibben
We were all heavy smokers last summer,
wheezing and hacking through hazy
charcoaled air – or barely breathing
as Las Conchas raged through sacred land and licked
the line near Area G, barrels
of nuclear waste exposed above ground
while Fukishima’s reactor discharged waste
into water, spewed into air and sea, radioactive eddies
wafting on North Pacific currents, and California
popped iodine tablets like black bears ate
chickens this year, fighting
And still, BP sludge shifts in the gulf, slick
smothering black blanketing fish, birds, and coral,
another disaster fickly forgotten by the public too busy
buying, filling the void where strong sun,
flowering cactus, and clear water
once ran. And still, the Keystone pipeline prepares
to plough through Pine Ridge, that “uninhabited”
blood stained terrain where we can all gaze
at the white forbearers of the dominion
of the Grand Area – including the earth,
sky, and water.
Two hundred more nuclear plants planned
by 2030 and no place to store the waste
but Yucca Mountain – the sacred Snake
Mountain for Shoshone and Paiute, ground
destined to split and spill its poison. Or
so legend has it. We are all Ghost
Dancers now, donning posters for
Occupy Wall Street as if they were
This despair is intimately linked to the personal for me. Circumstances in my personal life are forcing me to retrace old memories and wounds and unearth feelings I thought had been laid to rest for good. An internal superstorm is thrashing, unseen, inside me and is forcing through barriers and washing up unsightly detritus. Pernicious questions of direction, worth, and meaning circle my lungs, heart, and mind. How do I sustain myself? And how do I help to sustain the earth? I see myself holding my arms out, palms extended forward, as a tsunami approaches. Resolute and easily submerged.
Even as a poet I can forget to turn to poetry in my despair. There is a connection to a deeper truth in the best poems, and they hold space and time, allow me to re-root and recenter. Poetry provides a refuge from the raging superstorms and fires, both external and internal. It reminds me of what matters underneath the debris. I have just started reading A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders and he begins the book with a poem that reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poetry:
Among all creatures, we are the only kind
that frets, the only kind that asks forgiveness,
or needs to. Meanwhile, the crows palaver
in the pines, crickets sing in the high grass,
cottonwoods wag their leaves in every least wind.
Having held our tongues to listen, having fallen asleep
to the barred owl’s call and wakened to fog over the Mad
River, having seen the pond shiver like the taut hide
of a horse and the dew ignite with dawn, freed now to break
silence, we might find words to speak our love of Earth.
Yes. Love is vital. I want to practice gratitude for the gifts of red-wing blackbirds in the tiny marsh on El Llano Road, the laughter of my children, the way a wood fire feels on a cold day, the way I have risen up, again and again, despite the extraordinary challenges I’ve faced. It is not hard to criticize myself or our global structure or to feel paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of things that must be done to heal myself and heal the planet. But I suspect that the real work in manifesting change requires gratitude, love, and connection. It requires taking the time to read Joy Harjo, Terry Tempest Williams, and Wendell Berry, taking time to inhale the vanilla scent of Ponderosa bark and dig my toes into the dirt, and taking time to stop the incessant clutter of distraction and doubt to simply tune in and listen.