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Wild Side: Working through smoke and grief

Take a breath. Nice, isn’t it?

As I sent my 7-year-old off to his first day of school Monday morning, blue skies were above and the smell of fall was in the air. It felt like things were back to normal. Kids took off the masks and were playing in the park in the afternoon. There was a feeling of content that hadn’t been felt for over a month.

It is tempting to forget our lost summer and the damage that smoke and evacuations have done to our health, our local economy, and our collective psyche. But it’s really important that we face the toll the smoke has taken on our well-being, so that we come out stronger, rather than beaten-down.

The hurt is real. Businesses that depend on tourism are suffering. Workers had no choice but to be outside breathing. Kids were stuck inside. Usually the best, most exciting part of the year was the worst. The homeless and the most vulnerable among us had nowhere to go.

It is not just Southern Oregon that is suffering. In “‘The Lost Summer’: The emotional and spiritual toll of the smoke apocalypse,” Canadian writer Sharon J. Riley in the Journal Narwhal does an excellent job exploring the anxiety and frustration caused by smoke this year in Canada.

There is a pervasive feeling that we are stuck and smoke is everywhere. If you have children or young relatives, you likely are concerned about their future. The smoke is a dramatic, in-our-face reality check that there are forces at play much larger than we are, forces that will turn our reality upside down.

Researcher Glenn Albrecht even coined a term to describe the dismay associated with climate-induced natural disasters like fires and hurricanes: “Solastalgia,” a combination of “solace” and “nostalgia.” We are realizing that the things we cherish, our very home and way of life, may never be the same again.

When people begin to feel the impacts of climate change and other ecological losses on their daily lives, they have an ecological grief. Nearly 70 years ago, naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” While not new, this ecological grief is likely to become culturally pervasive in the coming decades as we experience more ecological crises.

Life might feel back to normal, but we are not in the clear yet. Fires are still burning and until the autumn rains come we still could experience smoke in the Rogue Valley. We can feel that we are living in the era of climate change. We know that sea levels will rise. Hurricanes will become stronger. Fires will rage around the globe. Our food and natural resource systems will all be impacted.

So, what do we do about it? Of course we need to curb carbon emissions and change environmental policy at the national and global scales. But I don’t think that is the primary answer. Our best hope is to use our grief to honor our home and work for a better future right here, right now. Right here in the Rogue Valley in 2018.

We can be the model of climate resilience by preparing our communities and our landscapes for the coming climate changes. We can ensure vulnerable populations are prepared with the right kind of infrastructure and mitigation for smoke, floods, and fires. We can ensure our community leaders take the necessary steps to make our place, our home, the symbol of forest restoration, clean energy and climate preparedness.

If we are lucky, we might just transform our grief to create the model that changes the world. Maybe others places will do the same.

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.

NASA photoFires burned around the globe this year, including in drought-stricken British Columbia, which had some of the worst smoke on the planet.