“Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone…” This is not the first time I’ve found myself leaning into James Taylor’s famous song to write my grief. The first time was when my friend Jim Chlebda died, the publisher/editor of South Valley Arts out of Springville. This time it’s the death of forests and whole communities, the prospect of death coming to so much of what we know and love.
“Well, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” It’s prophetic, the use of those two weather phenomena to express magnitude of human loss. For me now, it’s Lahainatown gone, which I knew only briefly when my family moved to Maui in 1967, but where the entire course of Hawaii’s mixed, complex history was visible, incarnate. Invisible Yellowknife has captured my heart, the one-road capitol of Canada’s Northwest Territories under evacuation as unstoppable fires move in. My land-minister/climate-activist friend John Pitney in Bend, Oregon, is wearing N-95 masks just to take out the garbage, smoked in from the Bedrock and Lookout Fires. And as I wrote this a week ago, Mexico’s Baja peninsula and our southern urban centers and smaller desert communities had just passed through the threat of drowning, not just in the same month as the fires, but the same week.
I’ve found myself nonplussed at some of the news commentators trying to ask hard questions of government officials about things like whether people were given adequate notice, why the power wasn’t shut off or sirens turned on, why don’t we have flood control features capable of handling these new-scale disasters? Why haven’t we been prepared for this? as if there’s some human to finger, to pin with the blame.
I’m saying we have been prepared, or at least warned about this. Change is coming, those who study these things have said for four decades: count on more extremes. Why haven’t we listened? Because it would have cost money and because we humans are procrastinators—me included. Because we’d hate to respond to them only to find they were crying wolf to bolster their academic careers and now we look like fools. Because we have no way to know from past experience what’s coming in this new climate age. Because this is bigger than us, even if our fossil-fuel-burning activities have triggered it.
But the primary reason, or so I think, is because we’d have to change our dependent, addicted ways. We would have to change the way we relate to the earth and to each other: we’d have to become responsible partners instead of opportunists. Some of us would have to give up our evil, moneychanger ways of making a living. Others of us would have to start learning to care for ourselves and our little piece of land.
One night two weeks ago—maybe some of you remember—there was a hot wind blowing from the east after dark, very unusual. It carried the scent of tarweed, which I love. It drew me outside, I couldn’t get enough of it. And because I was outside at this unusual hour, under these unusual conditions, I noticed a tree branch whipping too close for comfort to where Edison’s power lines enter my house. In my mind I could see sparks flying, or rain-wet branches conducting electricity where it doesn’t belong. It was a gift, and the next morning I found the chutzpah to cut that limb from the tree. That one act of self-reliance led to several others, and by the time the rain came I had most things I cared about under cover, tasks I normally would have despaired of doing.
Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Sowin’ On The Mountain” that I used to sing with Jesse McCuin as the duo called Candlepower. It’s a hair prophetic: “Sowin; on the mountain, reaping in the valley—you’re gonna reap what you have sown,” is the chorus. One of the verses is especially biblical: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/ Won’t be water, but fire next time.” We loved singing that song, both of us just a little Jeremiah-like. But I wondered even then if humanity might succumb to both fire and rain.
I hadn’t connected the fire part to Jesus until the following Sunday, when the new pastor at Porterville’s First United Methodist Church preached on Luke 12:49, where Jesus says he came to bring fire to the earth. Pastor Juan is from the Philippines, where hurricanes, typhoons and all the consequences of wind and rain are common. But he preached Jesus’ society-splitting fire instead, and unpacked it so well no one could miss his meaning. The battle rages inside us, he said, and we must choose which part of our divided selves we will feed: our money-grubbing, status-seeking, power-mongering side, or our neighbor-conscious, Creator-spawned, life-loving side. That will make the difference, not between whether we burn or drown, but whether we live or die.
The import for this climate tipping-point can’t be overlooked.
Trudy Wischemann is a woman who loves watching the sky for forecasts. Send her your hopes for humanity’s future c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of the Mid Valley Times newspaper.