Friday, April 22, 2016

Musings: Earth Day 2016

Looking up along the Wallace Falls trail. Lainey Piland photo

I want to tell what the forests
were like
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988

I love the poetry of W.S. Merwin. When I came across this poem recently, the words hit me like a swift punch to the gut. The somber thoughts in those lines are the very ones I'm musing on, on this Earth Day 2016. Lately, as I write this blog I'm feeling increasingly that I'm not only sharing my photos and nature experiences for inspiration and to encourage others to get outside and see these wonders for themselves, but there's also a sense that I'm recording for posterity the beauty and rhythms and truth of a place I've called home my entire life - a place that seems to be heading toward a future wherein it will be radically changed.

And, of course, the driver of that change is climate change.

As we pump more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through deforestation, agriculture, and burning fossil fuels, our planet continues to warm and the places we know and love will continue to change. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our famously mild and rainy region is expected to get warmer; with rainfall coming less frequently, but when it does come - it will be in deluges. There will be less winter snowfall in the mountains, and consequentially, less water in the rivers come summertime. These changes will dramatically affect our ecosystems, agriculture, and economy.

We got a foretaste of these future conditions in 2015, with the drought that left our mountains bare of snow, and a record number of consecutive days without rain that, combined with consistently hot temperatures, left the landscape parched and river flows dwindling. It was so unfamiliar, and so difficult to process the fact that this could become a permanent and worsening condition as the climate continues to warm. I commented on this in my Missing Washington blog posts here and here last year.

Our planet is a big place, and the region that I call home isn't the only one being affected. Island nations like the Maldives are watching the rising seas slowly consume their homeland; areas of Africa are experiencing unprecedented drought, along with the civil unrest that accompanies it; native villages in far-northern Alaska are watching their homes slide into the sea thanks to rising sea levels and melting permafrost; warmer temperatures and dwindling mountain snowpack are leading to drought and water shortages in regions from South America to Asia. These aren't simply matters of watching one's homeland undergo a transformation... these are plain matters of survival.

So far, the first three months of 2016 have been the hottest January, February, and March on record. 2014 was the hottest year on record... until 2015 came along and stole that title. With each subsequent year hotter than the last, the warming trend is undeniable. In fact, scientist have gone so far to call it an "emergency" - and that's not a word that scientists just throw around. That means something. That's a warning.

All indications point to the fact that we're already past a tipping point where our planet, and where my home here in the Pacific Northwest, will undergo significant adverse ecological changes and challenges, regardless of what sort of action we take on climate change - even the most drastic action won't be enough to avert some degree of change.

In generations to come, we may need to speak in a forgotten language to tell what this place used to be like: that the trillium, salmonberry and indian plum bloom in late March; that the mountains are white and covered with snow all winter; that the rivers run high and cool even through the summer and support populations of salmon; that the song of Pacific chorus frogs wafts from the forest on warm spring evenings, often at deafening levels; that the summers are mild and we always joke that "there's always August" - the one sunny month; that January is glittering and frozen; that April is green, cool and showery, that it always rains on the Fourth of July; that we start awakening to frosty mornings starting in late September; that the migratory barn swallows return for the summer precisely on April 21st every year.

Sitting here on Earth Day 2016, this blog feels like it is becoming a record of those things. Each time I set out on a hike through the forest, there's a moment where I look around at the trees and greenery and sounds and smells that make this place home, and wonder how much longer it will be this way. How much longer will the forests stand, before they grow dry and brittle in drought, burn in a wildfire, or are killed by infestations of insects like the wooly adelgid that are destroying the hemlock forests on the east coast, or the pine borer beetles that have killed entire stands of forest in the drier western states? I don't know the answer. I probably don't want to know the answer.

So - assuming that my little blog will stick around for posterity - for those of you future youngsters reading this blog in 2026... 2056... 2086... I'm sorry. We tried, but it was too little, too late. Please take a look through this site, at the photos and narratives, and see what you missed. This was a beautiful place.

But wait... what can we do?

I'd rather not have to leave that heartbreaking apology above in this post. The apology might be necessary, but there's a chance that we can turn the future of our planet in a positive direction, and that I might be able to delete those bitter words. So many things need to happen to protect our planet... and subsequently, ourselves and our homelands... from the worst effects of climate change. We need to say goodbye to fossil fuels and move to 100% renewable, clean energy. We need to overhaul our meat-heavy diets and fossil-fuel intensive agricultural systems. We need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The daunting list goes on.

The best things we can start with are, first and foremost... vote people into office who understand this issue and who will do something about it. Please keep that in mind with the upcoming presidential election. Secondly, we can take steps in our own lives to minimize our ecological footprint and our personal contributions to the problem of climate change (see the Going Green page on this blog for tips). Thirdly, we can speak out! Talk about this, educate yourself and everyone you know, attend protests and marches, speak out through volunteer work with conservation groups.

Recently, activist and writer Bill McKibben was asked what individuals can do to fight climate change. His response? "Stop being individuals."

There's a lot of truth in those three words. Just as one tree doesn't make a forest, one person cannot make a movement. This issue is going to require every single one of us acting collectively in order to make a difference. Let's all commit to doing so, so that on Earth Day next year, and the following year, and in the decades to follow, we can celebrate the fact that the "language" of our earth, of our home regions is not forgotten... but rather is spoken, lived, and understood by everyone.

For further reading:

This excellent article in Yes! magazine isn't speaking directly of climate change or environmental issues, but illustrates the shift in mindset that we all need to experience in order to address these huge issues and see our lives, and our time here on earth, in a different light. Live Each Day Like It's Your... First? Five reasons "live each day like it's your last" is the worst advice ever.


  1. Powerful!! Gonna share on my FB page. Thanks for your thoughtful and beautifully written musings on this most urgent topic.

  2. Thank you for reading, and for sharing, Jill! We can all do our part to spread the word on this terrible issue.

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