Musings by the River: Tipping Points and Climate

We pull into the near-empty gravel lot and park the car in front of a clump of snowberry bushes. Extracting ourselves from my compact vehicle, my husband and I pull our son Lucas from his carseat, bundle him up, and set him loose on the trail on this foggy October morning, hurrying through the dew-wet grass to keep up. After being sick and stuck in the house for the past four days, an acute case of cabin fever sent us running for the outdoors, even though all of our noses were still running as well. That's what sleeves are for, right?

We made the drive out to the Chinook Bend Natural Area in Carnation, a place I'd long wanted to visit after regularly driving past it for years. This 59-acre area wrapped on three sides by the Snoqualmie River is popular with birders and fishing enthusiasts, and is also a nice place to walk and stretch your legs. Once a piece of land degraded by cattle grazing, Chinook Bend is now an example of how thoughtful restoration can bring back the land's vital ecological functions. Forests have returned to the former pastureland. A beaver pond provides wildlife habitat. Salmon spawning grounds in the adjacent river are surely benefiting from cleaner, more favorable water conditions. There has been healing here.

Lucas immediately fixated on an interesting art installation on the path ahead and ran over to investigate. Four stones the size of wheelbarrows were arranged in the grass, resting on their rounded bottom half, with perfectly flat tops inviting us to take a seat. A small plaque had been situated a short distance from the stones, and we read about artist Betsy Damon's installation: Seating Stones, created from glacial boulders, are etched with natural imagery and descriptors of revitalization: reveal, restore, and revere.

That explained three boulders, but there was still a fourth. Unlike the others, whose flat surfaces were resting level, this one was tilted. And rather than being inscribed with a word, this boulder had another, smaller, round rock affixed to its top edge, looking as though it was about to roll right down the boulder's smooth face and off onto the soggy grass. This piece struck me. It was unnerving. It was all too familiar. Ignorant of the artist's intentions with this piece, I could only rely on my own interpretation: this rock was depicting a tipping point.

Tipping points. The place at which the familiar, the status quo, suddenly changes with a tumble into new territory, for better or for worse. Once a tipping point is surpassed, there's no turning back. At Chinook Bend, that ecological tipping point had leveled out. The familiar had returned and flourished. It was comforting to see.

Another, bigger, more daunting and widely-consequential tipping point had been hanging heavy on my mind lately, after reading the latest IPCC report, out earlier this month. The purpose of this report was to compare the effects of 1.5 degrees of global warming with the effects of 2 degrees of global warming. Once thought to be the "safe" upper limit of warming, 2 degrees in fact turns out to be a nightmare scenario for the planet and its inhabitants. The report also states that we have until the year 2030 to take the necessary actions to avoid the 2 degrees (or more) of warming. That's less than twelve years to avoid the largest ecological tipping point civilization has yet faced.

So what do we do? Perhaps the three other stones offer clues to maintaining the balance of the fourth.


This stone was etched with the image of a salmon, tail bent against the current as it swam home to spawn. Salmon were the reason I wanted to visit Chinook Bend in particular today, as it's the prime time of year (Salmon SEEson) to see these legendary fish journeying home to our area rivers. I carried Lucas and stumbled through the large round rocks along the river's shore, squinting into the riffling water and relying on my fisherman husband to point out a likely spot where the salmon might be found. He pointed to deep, slow-moving water along the distant opposite riverbank. Oh.

Lucas said fish, fish, and pointed at the water, but there were no fish there. I had hoped to be able to show him the salmon today. Not that he would remember years later if he had seen one today at the age of 17 months, and not that the rivers will be devoid of salmon by the time he's old enough to see, understand, and remember them... but still. Experiences like these feel like they have a timer ticking away, one that will go off suddenly, without warning. Time's up. Tipping point has arrived.

As we search for a way forward toward solutions on climate change, it's important to examine your own heart, ideals and experiences and allow them to reveal what's important to you. What gives this problem meaning to you? What's your reason to care?

Mine has always been a sense of responsibility toward my fellow human beings and to the other living beings with whom we share this planet. We need to look out for one another, especially when our own species is capable of doing such damage; damage that threatens the very survival of ourselves and our neighbors. Another reason is this place I call home. If we don't act on climate, it won't look or feel like home as the future grows hotter. Watching Lucas run down the trail, leaf in each hand, exhilaration glowing on his face, I know that 17 months ago I was given yet another reason to care. I want Lucas to know the same home that I've known. I want him to see the trees, have abundant water to drink and food to eat, I want him to see a world where people help one another. I want him to be able to see the salmon every year.


When we stand still and the rocks cease their clattering beneath our fumbling footsteps, it is very quiet along the riverbank. Fog hovers low over the valley, hanging thick on the hillsides of brilliant orange bigleaf maple. A lone chickadee dee-dee-dees into the soft white. Black water slips over the gravel bars and pools in silent swirls within sheltered areas along the bank. Dew drips onto the muddy earth.

But also: It is cold, our lips are chapped and noses are running, there's a mud-caked flip-flop lodged under a rock at the edge of the water, and every so often the whine of a car engine on the nearby road or the growl of an ATV patrolling the busy pumpkin farm across the river penetrates the peaceful scene. And it kind of stinks because I'm pretty sure the outfall from the local wastewater treatment plant is somewhere nearby. This scene is completely mundane and imperfect. A scene that anyone could drive through without really seeing, on their way to work perhaps, thinking about an upcoming presentation, fumbling with their coffee mug, singing to the radio. I've been that person.

Reverence -- deep respect and admiration -- often comes naturally when we're regarding the breathtaking view from a mountain summit or meeting a well-known, influential person face-to-face. But when it comes to the everyday foggy scene along a riverbank, or the anonymous person we pass on the street, reverence takes effort. It is learned through consciously pulling ourselves into the moment and connecting with someone, or something, else. Can we revere the tree outside our window for the shade, beauty, and oxygen it provides, or are we annoyed by the leaves it drops in our yard? Can we revere a person who lives halfway around the world, their customs and the place they call home, or do we turn coldly away and ignore the impact our actions have on their lives?

Back on the riverbank in the soft, silent fog and in shoes so soaked that I might as well slip my foot into the flip-flop poking out of the mud, the scene around us could either seem unpleasant or rather wondrous, depending on the lens you're looking through. Through the lens of reverence, I see a place that is worth protecting, a place that reminds me of so many other similar, familiar places. Learning to revere what we see will help us connect to our reasons to care, and may even help to reveal what some of those reasons are.

Once we've revealed our reasons to care, and learned to revere the land, wildlife, and people affected by a changing climate, we can look forward to the part where the action and heavy lifting takes place...


Socks squelch in our waterlogged shoes as we follow the meandering trail of dew-soaked grass to the shore of the large beaver pond. Were it not for the beaver, this pond wouldn't be here. Known as "ecosystem engineers," beavers have in their furry rodent bodies the ability to change or create an entire ecosystem. What was once a stream flowing through cow pasture is now a large pond and wetland area, providing habitat not only for the beaver but for other species as well, including the mallard ducks that we accidentally flushed from their repose along the pond's edge. Alarmed by the ducks' sudden departure, Lucas reached his arms out to me and I picked him up. He watched, open-mouthed in wonder, as they flew up and flapped to the middle of the pond, their quacks loud enough to carry through even this thick fog.

The beavers have done a lot of work to build this pond. A flattened trail of grass leads from shoreline uphill into a stand of nearby conifer trees, marking the well-used path by which the beavers dragged their plump bodies and heavy tails from water to wood source over and over again, bringing back branches and perhaps even small trees to build their lodge in the middle of pond. The path to the river takes us past the outlet of the beaver pond, where we have to hop over a wide stream trickling from the beaver's impressive dam of sticks and earth, wide and thick to hold back such a volume of water, the dam is so incorporated into the landscape it's hard to delineate its edges and dimensions.

This dam, built by a few beavers, has changed the landscape at Chinook Bend by holding back the water from a stream. Can this one group of beavers dam all of the streams in the world, and change the planet's entire ecosystem? They cannot, just as we humans cannot individually solve climate change. We are beyond the point where installing energy-efficient lightbulbs and turning our furnace down a few degrees will solve the problem of global warming. Should we do those things anyway? Yes, because everything we can do to decrease our own carbon dioxide emissions will help. It just won't be enough.

In order to restore the atmosphere to "safe" levels of carbon dioxide, global emissions of the gas must cease. We need to bid farewell once and for all to fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources... for transportation, households, industry, everything. This huge undertaking will only be accomplished through policy. Who makes policy? Politicians. Who puts the politicians in place? We do. We must vote accordingly.

Washington State has a unique opportunity in the midterms next month to approve Initiative 1631, which would impose a fee on large emitters of greenhouse gases - a carbon tax, if you will. The tax will make it more expensive for polluters to pollute, and will raise funds that will be put right back into reducing pollution, promoting clean energy, and addressing climate impacts. This is what we need. I received a mailer from the "No on 1631" committee (made up of petroleum companies, go figure) trying to scare folks away from voting yes, because their independent study indicated that the increased fees on polluters would trickle down to consumers, to the tune of $440 per year at first, increasing to $990 more than a decade later. Well, even if that's true, I'm willing to pay that. We can either pay an uncomfortable amount of money to address climate change now, or we can pay an impossible amount in the future as the situation grows more urgent and the fixes get more expensive. We've been deferring our payments on carbon pollution for far too long, and they will catch up with us at some point in the future.

That future is fast approaching. It's twelve years away, to be exact. We can chart our course to a future limited to 1.5 degrees of warming, or we can blow past the warning signs and try to slam on the brakes just as we're about to plow into 2 degrees. By then, the brake lines have been severed, and we're going over the edge. There's the tipping point.

Lucas in my arms, we hop back over the beaver pond outlet stream and walk toward the parking area. I look at Lucas, his cheeks flushed red from the cold air and a look of delight on his face at all the new things he's seen today. Twelve years from now, when he is 13 years old, I will know what kind of world he will be living in, whether it will have the same trees and salmon and abundant food and water, whether it will be a world where people help one another; or whether it will be a world rolling over the tipping point into the unknown. I hope and pray and will fight in every way I can to prevent him and further generations from struggling to hold up that stone alone. It is only growing heavier as time goes on. We are stronger together, and must all grab hold and force that tipping point back into balance. We cannot let the stone fall.


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