A Lesson from the Dinosaurs

Last fall my academic, left-brained understanding that climate change was a real thing turned into a right-brained, slow rolling and visceral horror. It was kicked off by Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper and fed by the dark, woeful months of winter. It took me about six weeks to get through the crushing misery of it—the terror of the realization that, in fact, climate change is not going to get better and, no, we are not going to pull it together in the 12, no 11, no 10, no 9 years that remain for us to “mobilize like we did during WWII.” Yeah, we could. But we won’t. And everything is going to happen that shouldn’t have to, and my son is going to live through it.

I’ve been drawn to the dystopian writers for nearly all my life. I read Stephen King’s The Stand at a critical moment of intellectual development, maybe age 13, and my whole imagination was shaped around the fantasy-slash-inevitability of catastrophic collapse. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood and James Howard Kunstler, even Justin Cronin, paint possible futures that seem realistic, if full of monsters—literal or figurative. I’ve been fascinated and have turned pages hungrily, drawn in to the chaos of the world blown to bits, trying to imagine how that would feel and be to live through something like end times, or something like the time After.

But all of that curiosity and morbid fascination gives way to something very different in this space of parenthood. If I allow myself to stay with the reality of our current, very real horror, my heart shatters into a million pieces. If I don’t pull away from it, but let myself actually feel it, it hurts so much.

I’m not afraid of death, but I’m afraid of watching my child suffer.

I spent my late 20s and early 30s, the years of one’s life that are so steeped in optimism and hope, reading Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver and Bill McKibben and thinking that it was good, we were figuring out, we could move forward armed with knowledge and conviction. In the months after Obama was elected, as the economic system was melting down and the disconnect between our consumption-crazed lifestyles and the actual (lack of) sustainability of our ways of life seemed so very apparent, I waited with bated breath for him to speak the truth to us, from his solid seat of clear electoral mandate. I wanted him to stand up and use his rumbling voice to tell us that we had lived too extravagantly, in a way too out of touch with what the Earth could actually sustain, and in ways too disconnected from the real constraints of economies and natural systems. I wanted him to summon the vision of Kunstler in The World Made by Hand, and let us know that it was okay to let go of the fantasy of endless growth, and to live well and with less.

He didn’t, and it broke something in me that has continued breaking ever since. I guess that’s hope, or belief in the possibility to right this massive system, or optimism. But it has given way to something else that feels more calm.

This winter, in the depths of my grieving, in the aftermath of Bendell’s paper and David Wallace Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth, Auggie and I picked up Thunderfeet, a children’s book about Alaska’s dinosaurs. And in reading and rereading it, I found a measure of peace.

Somehow, I managed to make it through my first four decades without really wrapping my head around the fact that dinosaurs once lived on the land that has become Alaska. And certainly I had not considered what the climate might have been like in our prehistoric neighborhood, or given much thought to what other animals or flora had lived here, or how the air felt, how the sun felt on those prehistoric backs. Reading Thunderfeet over and over, with that monotonous zeal that only a toddler can compel, allowed me to let go bit by bit, and relearn the lesson that things will rise and fall over the eons, and that our presence here on this planet in this moment is just a tiny blip. Yes, we are wiping out so many more of the planet’s beautiful species in this horror we have created. But we will go, and something else will rise up, and so it has always been.

The Alaska State Museum just opened a new exhibit on this very topic—dinosaurs and climate change. The Alaska polymath Ray Troll paired up with paleontologist Kirk Johnson and created a wild, imaginative backward look and a clear-eyed, call-it-like-it-is examination of this, the 6th extinction. It’s a beautiful exhibit, and I left feeling like I was breathing fresh air. This year, 2019, seems like the year when we’re all waking up to our climate disaster on planet Earth. But I find it such a relief to finally feel like I’m not alone in my concern. I know many or most people will still march blindly along but, more and more, some of us will no longer be by ourselves. I’ve been thinking of it as realism, but recently I’ve heard Margaret Wheatley refer to it as clarity. I prefer this. To call it realism sounds like an admonishment. Clarity is a personal state, and also an invitation to kinship with others who feel that something is clear.

We’ve brought Auggie into a world that will be starkly enumerated—140 million climate refugees by mid-century, 10 billion people on the planet, 2 or 3 or 5 degrees warming. It is my job now to do what I can—teach him what I can—that he may live through this experience with clarity and his spirit intact. It’s possible his will be the last generation of humans, though it’s not likely. But his world will be incredibly different from mine, and my work as his parent is to give him what he needs to live in it as a whole world. It’s the only world he will know, until the day that he or it gives way to what is next.

Without End

I have words boiling up inside of me. Words that want out. The first pages, chapters, paragraphs of stories clutter my hard drive. There are characters who spend days, a month, even years pushing out of my fingers. Each time I start I think, this is it. This is the time I will get to the end.

But in more than 15 years of writing, I’ve only ever ended a story one single time. I have two novels partly written. I have dozens upon dozens of first, second, even third chapters. I have the shells of short stories. But I have only one, tiny completed piece. I’ve struggled with this for years and years, and I cannot say why I am so stuck.

A recent evening.

I love to write. I love to put words together. I love to try to conjure meaning out of associations and ideas. I even think that I am sometimes good at it. But I thirst to create a tale. I thirst for characters to walk out of my mind, and onto the page, and then on down the road until they reach a place worth stopping.

The truth is, I’ve never known the ending to anything I’ve started. I can always imagine the beginning. It often starts with characters, who I feel like they are my own flesh. There is always a place that I can see and smell, a place I inhabit behind my closed eyes. I can live in those people, those landscapes, like they are my own. I can hold them in my arms, feel the complexities of their emotions, of the changes in the weather. I know their history and how they arrived where they are. It’s so rich, so real, that I set aside my doubt and charge forward. But I inevitably lose it. I fill with despair. I cannot bring them down the road to the end of a journey. I simply cannot.

I have tried outlining. I’ve tried sketching, bubble diagramming, using index cards. Most frequently I have just written, hoping to see where the story goes. But nothing in my imagination can make the end come.

Sometimes I’ve asked myself whether I’d be better with non-fiction. Whether that would fulfill me, let me practice the craft. Maybe if I can just write what is, rather than imagine what could be, I could arrive there. But the only non-fiction that tempts me for my own writing is memoir. And I don’t feel that the lessons of my own life have any finality to them, or that they warrant sharing. There is nothing profound in how I’ve lived, and no profound insight worth pointing to. I feel barely fledged, eyes still shut, bumbling around, narrowly avoiding harm at all times.

Sometimes I wonder if this is because I failed, for so long, to create conclusions in my own damaged journey. Perhaps it’s because I woke up each day for many years and followed a path that I knew to be untrue. Perhaps I felt powerless to make changes because of this very difficulty I have in imagining endings. to end it because I have this critical lack of imagination, of drive to get to a conclusion. And in fact, when the end to that particular situation came, it wasn’t because of action, or a path I chose. One day I just decided not to do what would be needed to make it continue on, and it ended.

To write honestly would mean to write about what I really feel, what I really experience. It would also involve trust. Trust that I could arrive at an end, and trust in the uncertain space between here and there.

I want to pick up a story—any story—and see it to its end point. If it’s 8 pages, if it’s 75 or 400, I want to know that I can start it, and finish it, too. But meantime, here I am. Stuck. But practicing. Still practicing.

As The Snow Melts Away

I went and rode the chairlift at Eaglecrest this afternoon. Just two rides, just two runs. I was feeling unsettled and didn’t feel like staying, but I appreciated the time on the lift, as I always do.

There is water pouring off the mountain right now. It warmed up by 25 degrees over the last two weeks and creeks and waterfalls are emerging. The snow seems to be disappearing from the ground up. There are dark blue stains underneath many stretches of snow—stains where water is running down the slope beneath what remains of the snowpack.

There is a waterfall off to the left when you’re riding up the Hooter lift. I had no idea it was even there. I suppose it’s frozen most of the time that I’m up there, or else that there’s no liquid water to cascade over it.

It feels early for Eaglecrest to be closing up. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen many of these rocks and trees and bushes that are sticking up through the snow. Normally the mountain is closed before they emerge. But this year we had such limited snow fall that there’s not much forgiveness once the warming happens.

I appreciate the mountain so much. I’ve ridden those lifts hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of times in the 30+ years since I learned to ski up there. The lift ride centers me. I look at the familiar mountains that surround the ski area and I feel like I’m being held gentle hands. I recall one time, when I was about 15 years old, being up on the Ridge with my friend Jack. It was so beautiful that day—spring, like it is now, but in a different, snow-abundant way. The sun was out, we were hiking, still growing in our hearts and minds and bodies. I remember standing at the edge of a cliff and thinking that if I were to go over it and disappear, it would all be alright, because everything was just perfect. I needed nothing more.

Adolescence is a confusing time. It shocks me to remember the peace and equanimity I felt that day—I’m guessing it was unusual to feel so calm and comfortable in those tumultuous years. But I find those sentiments difficult to find and to hold in my adult years, too. I do recapture them quite easily when holding Auggie or laughing at ridiculous gags with him.

But I appreciate Eaglecrest for giving me a chance to ride those lifts and breathe quietly for the 7-minute stretch, over and over, through all these years of my life.