I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language.
Standing on the shores of Saanich Inlet in Mill Bay, on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, there is nothing in front of me but a blank wall, a mix of smoke and haze. I should be able to see the Saanich Peninsula across the water, with the regional airport and the floating peak of Washington’s Mt. Baker in the distance. Instead I see nothing. If I launched my kayak into this nothingness, I might float right off the edge of the earth, or perhaps into another world entirely. The possibilities are surprisingly endless.
In 2018, over 2,117 wildfires burned in British Columbia (BC). The provincial government declared a state of emergency, calling in firefighters from around the globe and the Canadian Army to help out. It was the worst wildfire year on record, with 1.35 million hectares of forest burned and $615 million in firefighting costs. 2017 was the second most extreme wildfire year, when 1,342 fires burned through 1.2 million hectares of forest. At the height of those fires, over 65,000 people across the province were evacuated from their homes, and the government spent more than $649 million on fire control.
In 2018, there were more smaller fires, but air quality was affected across the continent. Here on the Coast, it made my eyes and throat itch and my nose run, as though I’d been sucking on cigarettes all day. I worried about a wildfire starting close by from something as simple as a spark from a dirt bike. I compulsively checked online wildfire information, flipping from one browser tab to the next twice a day.
I started with the BC government’s fire danger map, which showed the majority of the province in red—i.e., extreme—fire danger. I moved on to their map of “wildfires of note,” where burning icons showed a shocking number of problematic wildfires spread across the province, from the Kootenays in the southeast to Prince George in the centre of the province. Then I headed over to the BC River Forecast Centre’s Drought Portal, to confirm that, yes, we were still at Level 4 (out of 4) drought here on southeastern Vancouver Island. Finally, I popped over to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information page to check their national fire danger map. Not only did it show BC in the red, but things weren’t looking too good in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, either. In the red swath that covers these provinces, wildfire means grass fires, which spread quickly and dangerously across the prairies.
Then I hit the news sites: what new fires had started recently? Had there been any more evacuation orders or alerts? Had any of the out-of-control blazes been brought under control? What did I have to worry about? How could I be prepared? How could I contribute?
It’s not just BC that was burning. California in particular, but Oregon and Washington State, too, saw devastating damage to neighborhoods and homes, as well as several deaths. Above the Arctic Circle, Northern Sweden and Finland were burning. East of Athens, at least 88 people died after wildfires spread quickly through their seaside village, with residents backed up against cliffs or running into the sea to avoid the flames.
What would go through your mind, hunkered down in the salt water, holding your breath long enough to be saved?
My husband thinks I’m obsessed with wildfire. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am. It grabs my attention and holds it, my eyes caught by the life in those flickering flames. By how fast they can spread and the obstacles they can overcome, jumping rivers as though they’re tiny streams. By the creature fire becomes when it reaches a large enough scale: pyrocumulonimbus clouds generating fire-fueled thunder and lightning storms, hour-long firenadoes up to 500 m high, smoke propelled into the stratosphere at 15 km above sea level, where it travels as far as Europe in just over a week, and shows up on satellite images.
I spent my academic career studying the impacts of fire on snowpack and water. Fire is in my bones.
As wildfires burn worldwide and heat waves bring normally cool regions to the boil, it’s become fashionable to say that “we’ve reached a new normal.” But the climate is an unruly, unstable system that’s in constant flux, and there’s no way of knowing what “normal” is anymore. Indeed, the ongoing drought in the southwestern US has led scientists to state that “drought,” an episodic term, is no longer correct, and that “aridification,” which describes a long-term trend, is more applicable. By the end of the century, some estimate the amount of water in the rivers of the US Southwest could drop by 50 percent.
Given this uncertainty, how can we convince people of the serious implications of climate change for our life on this planet?
Even after such a terrible wildfire season, people will have forgotten the summer of smoke by the time winter rolls around, bringing rain or snow to douse the fires. They’ll forget that they couldn’t take their kids outside to play because of air quality advisories, and that the city looked like a scene from the apocalypse with a rusting orange sun wreathed in haze. People across the province who were tensely prepared, sentimental items packed and ready to go, waiting for the order to evacuate, will go back to their daily lives.
It’s like a woman forgetting the pain of childbirth, so that she can do it all over again.
One of the big questions when it comes to putting climate change, and associated natural disasters like wildfire, on people’s radar, is whether people act in response to hope or fear.
In 2015, journalist Kathryn Schulz wrote an article in The New Yorker about “The Really Big One:” the next earthquake expected to hit the Cascadia region. It was a masterful piece that won a Pulitzer Prize, combining evocative writing with interviews of many researchers to tell a compelling story of what to expect following such an event. But Schulz was driven to write a follow-up article to deal with peoples’ reactions that the original article was “incredibly terrifying” and “horrifying.” In that follow-up, she aimed to “navigate between the twin obstacles of panic (which makes you do all the wrong things) and fatalism (which makes you do nothing).” As she said in an interview with The Open Notebook, “I felt that the terror and panic were not constructive.”
In 2017, journalist David Wallace-Wells published an article in New York Magazine entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which outlined the worst-case scenario we could experience given unchecked climate change. He argued that “when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.” Many people—including scientists—were up in arms about the tone of the article, saying that it was over-the-top and that it misrepresented the science. To which Wallace-Wells responded by reissuing the same article, annotated with direct quotes from all the scientists he’d talked to. He then turned that article into a full-length book, which laid out in devastating detail what the science tells us we can expect in a warming world. It wasn’t an easy read.
In 2018, a paper came out about “Hothouse Earth:” a world that’s too warm for people to live in. The paper explained that just 1⁰C of warming would push us over a threshold, setting off a series of global feedback loops that would substantially alter our environment; for example, by increasing the risk of wildfires. Co-author Johan Rockström said that “people will look back on 2018 as the year when climate reality hit.”
This may be true, but as scientist Tamsin Lyle suggests, “we have to take care not to talk about the apocalypse as if it were inevitable.” This is because it’s possible that we may not reach that 1⁰C of warming. It may sound inconceivable, but we could successfully back away from the brink, resulting in a completely different climate outcome.
But even with this caveat in mind, the Hothouse Earth researchers—like Wallace-Wells—got many people talking about climate change. Their paper was downloaded over 270,000 times in just a few days, and isn’t that a good thing?
It seems that scaring people with future environmental scenarios both does and doesn’t work. It depends on the person, and whether or not they’ll act on their knowledge. Ultimately, fear is effective in communicating the urgency of a situation. Wildfires, large earthquakes, and climate change give people a sense of an ending, of a new world order (there’s that “new normal” thing again). And it’s true—the climate system has shifted, the temperature difference between the equator and the poles has declined, and we’re seeing the results of these and other changes.
But as Schulz says, fatalism can lead people to do nothing, and fear fails to give people an important ingredient: hope. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, the importance of hope lies in its ability to give people a sense of agency or control over a situation.
But we can’t rely solely on hope. Faith Kearns, a scientist and communications specialist with the California Institute for Water Resources, writes that effectively engaging with people about climate change and related issues requires that we also acknowledge environmental grief and anxiety. She advocates for a relational approach to climate change, using empathy and compassion to transform how we address environmental issues.
One of the best ways to do this is storytelling, as humans are not only primed to respond to stories, but are brought together by them. As Madeleine L’Engle writes, “storytelling [is a] way to keep people from falling away from one another.”
We need a new way to talk about climate change in everyday conversation. In a recent LitHub article, Adam Frank argued that society needs a new mythic-scale story to tell about climate change. Acclaimed novelist Amitav Gosh seconded this call at the LA Review of Books, noting (as did Wallace–Wells) that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination,” and wondering why we haven’t yet seen a great climate change novel. Meanwhile, a panel of two writers and an artist in discussion at the LA Review of Books wondered why reviewers weren’t more vocal about climate change novels like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. It seemed to them as though the reviewers wondered why Kingsolver had included climate change at all.
What we really need is literature that allows us to vicariously experience our potential future(s), literature that realistically incorporates climate change and other environmental disasters, and the socioeconomic fallout that these entail. In many cases, that future is already here. For example, Margaret Atwood has always maintained that her dystopian fiction refers to existing science, nothing made up or futuristic.
This is where my obsession with wildfire segues into my fixation on post-apocalyptic fiction. These summers of wildfire border on the apocalypse, with chokingly bad air quality, unbearable heat waves, and lack of precipitation. They are eerily similar to the “Seasons” described in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, which occur periodically and are caused by volcanic eruptions, among other environmental factors.
Other post-apocalyptic books that mirror present day climate conditions include Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, in which a huge sand dune complex covers the interior of the United States. The main character joins a cult of personality that moves in lockstep with the shifting dune front, constantly searching for water. This landscape is similar to the 30-m tall Athabasca sand dunes in northern Saskatchewan, which are as long as 1,500 m and move 1.5 m a year, covering forested landscapes and lakes as they shift and drift.
In Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, the main characters discuss the loss of late-summer streamflow due to a lack of snowpack and glaciers, and the loss of fish in these streams because of the warm—and in some cases no—water. This is happening here and now in the Cowichan Valley – the government has restricted all fishing and boating in one of our local rivers, the Koksilah, because of low water levels and warm water.
Our other local river—the Cowichan—is a heritage river. But it’s a heritage river kept alive by human engineering. The river is fed by weir-controlled flow from Cowichan Lake. We lose streamflow from snowmelt early in the season, and lately we haven’t had enough spring precipitation to offset that loss. Given the various extractive uses of river water, flows drop precipitously in the summer, and the main water user—the local pulp and paper mill—has special permission from the government to drop flows even lower to keep their operations running. In years like 2019, the river gets so low that water has to be pumped over the weir, from Cowichan Lake into the river itself. In the meantime, volunteers are out scouring side channels that get cut off from the main river flow, capturing over 30,000 coho salmon fry and transferring them to Bear Lake, above the weir in Cowichan Lake. Who knows how many fish survive the transfer to the lake, though it’s likely cooler and deeper than the pools from which they were taken.
While telling stories about our shared environmental future via post-apocalyptic novels can reach a broad audience and help communicate major issues such as climate change, aridification, and changes in river flows, it can still be difficult for us to get a handle on these problems without feeling they’re happening “out there” to “other people.” People in the global south, for example, who are leaving punishing droughts and constant flooding to try and find a safe haven in which to land.
We begin to feel what Ashley Cunsolo describes as “ecological grief,” which is “a response to ecological losses often left unconsidered, or entirely absent, in climate change narratives, policy and research.”
The scale of these issues—and what seems to be the lack of political or public action to address them—overwhelms us. As Paul Kingsnorth writes, “the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself…there is always change… but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and…industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans.”
We need to cut these massive environmental problems down to a manageable size, to a scale that explicitly links to impacts on our local community. If we’re personally invested in the quality and health of our local environment, we’re better able to wrap our brains around the complexity of these larger-scale climate problems. We can also then engage in conversation with others in our local community, to help us deal with the environmental changes that sometimes happen too quickly for us to keep up, and to help us find both a new physical place in the world, and a new mental perception of and relationship to that world.
To do this, we would benefit from a language that helps us explain, describe, and share what’s happening to and around us with our local community. Unfortunately, our current environmental language lacks an empathetic link to humanity. We can’t care about that which we fail to adequately name. As Wendell Berry writes, “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”
Care and love are not historically associated with our relationship to the environment.
Robert Macfarlane explains our shortage of such a “particularizing language,” saying that, “by instrumentalising nature, linguistically and operationally, we have largely stunned the earth out of wonder.” Indeed, as Solnit writes, “the destruction of the earth is due in part…to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters…so the task of naming and describing is an essential one.” As both Macfarlane and Solnit know, it is how we use language that makes us care more or less for the natural world.
Canadian author Kyo Maclear goes farther, connecting specifically to the local when she says, “one of the things we [are] missing [is] the opportunity to…possess the sort of deep local knowledge that inspires [us] to fight for a place. Viewing nature as optional—as always elsewhere or in the past—denies us, or spares us, the work of caring.” This is the same as viewing the future as an apocalypse – it denies us the agency to do something about it before it happens.
In coming up with a new way of naming and describing, Kearns wonders specifically “how [do we] describe that feeling of looming dread after years of drought?” Anna North tries to define that feeling, writing that “drought has always brought despair…a creeping sense that the world is out of joint.”
I’ve felt this dread and despair in each of our five summers here. When the rains end in April and there’s nothing but sun and blue skies for months on end. The ground turns to dust. The gardens guzzle water. We worry about how long the native cedar trees will last, overcome by drought after summer drought. In California, drought and related insect infestations have killed an estimated 129 million trees across the state as of 2017; in Colorado over 830 million, and in the southwest US, dead piñon pine litter 90% of the landscape. Each standing dead tree represents an increase in wildfire probability.
In the last two years, our neighbours have felled at least ten cedars on their property. The skyline has changed considerably—it’s less bushy, a little more distant. From our yard, I count all the dying cedars in the neighbourhood that I can see, wondering how long it will be before they’re all chopped down.
I don’t have a language for this loss of trees that I have no say over losing. Maybe the word I’m looking for is solastalgia: “an emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a loved home environment.”
I felt solastalgia while watching the neighbour’s cedars come down. The booming thud of a giant trunk hitting the ground echoed the sadness in my heart at seeing these large trees being demolished.
My connection to my local environment makes it easier to implement small, local actions, as this is a place I love, and can talk knowledgeably about its value beyond the services it provides for humans. For example, the more I learn about our local heritage river, the more important it is to me to help sustain it, to see it returned to a more natural state than it’s currently regulated flows.
“If you don’t know why [your local] stream matters, you are not equipped to protect it. If you have forgotten how to listen to it, you may end up on the wrong side, as so many have before you,” writes Kingsnorth.
Sometimes, however, it doesn’t matter how effectively we connect to place, and to locals who have the same hopes and fears that we do. Sometimes the four seasons of fall, winter, spring, and drought/fire (or in California: fire, fire, mudslides, and fire) aren’t worth sticking around for, particularly when some insurance companies are no longer insuring houses located in what they deem “prime wildfire zones.” Sometimes the years of drought and wildfire trigger a form of PTSD, a dread of the drought/fire season that makes it impossible to bear even one more year.
As Cally Carswell writes for High Country News, “…in this rapaciously dry year, a quiet question grew louder: What are we doing here? I felt a sudden need to understand what [we] stood to lose as the heat intensified and the world dried out. And I wondered if we should leave.”
These are the climate migrants. As the Hothouse Earth article notes, some places are getting too hot to live in, with the cost of cooling too high, and the ability to grow your own food and be somewhat self-sufficient dwindling under the hot summer sun. This is the future in which the characters in both Watkins’ and Heller’s books must exist.
Some researchers are already preparing for that future. In an interview with Esquire, American climate scientist and Greenland researcher Jason Box calls himself a climate refugee after moving from Ohio to Denmark. “Denmark is a great place to be in an uncertain world,” he says. “There’s plenty of water, a high-tech agriculture system, increasing adoption of wind power, and plenty of geographic distance from the coming upheavals.” He’s a bit concerned, however, about the potential for a flood of incoming climate migrants, saying, “I’ve been looking at property in Greenland. As a possible bug-out scenario.”
Scientists like Box are preparing for the future in the best way they know possible. A changing climate already means a changing population, fluxes of people fleeing hothouse regions for more moderate climes. They arrive with their own language for environment and climate change, their own stories about our shared future. The new challenge will be to integrate these migrants into their new local communities, to bridge the gap between their stories and language and our own. To tackle these large-scale environmental problems starting at home, in our backyards, with our shared language.
Sarah Boon, PhD, has been published in Narratively, Catapult, Hippocampus, Brevity‘s Blog, Hakai Magazine, and other outlets. She lives on Vancouver Island in Canada, and is currently working on a book about her adventures as a field research scientist. You can find her online at http://watershednotes.ca.