Heating Up

During the late summer months, I love going to the fish ladder at the Ballard Locks. Half the fun is seeing the little humans enchanted by the big fish behind the glass. But I'm enchanted too. In the middle of this big American city, you can still see these magnificent migratory creatures, doing what they've always done.

Of course, they didn't always have to traverse a concrete staircase. They didn't always need the assistance of hatcheries to sustain their populations. And there used to be so, so many more of them.

I grieve for the salmon that are gone, the old growth forests cleared, the bloated rivers trapped behind big dams—and I celebrate what remains.

I've heard it said that wisdom is the ability to hold opposing truths. It is an infinitely beautiful gift to be alive in this world, and to be alive in this world is to bear witness to unfathomable suffering and loss.

This has been the case forever. But the latter can feel especially true in our time, when the human project on earth has grown to unsustainable proportions, and when our information networks deliver heartbreaking news every day.

And while some things may be constant features of life on earth, we are in a unique moment. In our moment, things are heating up.

I have an Android phone. It offers me a Google news feed based on my search history. Apparently I'm interested in news about climate change, since that's all I've been seeing lately. It's one alarming article after another. Deadly heat waves are the new normal. Fires are burning in the arctic circle at an unprecedented rate. The permafrost is melting 70 years ahead of already grim predictions, releasing untold quantities of methane and even long-disabled pathogens.

In response, I find myself veering toward one of two reactions: urgency to just do something, or a defeatist despair: it's too late, we'll never turn our ship around in time. Others, of course, respond with outright denial (and denialist articles have been showing up in my feed too, strangely). All of these reactions are missing a crucial first step: stopping to actually feel the weight of what is happening.

No matter what we might do or fail to do to stop climate change, or more generally to heal our ailing world, we must grieve as well. So much has already been lost: more than half of animal populations gone in the last fifty years; entire forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other precious ecosystems that evolved over thousands of millennia; cultures, languages, medicines, ways of knowing (click for an astonishing TED talk). No matter where we go from here, it is important that we stop and sit with the enormity of these losses.

If we do not grieve what is lost, we cannot truly love what remains. And if we do not truly love what remains, we will continue to destroy it.

So much remains. Count the different bird and plant species where you live. Look for mushrooms and insects and you'll see them everywhere. Look at the diverse modes of expression humans continue to invent.

What's more, life is incredibly resilient. Chinook salmon are returning to the upper Elwha. Chernobyl teems with wildlife. Steadfast indigenous language- and culture-bearers persist against the odds.

And. One million species are threatened with extinction. Vast areas of Amazon rainforest are being cut under Bolsonaro. We lose a language every fourteen days.

Humans are kind. Humans are violent. Life is bountiful. Life is cruel. Ecosystems are being destroyed. Ecosystems are reinventing themselves. And, and, and.

Let's try to hold these opposing truths. Let's try to embrace the totality of what is. As we face the terrifying prospects of an increasingly chaotic future, let's pause in this moment to honor the bounty and beauty that are here.

I had this distinct feeling as I watched that Chinook salmon make its push into the fresh waters of Salmon Bay: these creatures don't need our help. They only need us to let them be. We've nearly destroyed them; they've managed to survive in sustainable union with their habitat for millions of years, faithfully delivering ocean nutrients to inland forests.

If anything, we need their help. If we listen to their lessons, we might learn a bit about how to be good members of our community.

What does a city look like that doesn't resist its environment, but collaborates with it? How do we become good neighbors to our fellow creatures? We once knew. Can we learn again? It will require radical change at every level of how we live. It will require true love, the kind that encompasses gratitude and grief.

We don't need to save the Earth. We simply need to love it.