While the Portland sky is painted in familiar apocalyptic hue, I’m mourning what we’ve surrendered in this new reality.
As I write this, I look up at a fluorescent glowing sun of molten copper. Our air quality in Portland is currently the worst in the world, with San Francisco second. The sky is so thick with particulates that businesses have closed (the few remaining open during COVID, that is) and the trash bins and recycling are still waiting at the curb a few days past schedule. But at least the weather has cooled and the 50-mile-an-hour bellowing east winds have died down. Hopefully, the fire is slowing its advance, but the ecocide that brought us here has not.
There is a new place that has grown to shelter me, tucked away in the woods, a space that I could escape from Portland now and again. At night, we’d hold close and listen to the nocturne of screech owls and coyotes, the throbbing of crickets, and while the mornings varied in flavour they would always begin with the cackling and clucking of chickens.
I’m supposed to head out that way but get a text warning me that the farm is on Level Two. Level One is to be on alert. Level Two is a significant risk. Level Three, GO NOW!
I’m in SE Portland heading to the freeway and people without homes have fires blazing on this blustery day. I’m amazed because it is hot and looks like 360 degrees of hell and we are on high wind alert. Sirens ululate and as I head closer to Oregon City the sky is a thick burnt orange, the shadows eerie and beautiful, like when we had the eclipse a few years ago.
Sirens ululate and as I head closer to Oregon City the sky is a thick burnt orange, the shadows eerie and beautiful, like when we had the eclipse a few years ago.
Driving under a stone bridge, I felt a sob well up in me at the apocalyptic scene, the same feeling I got the first time I went to a grocery store and everyone was in masks. The surreality of everything I’d expected, but eventually, not now. Scientists have been warning us about pandemics and climate change for 20 years, but now that time has actually arrived.
Some of our internal worries have become the forefront of our collective reality the world over, although, surprisingly, there are still deniers. People cling to the idea that COVID isn’t that bad and try to shun masks. People imagine boogeymen are running around lighting fires instead of thinking its bad land management and climate change.
The car radio is playing Cage the Elephant’s “Social Cues.” I think of cocktails in bars, art receptions, green rooms for bands littered with empty bottles and glasses, summers dancing sweaty to the deejay at gay bars, and casual “normalcy”: rolling suitcases onto planes, picking up a magazine to flip through in a waiting room, crowding into an elevator that shoots up thirty stories from a glass lobby, jumping into a heated pool with splashing people, a hot yoga class, and everything encased in a plastic that was supposedly being recycled. All of these memories taste like candy, like movement, a way to flit and celebrate evasion, a way to feel joy in urbane limbo. It feels like we were playing pretend.
I know all these things still exist, there are still people acting as if “all is normal,” but I’m not. As I dig deeper and deeper into place and self, I feel so much burning away. I’m falling in love with different things that are only just revealing themselves as the smoke clears.
When we wake, there are no chicken sounds since they were moved to where sprinklers could reach them, no red-breasted nuthatch creeping along the trees, just a heavy orange haze, trees stark, and, when I left, ash was falling. The ash of animals and trees, of the last place we’ll run to before there is nowhere left.