You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as Joni Mitchell sang many years ago. I didn’t know how precious clear skies were until they disappeared last week under a pall of smoke from fires in the Northwest.
Here in Colorado we’ve been lucky this summer. A wet spring and summer has kept fires to a minimum. But Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Montana have been devastated by fires, and last week an unusual high pressure system poured the smoke into the inter-mountain West.
On the worst day, the thick smoke nearly extinguished Mount Meeker (left), and Lily Lake (above) had a strange unnatural glow to it. It felt like the world had lost its color, that a filter had been applied that separated me from the landscape I love. The mountains, trees, lake were still there, but as if they existed in another dimension.
The gray light resembled the early dusk that descended a few weeks ago during the solar eclipse. I’ve heard that eclipses caused fear among native peoples, because they didn’t know what was happening. Yet this unnatural darkness from the devastating fires is much scarier because we know where it comes from, and it portends a more uncertain and chaotic future.
In a world where humans are changing the the climate and landscape, there’s a slower kind of loss. I’ve just come back from vacationing in northern Wisconsin at the lake (left) where I spent part of summers as a child and have visited almost every year since. For the first time I saw algae growing along the shore of this spring-fed lake, which has always been so clear that you could see down to the bottom. But now I’m seeing weeds poke up in the middle of the lake where I always assumed it was too cold and deep for them to grow.
As kids, we would catch the frogs along the shore, but they disappeared a long time ago, an early indicator of pollution. This year I never heard or saw a chipmunk, and I miss their familiar chirps. Even the birds seem few and far between, maybe because there are (blessedly) fewer bugs, which drove us crazy when we were young, chasing us into the lake to avoid their biting.
What’s going on? Is nature withdrawing as the human presence increases on this lake? More homes are being built, even in places that I considered sacrosanct, like the marshy area we call the bay, where I used to see turtles. The new homes have huge green lawns that require fertilizer, which runs down into the lake, causing the algae and increase in weeds.
Back in Colorado (right), I take refuge at the cabin. After last week’s smoke, everything seems blissfully normal. Almost exactly four years ago, we experienced catastrophic floods that tore up roads, homes, bridges and whole towns. But this year, the creeks are running quietly in their banks. Chipmunks come up on the porch and slap their tails, the gray squirrels chatter from the trees, and the aspens are starting to turn golden. Best of all, the sky has returned to deep indigo. Everything is as it should be. I never thought I’d be so happy to experience the ordinary.