I subscribe to a periodical, High Country News, that has a photo contest right now soliciting photos of places that give us solace. I wish I had my many photo files available for I would surely submit some of my favorites of Mono Lake. There are many places that have given me solace, all in open spaces, mostly the Great Basin or at the shoreline of lakes, oceans, even rivers. Years ago, there was a book written by Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces, that I read closely because it spoke to my deep, deep affinity for open spaces in the landscape. Her essays were about life in rural Wyoming, a place I always thought I might want to live someday.
I’ve also lived in densely green, forested places that were disconcerting because I had no horizon amid the trees, yet I learned to love those places, too. In Hawaii, there were many different landscapes on the Big Island and I loved them all—forests of ferns and ohia, arid fields of old lava, rugged ocean beaches, deserts with cactus, and rainforests lush and humid. Now, since March 2017, I have been in a very open space in the Great Basin, living at the base of the southern terminus of the Ruby Mountains, in high desert, surrounded by rangeland covered in sagebrush, mountains in all directions. But there has been no solace for the past few months as the fires burning in the West have blanketed us in smoke. The mountains are hidden, the blue sky is not there, and the sun sets every night as a blazing red circle sinking into layers of smoke. It has been disheartening and I have cabin fever at this point because the air is so polluted with smoke that it is unwise to be outside too long, to do much of anything physical. My eyes burn, I cough when the wind might blow, sometimes there is the scent of burning wood in the air, and this overcast reminds me of many, many years ago when I lived in a smoggy Los Angeles.
This week I came across a neologism, solastalgia: roughly translated as nostalgia for places of solace that have changed or are no more what they were. While it was first created in response to climate changes, a friend posted a brief article about it in relation to the smoke now suffocating the entire West Coast. It is here: https://thenarwhal.ca/the-lost-summer-the-emotional-and-spiritual-toll-of-the-smoke-apocalypse/
We are told the smoke won’t be gone until sometime in September and that is sad to me for many reasons. Of course I feel sorrow for the people, animals, landscapes now tortured by these fires and know, unfortunately, that there will be more to come. The mountains I view have been beacons of something that keeps me grounded and while I often walk with my eyes on the ground, watching for snakes and interesting stones, I still want the mountains to show up clear and solid in all directions. And, far away today, I read the news about the flooding rains that have hit the Big Island, wondering what will change once the waters recede. Landslides on an island with minimal roads in and out of places will isolate many. The rain that falls on the still flowing lava from Kilauea will create a different hazard of toxic air as well. The climate is changing, no matter what anyone wants to believe or not. Five years ago I was in the Canadian Arctic, on Baffin Island, and ever since I have tracked the daily temperatures in the small settlement where we were, Iqaluit, watching temperatures grow warmer. I read about the ice that is melting around Greenland and the impact on the lives of both the arctic animals and the arctic people who have depended on that ice. For me, then, there is no solace in these times, for many reasons.
Not just the loss of familiar landscapes but also the losses being faced by so many in the world. Here, I want to scream about the plight of the homeless and impoverished people that are not on the radar of any significant policy makers, let alone the person in the White House (who I detest; if you don’t like this, don’t follow me because I won’t engage in any arguing but I feel it is necessary to speak out about what I do care about and I certainly don’t care about him, his corrupt cronies, his sycophants, and the cowardly, complicit Congress with its smug Republicans who only worry about their own asses in elections, not the country and citizenry they are supposed to serve). Education, health care, clean water and clean air matter to me and yet I am watching those sacred (for me) imperatives be ignored or trashed. My friend reminds me often that there are too many people in the world and things will only get worse as resources become more scarce. I understand this but I am living now, in the present tense, and I am enraged that there is so little compassion and constructive problem solving. No one can use the excuse that their hearts are too tired. My heart is very tired, and very broken, cracked in many places, yet the cruelties of what we are witnessing in this country alone make me worry for the future of my children.
I’ve had my own hard road to walk over many years but it has not hardened my heart. It has made me want to give up at times but I won’t. And the one antidote to despair that I could always call on was being outside in the natural world wherever I was able to get it. (Although I could argue that the “natural” world is just as much a man-made world but I look for the open spaces where there is less evidence of “man.”) There is no ideal world, no perfect place yet we need to have “places” that nurture our souls and our minds, our bodies. Robert Frost wrote a poem many years ago that keeps coming to mind:
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To know that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.