It’s hard to be true to yourself when you have no idea who you are

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That was my chief takeaway from watching The Green Knight, which I finally did last weekend. There was a particular friend I wanted to see it with, and we’re still not keen on movie theaters, so on Saturday night we settled in with streaming and popcorn. No one I know who’s seen it has failed to have an opinion about this movie, and almost all of those opinions were either wildly positive or acidly negative; I was intrigued.

It certainly looks good. I wasn’t surprised to learn that director David Lowery was deliberately calling back to the Arthuriana and fantasy movies of the 1980s, which could be both suffused with brilliant color and vivid imagery, and also be deeply weird and unsettling. (Return to Oz, anyone?) I half expected the synthesizers from the Ladyhawke soundtrack to take over at some point. Understand: this would not have been a negative.

Then there’s the storyline, which doesn’t quite hew exactly to that of the poem but is in its own way just as weird. We can argue about whether the medieval mindset was really all that different from the modern one–personally I think humankind has always been prone to irrationality and resting our judgments on the slender reeds of half-formed impressions and emotional responses–but there’s something about the stories from those days, some willingness to leave things unexplained. The edges of what was unknown were a lot closer back then. Giants, talking foxes and headless saints? Who knows what’s out there?

But I do think it was an interesting choice to make Gawain young and untested–and apparently disinterested in maturing or in testing himself until Arthur and Guinevere, in their own respective ways, call out the lack. He’s primed to step forward when the other Knights of the Round Table exhibit aggressive disinterest in answering the Green Knight’s challenge. Talk about awkward silences, man: the best warriors in the world, and not one of them’s up for a bit of the beheading game. And after the Green Knight’s picked up his head and galloped out of Camelot, Gawain does what a lot of us would probably do when faced with an unpleasant but seemingly far distant appointment: tries his best to ignore it.

This post was originally titled “Gawain, Disney princess,” but that’s not quite right. The thing about Disney princesses is that they know what they want, at least well enough to sing showstopper songs about it. Gawain hasn’t got a song. Hell, he hasn’t even got a sword. Arthur has evidently given some thought to who’ll inherit his throne, but idle thought seems to be all he’s given it; certainly Gawain hasn’t been prepared to govern in even the most superficial of senses. The Christmas feast at the beginning of the movie shows a Camelot past its peak: none of the Knights of the Round Table so much as stir to answer the Green Knight’s challenge, and Arthur and Guinivere are well north of middle age. And later, when Gawain leaves for his adventure, it’s clear that the world beyond Camelot’s walls hasn’t been doing so well.

It’s not at all evident that facing the Green Knight will prepare him, either. The Green Knight reminded me, more than once, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, probably deliberately given that the director cited it as an inspiration. (Those chapter title cards!) Barry Keoghan all but reprises the role of the peasant who questions Arthur’s right to be king and complains of oppression when Arthur tries to shut him up. Gawain’s retrieval of Saint Winifred’s skull is probably no stronger a basis for a system of government than is receiving Excalibur from a strange woman in a pond. Ultimately, Gawain’s own vision of what his life will become if he turns aside from the Green Knight’s challenge and rides home to inherit Arthur’s throne indicates his awareness of falling well short of any kind of ideal.

That resonated for me, as a former Gifted Kid who only recently has begun to make my peace with the notion that I’ll never live up to some vaguely defined potential. When reviewers have talked about modernizing the story, I think this might be what they mean: we look to old myths like this to tell us how to make something of our lives, because in the tangled forest of the everyday it’s difficult to make out any sort of clear path. How many of us have longed for an adventure to pluck us out of our days? Although Patel’s Gawain is more like Bilbo Baggins than an adventure-seeking knight–one gets the sense that he’d have been more than happy to stay living with his mother and sleeping with Essel if the Green Knight hadn’t come along. (Given his mother’s apparent role in that, one gets the impression that she’s been waiting for him to move out of the house for awhile now.)

I’m no medievalist but I wonder how modern this take really is–as though people centuries ago weren’t given to self-doubts and aimlessness of their own. On the other hand what happens on the screen is as weird as anything I ever read from that era, with the sense of an obscured logic that might not be obvious to an observer but that makes sense to itself. Both of the friends I watched it with pointed out that after a certain point, the entire movie could be a hallucination. Personally, having spent many days in the woods with minimal gear and even less food, I found myself relating to Gawain’s predicament, mushrooms or no mushrooms. (I’ve never encountered any giants, though, even though Sasquatch supposedly roams the woods where I routinely hike and camp. Something in us wants there to be something mysterious and inexplicable out there, even as it stands in for all our fears.)

I’ve also seen the film criticized for aimlessness or lacking focus, but if that’s not true to its protagonist for most of his journey, I don’t know what is. When asked why he’s on this quest at all, Gawain replies that it’s for honor–but Dev Patel’s delivery indicates that Gawain has only the vaguest idea of what that is. I don’t mean that he’s an intrinsically dishonorable character, but that he has no internal compass whatsoever. Though stories like this are usually in some sense about someone finding himself, Lowery is way more concerned with his protagonist’s interiority than we see in most fantasy movies–even Lord of the Rings, impressive achievement though it is, often struggled with this. Even then, it’s only close to the very end, with death seemingly imminent, that he finally reckons with himself.

For all that this last portion of the film is arguably the most different from its source material, I don’t think the difference is all that substantial. After all, in the poem, Gawain not only accepts the gift of the green girdle, he never reveals to the Green Knight that he has it. When he wears it back home to Camelot, it is, in a way, an emblem of his failure. When the other Knights of the Round Table take on green girdles of their own, it’s a reminder that they, too, have fallen short of the chivalric ideal.

And Gawain of the film? Lowery leaves us to guess. The Green Knight might well let him live, just as he does in the poem. Or he might cut off his head–and Gawain, without the magical sash, is unlikely to then pick up his head and ride back to Camelot with it. As the lady of the castle in the film points out, in a thematic speech that has been read by some as nihilistic, ultimately it doesn’t matter. The green will have us all eventually.

But until then? The Green Knight suggests that we have both more and less control over that than we might suppose. The Gawain of the film avoids the question of life and death by avoiding adventure, until he’s pushed into it by a mother who’s clearly concerned about whether he’s sensible enough to pour water out of a boot (considering how much of the movie he spends a) wet and b) without boots, she has some basis for concern). He might have stayed in bed. He might have sat there like the rest of Arthur’s knights, never answering the Green Knight’s challenge. He might not have sought out the Green Chapel. He might have gone home, neck and girdle intact, and lived out the future he saw for himself until it became unbearable. He does not. He arrives, as one review I read observes, at courage by way of self-doubt. Which is how a lot of us get there…if we do.

And once he does, he has a question for the Green Knight, before the final blow falls: “Is this all there is?” The Knight, seeming puzzled, replies, “What else should there be?” It’s a riddle in exchange for a riddle, and calls to my mind a response commonly made by a character who we’ll see soon in another literary adaptation for the screen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. When asked by the newly dead if that’s all they get, Death replies: You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime.

One year or fifty, that’s what Gawain gets.

And so do we.

Nature as balm, nature as itself

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Bluff view at sunset, Thurston County, WA, September 2021

A few weeks ago I trucked down to some acreage my husband and I own to go camping with a small and socially distanced selection of friends. The long-term plan is to live there, but navigating the planning and permitting is a great way to develop some sympathy for the people who claim that the main purpose of government is to obstruct. (Put it this way, we once got an answer from the county permitting office that was, in totality, this: “It depends.” Thanks, y’all.) So in the meantime, we go camping.

I’ve been reading Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. It’s a lovely book, though I repeatedly find myself thinking that of course it’s easier to find solace in nature when you can take your kayak somewhere remote and spend hours floating on the water while snow falls on you. I don’t mean to take away from the insights Moore draws from that, or from swimming across a river or hiking in the mountains, but what I keep coming back to when I read things like this is how difficult it is to find solace in nature when so many of us live in places where nature is massively disrupted.

Duwamish Waterway Park, March 2021

On the other hand, six months ago I stood on the shore of an urban river and watched a blue heron fishing while jet planes periodically roared overhead, and I’m currently volunteering for an urban coyote tracking project that involves searching for sign in the greenbelt areas near my neighborhood. (Been finding a lot of it, too.) Coyotes have lived in Seattle for at least seventy years and they’re definitely still around, even though it’s been a few years since I’ve seen one. My back deck has played host to Bewick’s wrens, dark-eyed juncos, house sparrows, hummingbirds, and house finches. I’ve been hearing spotted towhees lately, and Northern flickers. Black-capped chickadees are always around and never shut up.

Sparrow, Lincoln Park, West Seattle, early spring 2021

A year ago I didn’t know any of those birds. Naming a thing in nature isn’t enough to know it, but it’s not a bad way of getting started. More to the point, there is something soothing about watching non-human lives going about their business, with their own concerns. Getting outdoors has always been one of the ways I found respite. In college I would take long walks in the woods near campus, occasionally finding myself clear on the other side of town. I’ve camped my way up and down the Pacific Northwest coast a few times now. And the privilege of having a place to go to get outdoors and spend that time only with people of my choosing is one that I’m profoundly grateful for.

Ira Spring Trail to Mason Lake, July 2011

Yet I’m always reminded of the profound sense of escapism in the American relationship to nature, wilderness, and the outdoors. For most of us, the outdoors is a curated experience of landscaped parks and hiking trails maintained through hours of volunteer labor. I’m as prone to it as anyone–one of the reasons I go hiking is to escape from people, which is why I increasingly hike less popular or less accessible trails, or go very early in the morning or even at night to avoid the crowds. There’s nothing wrong with seeking nature as an escape–we all need pressure valves and this happens to be one for a lot of people–but it also highlights what strikes me as a particularly American way of seeing nature as something separate from us, something out there that we go to when we want it but that otherwise is truly not concerned with us. And that’s just the kind of attitude that ultimately threatens our own survival and thriving, because our habit of externalizing the cost of our way of life will eventually make our way of life impossible.

One of the few books I’ve read so far that really seems to understand this is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a remarkable meditation that occurs at the intersection of science and spirituality. Kimmerer’s understanding of our inextricable interdependence with the natural world, which is not separate from us no matter how much we try to make it so, is one that I rarely see articulated so well. Perhaps paradoxically, one of the ways she does this is by recognizing that other living beings have their own lives and ways of being; they do not exist at our pleasure, solely to serve us, and they do not disappear when our attention is elsewhere.

When I began studying wildlife tracking, it was with the idea of coming to better understand what was going on in the non-human world when I wasn’t watching. Tracking combined with game cameras on the land I tend shows indirectly the effect of my and other humans’ presences there: when we’re gone, deer, elk, bobcat, and other wildlife come into the spaces that we use when we are there, pursuing their own existences. While I enjoy the (sometimes adorable, sometimes funny, always intriguing) images on my cameras, or lose myself in the analysis of a trail I’ve found, such things are also a reminder that these beings aren’t here for me, and that in fact my presence affects their lives. Will they still come around when we’re living there? How do we keep them from getting so comfortable with our presence that we actually endanger them? Many of the conflicts between humans and wildlife are the result of wildlife becoming habituated to humans, especially once they start seeing us as a source of food. A bear raiding your garbage can is likely to end up dead sooner or later.

Bobcat, Duvall, WA, February 2021

People can and do derive all sorts of things from nature, from physical sustenance to medicine to physical and mental health to so much more. Everything in our lives either is or once was derived from our interactions with the natural world. When I go into the woods or the mountains to find solitude, quiet, and peace, I have to remember that I’m not really escaping–I’m going back to where we all started from. And really, no matter how many walls and doors and windows we put between ourselves and that place, we’ve never really left. We can’t. We’d do well to remember that.

Elk cow and calf, Thurston County, WA, September 2021

As the pandemic drags on, reminding us in its own way that we aren’t at all separate from nature–there’s nothing more natural than a virus using another organism to replicate itself, and COVID is unusually good at doing just that–if there’s any reassurance I gain from going out in nature, it’s the reminder that other lives are still going on.

I wonder if they notice our crisis at all. And how and whether they respond to it, whether they notice or not.

Oregon Dunes beach trail, September 2020

“Normal” is a useless descriptor

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The semester started at my university last week.

Last year I was on sabbatical and, as I’ve written previously, spent most of it completing what is now known as the Immersion Program at Wilderness Awareness School. It was a great way to spend a pandemic: mostly outdoors in the woods, with a small-ish group of like-minded individuals, learning all sorts of things about myself and about living in the world beyond my walls. I won’t lie: wearing masks all year sucked, not least because I realized how much of my sense of connection to others depends on facial expression. Masks have just been reinstated as the norm where I live, though in my part of Seattle people never really stopped wearing them. (This really varies depending on neighborhood, I’ve observed.)

It’s said that normal is what you get used to. So far, I haven’t gotten used to this–I’m still waiting for when it’s no longer a social or governmental expectation. I wonder if it’s the same for kids, some young enough that all they remember is wearing masks. Maybe we’ll know, someday.

Earlier this summer, when the vaccination rate seemed to be making headway and before Delta became the dominant strain, it felt a little bit like I’d sort of…missed the pandemic, by just taking myself out into nature and leaning into my learning and experiences there, with the luxurious privilege of mostly not having to think about it. I was returning just as it seemed as though things were getting back to normal. I had mixed feelings about that, because our pre-COVID “normal” wasn’t great for a lot of people, and COVID itself highlighted some of the ways that that was so. (If you ever doubted that a lot of Americans like to shit on anyone whose job it is to serve others, underpaying them and expecting them to take whatever abuse we dish out, the last two years ought to have shattered whatever illusions you have left. No wonder healthcare workers, teachers, and restaurant workers are quitting in droves.) But at least it seemed like we could relax. Not have to think about it anymore. Maybe normal is what you can afford not to think about.

But I had that feeling you get in horror movies, the false denouement where everyone thinks that everything’s fine, and then the monster comes roaring back for the real boss fight. And here we are: so many things are safer if you’re vaccinated than they were last year. And yet hospitals are full, case numbers are spiking, and a few weeks before school started the word came down that everyone would be wearing masks indoors and at large outdoor gatherings at least through September. Teaching a class with a mask on is definitely a strange experience. (But, speaking from experience, it’s better than teaching online.) 

It’s made returning to my workplace even more surreal. The transition from the woods back to the working world was strange and difficult, if not exactly rough, but during the summer I was mostly working from home and when I did go to campus it was largely empty. I would sit out on one of the lawns eating my lunch and listening to the birds. I might see a groundskeeper, or someone from IT ferrying equipment across campus on a golf cart, or maybe professor in shorts and sandals. If it wasn’t exactly like being back in the woods, at least it was outdoors, in a green space, surrounded by nature.

But now we’re “back to normal.” Classes are in session. The dining hall is open. So is the library. Students have moved back into dorms. Opening convocation was held in person.

And…the passing periods between classes are longer, to allow time for classrooms to be cleaned and sanitized. Dining hall meals are served to go, with disposable tableware, even though many choose to sit at the tables as they always did. (I eat outside. The weather’s nice, and once it’s not…I spent most of last year outdoors.) Students in the library sit alone rather than congregating at large tables. I close my office door when I’m there, where I used to leave it open. Dorm move-in was on a staggered schedule. Everyone wore masks to opening convocation, and many of us watched a livestream rather than sit in the auditorium with everyone else. The university maintains a case count updated every week. 96 percent of the campus is vaccinated. It’s…fine, but it doesn’t feel normal, and I’m not sure whether that’s because it really isn’t, because I don’t want it to be, or because I’m well into middle age and have a harder time with change.

If there’s a commonality to the wildly divergent responses to the pandemic over the last two years, I think it’s that a lot of us have a hard time with change. None of us quite know what to make of the uncertainty of it all, including the people who insist that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. A lot of this comes out as hostility or anger; to my relief, I haven’t seen much that on my campus, though one hears things. A lot comes out as magical thinking, leaping the gaps between what we know and what we think will work. And a lot comes from the knowledge that we don’t really know what normal is anymore. Is it the way things were? Is it the way things are now? Most everyone I encounter still thinks of the COVID-19 pandemic as something temporary, that’ll blow over eventually…but as two weeks became more, became months, became years, and as we stumble toward something that maybe looks a little bit like early March 2019, it’s harder and harder to say what’s normal, at this point.

This can’t be normal, though. Not while ICUs are bursting at the seams. 

But where does it end? Or does it? Are we still talking about how COVID-19 made us rethink how our society functions? Are we taking this opportunity to make changes? Or are we just returning to our old course as quickly as possible, like a river when the floodwaters recede?

A flood alters the landscape, even if the river does return to its former banks. Life might eventually look a lot like it did before, for better or for worse.

But the marks will be there.

Of course I remember where I was, but that’s beside the point

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I woke up this morning both remembering and not remembering what day it was. Twenty years ago I was awakened by a phone call; the person who called me is the one who sleeps next to me now. That closeness, from phone call to shared bed, occurred by increments. When I think about 9/11, I think about the closing of distances.

There is a surreality of being a very great distance from such an intentional disaster, while still living in the same country. Seattle is over 2800 miles from New York; it’s about the same distance from Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., is where I was born. Now I live under the SeaTac flight path. Mostly what I remember about that day is the lack of planes. And the bomb threat against the Muslim community center in my neighborhood. I remember that.

It’s different for those who were there, or who were directly affected, and it’s their stories that I keep making room for in my own psyche. Remembering where I was feels like an attempt at connection, to at least psychically cross that vast distance and establish some commonality with those who directly experienced the attacks, or who tried to mitigate them, or were unjustly blamed for them. But if there’s commonality to be found, I think it’s in the aftermath, in how our country as a whole changed, or else just allowed certain aspects that were always with us to come to the forefront. In many ways, where we are now is a result of that day, and in many ways, for the worse.

Certainly we are more fragmented. The notion that the whole country pulled together that day isn’t really true–it might be more accurate to say that 9/11 exposed the deep fractures within us. It’s such a big country, with such a terrifyingly violent history. Perhaps unity was always a fiction. And now, in a time of pandemic in which too many still disbelieve, in a time of entrenched hyperpartisanship, I wonder whether the distances between us are all too far to travel.

9/11 didn’t do that. But it widened the gaps.

Reading Hummingbird Salamander

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I began reading Hummingbird Salamander toward the end of my time at Wilderness Awareness School’s immersion program. After eight months of friction fires, wildlife tracking, wild food foraging, bird language, wandering, sleeping under trees, and self-reflection, the thirty-two of us completing the program had the opportunity to bounce those skills off a couple of challenging scouting and survival scenarios. I had brought the book along to read during a break partway through this final gauntlet experience. And so, I read those early chapters while camping with my classmates in an eastern Washington Ponderosa pine forest, where several people (not me) had encountered rattlesnakes, and a few (also not me) had encountered a mountain lion. We’d just spent a week sleeping under the stars (when we did sleep), immersed in nature in a way that few Americans are anymore without, paradoxically, spending a lot of money (but that’s another post). I mention all this so you’ll perhaps have some idea of how this passage landed:

As my illness progressed, over time, I would see also the complexity of what we took for granted in our landscapes and hidden lines of connection would attach to me until moving through the world was like being wrapped in chains. But it was the links, the chains, that made you free. Once you saw it all, you could never go back. Everything was alive. Overwhelming. I was overwhelmed eventually. Overcome.

Where I live in West Seattle, one of the ways people learn that we share our neighborhood with coyotes is when their cats disappear. An understandably common response is to call for the coyotes to be relocated or killed–but this response fails to take into account why the coyotes are there in the first place, or that the likely result of removing them is that others will take their place. The border between where humans and non-humans live is far more permeable than many suppose–if it can be said to exist at all. Ursula LeGuin’s “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” explores this permeability. So does Hummingbird Salamander.

It always surprises me when people talk about nature like it’s something that occurs Out There, somewhere away from human homes and lives. It’s in those jokes about burning down the house if they see a spider, or about how wasps all hate us and want us to die, or joke animal identification posters with nonsense names. It seems emblematic of a deep disquiet with nature, amounting to disconnection. 

If there’s anything about Hummingbird Salamander that resonated with me, it was the inversion of that attitude, exemplified by the passage quoted above.

Jeff VanderMeer seems to notice this same disquiet, and in his books that I’ve read so far it’s nowhere more explicitly evident than in Hummingbird Salamander. And yet acknowledging that we are not, after all, separate from nature breeds its own disquiet. In the last several years I’ve repeatedly encountered–not to mention experienced–what’s called ecological grief, or solastalgia: grieving in response to negatively perceived environmental change, as Wikipedia puts it. Some of this grief is almost certainly existential: the fear that we are making the Earth unlivable not only for other beings, but for ourselves. Some of it certainly has to do with each of us having some notion of what a healthy Earth looks like, that for sure doesn’t include melted polar ice caps, or rivers full of mining tailings, or hundreds of thousands of shellfish dead on coastal beaches due to heat waves. And some of it for sure has to do with a sense of kinship with other beings: many in the Pacific Northwest, where I live, grieved when a mother killer whale carried her dead calf for seventeen days, imagining that she was grieving as well (from what we know of killer whales, there’s some evidence that this is in fact the case).

But in Hummingbird Salamander, as in the real world, grief is not enough. Nothing really is enough, not quite; reviews of the book point out that the novel skewers the thriller trope, where a big dramatic action brings about heroic change, or at least locks a villain away from doing any further harm. The protagonist, for all her bullish adventuring, is ultimately unable to do much more than stare into the future with any and all illusions stripped away. This isn’t a disaster that can be punched, or poisoned, or imprisoned. In fact, the disaster unfurls so subtly that the reader, in the novel much as in the real world, might not notice it at first.

When I finished reading the book, I thought back to a morning of that mid-gauntlet rest period. I had moved a little way from our camp and was sitting in a beam of sunlight amid the Ponderosa pines, listening to the morning birdsong for familiar sounds. The birds east of the Cascade Range are different from those on the western side; instead of the familiar juncos and wrens, here were songs I did not know. Even knowing that these were unfamiliar brought a sense of connection: I was in a place new to me, with new songs, and I knew that they were new. Sitting there on a bed of oak leaves and pine needles, it was hard to believe so many things: that the COVID-19 pandemic was still raging, that so much life on Earth–including our own–was in danger of an accelerating slide toward extinction, that wildfires were already burning a month ahead of the norm. The ending scene of Hummingbird Salamander, similarly quiet and remote, stayed with me. I can’t quite imagine the movie. Certainly I can’t imagine audiences exhausted by the catastrophes of the last two years and stuffed full of a diet of MCU movies flocking to it. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, as Jane asks in the novel, we’ll be there with her.

I struggle still with these ideas: that grief is not enough, that some big action won’t save us. And yet the evidence lies in that so far, it hasn’t happened. I think what really clarified this for me was hearing people half my age wonder why nobody was talking about climate change when they were kids. Well, we were. It was called global warming then, climate change as the term of art was just starting to take hold, but concern about human impact on the life-sustaining systems of the planet on which we live has been around longer than my lifetime. And yet here we are, still fooling ourselves that we are somehow the exception to our own rule.

Maybe the point, then, isn’t salvation. Or at least, not on such a grand scale as we normally think of when we talk about saving the planet. Certainly, whatever is coming is a kind of death, in the sense that we can’t see it from here, no matter how hard we try. More than once I’ve wondered whether the upheaval of the last year and a half is due to an existential dread that many of the participants in that upheaval do not dare acknowledge. To do so, after all, would also be to acknowledge how long we’ve traveled on the wrong paths, that lead neither to home nor to a new summit, but only to another dead end.

Hey, it’s hot

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So as everyone knows, the Pacific Northwest is having a heat wave right now. While it’s not completely unheard of for temperatures to get into the 90s and even break triple digits west of the Cascades, it’s definitely unusual. Unusual enough that on the radio yesterday they were talking about how to keep your car from overheating. It’s just not a thing people here normally have to worry about. Or how to keep themselves from overheating, for that matter.

The big thing to be aware of, if you don’t live in this part of the country, is that residential air conditioning still isn’t the norm. Off the top of my head I can think of maybe two households I know that have it, and one of those is in a newer development. So right now a lot of people are doing what they can to keep cool–running fans if they have them, wrapping wet towels around their necks–or going somewhere that does have AC. Which now has the added complication that we’re still in a pandemic, though the governor is planning to lift all restrictions next week and the state has edged pretty close to a 70% vaccination rate. (Mind, that percentage for herd immunity to COVID-19 is still a best estimate, and among some demographics the rate is far lower.)

I got in a workout this morning before the heat turned brutal, then went for an iced tea with a friend in a nice air conditioned coffee shop. I’m not exactly a hot-weather person, at least not anymore–growing up in Maryland where the summer temperature hit the triple digits semi-regularly by the time I was in high school, I used to, if not enjoy it, at least be able to function within it. But I’ve been outdoors a lot this last year, including a couple of eastside camping trips in pretty hot weather, so I seem to be acclimating.

On the other hand, we have one of those portable AC units intended to chill a single room going in our house, which is keeping things bearable. That was my husband’s idea–he’s a Portlander through and through, and his idea of a hot day starts well short of 80 degrees. The longer I live here, the more I feel the same. That’s another thing to be aware of, if you live somewhere where it regularly gets this hot or even hotter–the human body gets used to the range that it spends most of its time in. Many years ago we spent the winter solstice in Fairbanks, where the daily average was around 40 below zero. When we got back to Seattle, what’s considered a chilly winter day around here felt downright warm.

So while when I first moved here 25 years ago I rolled my eyes at people complaining when the temperature got into the 80s, I really can’t fault anyone for complaining right now. The next few days are going to be rough, especially for people whose homes don’t have AC or have poor ventilation–or who don’t have homes at all.

What I really wonder about–and of course we won’t know unless it happens–is whether this will become normal.

Going back to go ahead

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Tomorrow I go back to work.

By which I mean, tomorrow morning I sit down at the same table where I’m sitting now, at the same laptop where I’m sitting now, and log in to my work e-mail. I check my calendar for meetings, and schedule other ones. I start a number of trainings I’m participating in this summer: Alma-Primo VE software, copyright for librarians and educators, inclusive pedagogy. I open up the budget analysis project that I didn’t get much work done on during the last month of my sabbatical, refamiliarize myself with the metrics, and start writing up preliminary conclusions for my colleagues.

It’s all a big shift from two weeks ago, when I was entering into the final week of the Anake program, a series of challenges and integrations and goodbyes. Time gets elastic during big changes, catastrophes, major life shifts. Earlier today I observed that one month ago today, I was on the eve of what in Anake is referred to as the gauntlet, a series of experiences designed to test and develop what we’d spent the previous eight months learning.

One month ago. It feels like a lot longer.

One year ago my university had just come to the strangest end of the strangest semester most of us could remember, in the middle of which we all went home for the weekend and came back to two days to move our entire educational operation online. Much of my own job remained largely unchanged–a lot of a librarian’s job can be done remotely, or at least mine can–but there were still those reminders of the disaster we were living through. Nursing students and faculty I consulted with looking increasingly strained. Friends volunteering as street medics at the Seattle protests, or documenting what was going on, or just happening to live in the neighborhood. City parks closed and grocery stores mandating limited capacity as we all struggled to understand what was going on. Somehow through all of this, one of my teams at work completed a major software upgrade that changed almost everything about how the library did our work–even as we closed the building to everyone except essential employees and debated whether and how to sanitize printed materials.

That also feels like much longer ago than it was. Between this elasticity of time and my having spent most of the last year in the woods, I’m feeling a bit like I’m in one of those fairy stories where someone disappears under a hill for a year and comes back to find that centuries have passed and everything’s changed.

Centuries haven’t passed, though, and depressingly, not a whole lot has changed either. The pandemic highlighted how much “normal” hasn’t been working, and for how many people, but that normal still seems to be what we’re headed back to. Maybe because it’s hard to have any other coherent idea of where to go. Personally I’m still in that post-initiatory phase of wanting to make some pretty big changes in my own life, but what those changes are and how I’ll do them is taking longer to come clear. In my more optimistic moments I think maybe that’s what’s happening on a broader social level as well. But the forces trying to revert to the status quo are powerful, and they’ve got inertia on their side.

When I was 21 I came to Seattle on a one-way ticket with enough money to get me through a few months. (That was a lot less money in 1996 than it is now.) So maybe my own slowness to make changes now is a factor of age, at least in part.

One of the things that happened for me in the late 90s was I met a martial arts teacher who became one of the most important mentors I’ve ever had, as well as a good friend. Yesterday, I got together with some other students of his, all of us vaccinated, and we worked out together for the first time in over a year. It’s been 25 years; we’re older than we were then, obviously. Slower, creakier. Some of those who were with us back then…aren’t, now, including our teacher. But we’re also sneakier, cleverer, more strategic. We’ve got clearer ideas of what works and what doesn’t, and what’s at stake.

I’m hoping that counts for something.

An ending, and a beginning

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Nine months ago I began both a sabbatical from my academic job and the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School. Not without a certain amount of reservation in both instances; going on sabbatical when my institution was facing one of its worst crises in my 15+ years there felt vaguely inappropriate, even as everyone from colleagues to my director to the provost was encouraging me to do it. And while I’ve taken many courses at WAS at this point, Anake was another thing altogether: a full time immersion into a multi-faceted program that sought to unite curricula around naturalist studies, self-discovery, and social and environmental justice. At some point I’ll perhaps unpack some of my ambivalences around it; right now, I’ll just say that this was one of those instances where my motivations were somewhat obscure even to me. This has frequently happened around what turned out to be major life decisions in the past, from moving to Seattle to starting a relationship that led (eventually) to marriage to pursuing a graduate degree in library science. That most of these decisions have turned out reasonably well hasn’t really lessened my second-guessing myself about how I’ve made them.

But, there I was, sitting in a cabin in the woods the first week of classes, getting acquainted with my classmates on Zoom because the seasonal wildfires late last summer were so bad that the outside air was too smoky for class to meet in person, wondering what the next nine months were going to be like, whether we’d make it to the end. (With a few exceptions, the rest of the year we did meet in person: outdoors, socially distanced, and wearing masks. While I didn’t mind the masks overall and did agree with the reasoning behind them, I’ll go ahead and say that when interacting with people I’ve just met, they did prove a barrier to connection for me. Until then I hadn’t realized how much of my social interactions relied on other people’s facial expressions.)

As the program comes to its end, I’ve found myself reflecting on what motivated me to sign up for it in the first place: or rather, to mull it over for years until circumstances conspired to allow me to just go ahead and do it. I think what I was looking for was a new way of living my life–or rather, of re-discovering a way that I’d once known, and either forgotten or abandoned. I joked at times that Anake was my midlife crisis: there I was in my mid-forties, trying to keep up with classmates who were often half my age, wondering what playing Capture the Flag in the woods had to do with becoming a naturalist. (More than one might think, potentially. So much is context dependent.)

A lot of people were reflecting on that question last year. I saw it frequently among friends, acquaintances, and colleagues whose lives had been upended overnight by the pandemic, who were brought face to face all over again with the enduring injustices and inequalities of American society; either by that society’s response to the pandemic (or, often, failure to respond), or by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, or by the spectacle of the presidential election, or by the insurrection of January 6th, or by hundreds of other things, great and small. Getting to reflect on such questions in beautiful natural settings of the Pacific Northwest, with a few dozen like-minded people, in a program where sitting under a tree for an hour or following a thread of birdsong through the forest constituted homework, was a privilege bordering on luxury. But I came away with the thought that humanity’s collective relationship to the natural world in which we live is inextricably intertwined with all of the rest of this–not in a back to the land, we should all go live in the woods sort of way (I’m here to tell you that that is a very difficult path that most of us would likely opt out of) but in a wider, deeper, more thorough understanding of what it means to live in the world and with each other sort of way.

It would be an enjoyable but ultimately rather pointless thing to have done, unless I can bring something back from it. Something that I can’t quite see yet.

It was, potentially, a life-changing experience. I’ll know if my life changes from here on out.

What I’m reading: The River That Made Seattle

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I’ve lived on a hill above the Duwamish River for most of my 25 years in Seattle–I can even see it when the trees are bare–and yet I never really knew much about it. I’d gleaned a bit here and there from the Duwamish Longhouse and the bulletins from the EPA (both entities featuring heavily in this history), and from volunteering for Nature Consortium and Duwamish Alive!, but that was about it.

Book cover for The River That Made Seattle.

What elicited my interest in learning more was a map of Seattle I found during a cleanup project at the library where I work. The map is from 1908 and shows the Duwamish River before it was straightened and dredged to make room for shipping and industrial operations. B.J. Cummings’s book details what happened to the river before and since, and how it’s inextricably woven into the shaping of the city of Seattle from its early years up to the present day–to say nothing of the effects of both of these things on the indigenous people of the region, to whom the river has been literally a source of life.

Seattle, 1908.

It’s also one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Seattle has made much of its environmental friendliness and commitment to sustainability, and the number of people I meet who are unaware that Seattle has a river, let alone that it’s hazardous to eat fish out of it, used to surprise me. (These kinds of things no longer surprise me, but that’s another post.) The River That Made Seattle is a history of the city through a particular lens, the lens of a river to which the city owes much of its prosperity–but at considerable human and environmental cost.

Duwamish River warning sign. Source: WA Department of Health.

My own relationship with the river has been little more than that of most of the city’s residents for most of my time here: the indirect benefit of its shipping traffic and intersection with truck and rail cargo; an obstacle to be crossed when going in and out of West Seattle (which has been considerably more challenging this past year, for reasons I’ve already written about); something that I’ve felt vaguely bad about, especially when those EPA bulletins started arriving in my mailbox, detailing the pollution of the river and what would need to be done to clean it up.

From a river tour I took in November of 2008.

That relationship began to change before Cummings’s book came out, in part due to other efforts she’s been involved in, but The River That Made Seattle shows how the entire city’s relationship to the river can–and arguably must–change. It’s a worthwhile start not only to understanding the importance of the Duwamish River to Seattle’s history, but why its cleanup is a matter not only of good stewardship, but of justice.

View from Duwamish Waterway Park, March 2021.