Originally published in Issue #15, June 2014
It happened well into the evening, over Texas Hold ‘Em. After the flop. One of the doctors, an OB/GYN, dropped a sentence about climate change being a great delusion, akin to when the majority of scientific thinkers believed the world was flat. This was a friendly game, with the usual—alcohol, pretzels, even dill-pickle chips. It wasn’t often that talk turned to politics at the poker table, unless the subject was one all likely agreed about—Iraq, Cheney, corporate greed. The other four of us at the table fidgeted some, but didn’t respond. After the hand, the doctor continued with passion. He had collected writings, he said, by scientists who did not believe in global warming. “The evidence is just not there,” he said.
I wasn’t eager to shift from the mindless escape of cards to this, but I felt my adrenaline rise as though someone had insulted my wife or maligned my children. This was the earth he was talking about, my Earth I loved, in grave danger, I believed. I teach an undergraduate course in Great Environmental Writing—Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams. My class had just read Bill McKibben, as it happened, who was the major force behind Step It Up, a national protest to urge the government to step up efforts to curb global warming, a protest I would be a part of in eight days.
I said, “You can’t be serious.” I said, “Just in the last decade we’ve seen clear signs of climate change.” I told him about the drought conditions in northern Minnesota where I was building a cabin—500 miles to the north of us here in our hometown of Ames, Iowa. He admitted, sure, he’d seen the signs—but the change in temperature had nothing to do with human activity. He had the literature.
Other players began to take him on, in a good-natured conversation between hands. What about the thousand scientists convened by the UN who unambiguously said the world is warming as a result, mainly, of human generated CO2 in the atmosphere?
“The report had no merit,” he said, and went on to say that the scientists were either victims of group think, or that they were simply saying what they had to in order to keep research dollars flowing. He didn’t think that the scientists had the nerve to jump from the bandwagon of global warming.
Yes, I was shocked to find that this otherwise very intelligent—and compassionate, and funny, and generous—friend of mine could hold such a “backward” and, as I saw it, dangerous view. Dangerous to most all I valued. But I was equally surprised at how poorly prepared I was to argue the truth of climate change. “It’s just a theory,” he said. Cards revealed themselves, chips clattered.
The others at the table tried to joke the topic back into its comfortable box. Another doctor, an allergist, said, “I know what you are, you’re a future holocaust denier.” The allergist is Jewish. He said it with a friendly smile. A couple of us chuckled. But the challenger to the orthodoxy of climate change kept on. The allergist made his charge again: “Future-Holocaust Denier.” When another doctor arrived late—he’d been on call—the allergist summed up the discussion, and told him, “I’ve come up with a term for him, Future-Holocaust Denier.” I could see that in saying it he had discovered himself its disturbing truth.
I told the contrarian doctor that I would like to see the literature he had challenging climate change. He called his wife on his cell phone and asked her to get it ready. I said I would read it if he would read a book I had. “Deal,” he said. I was going to take him Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert. The conversation finally moved on.
I carried Kolbert’s book in my car for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t take it by. Largely because I was so busy. But it was also because I don’t believe there’s any controversy. The jury is in on climate change, and I didn’t want to be bothered with—what I suspected was a lot of industry-driven—PR science.
What interested me most was why this very alert, warm guy felt so passionate about debunking the prevailing opinions of climate scientists. Why the impassioned denial?
Around that time I talked to my friend Sheryl St. Germain, who directs an MFA program with a heavy emphasis on “environmental” writing. Sheryl is from New Orleans. She said she’d been thinking a lot lately about our ability to ignore the truth of our environmental circumstances, and our culpability. She said she had been reading a lot of environmental psychology, trying to figure it out. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” she said. “In a country where so many do nothing to promote the health of their own bodies, why should I expect them to care for Earth.”
But this was a doctor—who sees to the welfare of others, who, I know, is very good at what he does, very committed to helping others.
Almost a month later to the day, an accident happened.
At a campsite at Minnesota’s Ham Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a man from Washington, D.C., a veteran of twenty years of visits to that stretch of wild land, let his campfire get away from him. The Ham Lake Fire blew up from 1000 acres on day two, to 75,000 acres five days later. The fire burned before explosive, spiraling winds, through forest brittle-dry too early in the year for the underbrush to have greened. A spring fire in a region that had no appreciable snow the previous winter, a region where all the thousand lakes were at record low levels, a region at the edge of Lake Superior, also at record low levels.
The fire burned in a 92-square-mile semi-circle. In the center, what one firefighter later told me they called the “Donut Hole,” a large contingent of the fire-fighting force, with its planes, dozers, helicopters, chainsaws, and Pulaskis, worked to save my cabin along with two lodges and 50 other cabins at Loon Lake, and the one to the north, Gunflint, both just off the Gunflint Trail.
Hard at work on our cabin, my wife and I were evacuated on the worst day in the fire’s short history, as winds gusted from the northwest at 30 miles an hour and temperatures were in the upper 80s. We spent two nights in a motel in Grand Marais, along with 250 other evacuees. Twice a day we attended information meetings held by the Forest Service in the Arrowhead Center for the Arts. Of course we heard stories of things forgotten in hasty leavings, of uninsured cabins, of wildfire sprinkler systems saving cabins in humid capsules. I had seen a wolf on our way in the day before we were evacuated, a moose ragged in its spring shedding. I heard no stories of wildlife. But people cried for them, I knew, and other memories of forest magic.
There was something aching inside me that had drawn me to that northern edge of Minnesota in the first place, to paddle, camp, build a cabin, retreat into the wild. A deepened feeling of connection to the eternal. The humbling out-of-self transcendence of wilderness experience. Yes, I owned part of the wild, but it also owned me. Sure, my experience was culturally constructed to a certain extent, the romance of nature, the adventure of “the wilds”—but it was also shaped by 20 years of interaction with this one living entity of a place.
I wanted my cabin to survive those flames. But fire is wild. Maybe it would have been easier to handle if lightning had ignited the blaze, instead of human foolishness.
At one point in the chaos two well-connected people from up the Gunflint Trail told me that our lakeshore had burned. Later, trying to sleep in the Spruce Grove Motel with the heater stuck on, its thermostat broken—a fitting irony, I now see—I searched for reasons to believe our cabin might have been spared, our cabin and the wild lake we love. I knew that dozens of other cabins farther up the Trail had burned, but I’d also heard that the fire could unaccountably take one cabin and leave the one beside it. Maybe ours was spared. I believed that was unlikely, but I made a desperate deal with the Creator. If our cabin was spared, I would spend $10,000 to fight global warming—a donation to the Natural Resources Defense Council. It wouldn’t be much money in the big scheme of things, but it was a big bet for me. I knew it was a rabbit’s-foot promise. I finally slept.
Then a miracle happened. We learned at the next morning’s Forest Service information meeting that Loon Lake had not burned.
Later that month, back in Ames, we listened to the information meetings on the Grand Marais community radio station streamed over my computer. The Forest Service information officer’s voice crackled, “I want to tell you that today while driving through the burned-over areas, I saw signs of life coming back—already. Growth, green. Mother Nature will see that the area recovers. That’s how Mother Nature works. It won’t happen tomorrow or the next day, but someday this forest will look again like the forest you loved.”
Forest information officers are well schooled in salving the grief of people after catastrophe. They use that familiar narrative—the world reborn from fire—to ease people into a future they had not seen coming.
After the fire, no one spoke of global warming, the story with fire at its heart. Many talked about fire mitigation, about the “Fire Wise” rules for making property less susceptible to fire. No one talked about culpability for this conflagration beyond the careless camper on Ham Lake.
There is no sunny side to that larger story that at its heart glows with the ominous power of the sun.
Last year was the warmest year in history. By 2100, it’s conservatively estimated, half of all the species extant will be gone. Think of it. Organisms present on the earth for millennia lost. Plants, birds, frogs, butterflies. Whales, gorillas, polar bears—the postcard megafauna we love in zoos but dismiss in the wild. They will not be replaced by anything for, at best, 10 million years. We call the first spring wildflowers “ephemera.” Is that how we should categorize all life?
Our leaders propose modest responses which amount to, as a student of mine says, “band-aids on bullet wounds.” The ice caps shrink, the oceans rise, already too acidic for coral, glaciers retreat, food and water supplies teeter. Nearly seven and a half billion people share and impact the planet, close to twice the number as in 1971, the year I graduated from college.
The contrarian doctor understands wounds. He himself had cancer. He is a person of great conscience. Heart.
In Grand Marais, we saw people rally on all fronts to help those displaced by fire. Noble, good people. Maybe they saw a connection between the fires that leveled so much they loved and climate change, between the rainless northern forests and their own behaviors. Maybe. Did I—really? What the hell have I done?
Our cabin is off the grid, powered by solar panels. We use fluorescent bulbs, even LEDs, recycle, buy local. I teach environmental writing and literature. I’ve taught beekeeping. I’ve marched with protest signs.
Still, for 23 hours out of 24, I deny the future holocaust. I drive a Toyota Sienna so I can carry my big dogs as it guzzles a gallon every 18 miles I drive. Our house is air conditioned, with two furnaces, one for each floor, although it is not large. I like to stay warm. I hate to see species disappearing. I hate the thought that my children or grandchildren will not have ice at the poles or northern forests or frogs.
Well meaning, comfortable me. I’ve come to wonder—am I capable of the sacrifices necessary to inhabit the truth?
The truth: In the end I gave $500 to the Natural Resources Defense Council, all I could afford after I spent the rest of the promised $10,000 installing a wildfire sprinkler system on our cabin. All the cabins but one that survived the Ham Lake Fire had sprinklers. That’s what saved them.