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Vancouver under the smog from wildfires.

Vancouver under the smog from wildfires.

I’m in Vancouver, Canada. Down the street, from my bench at an internet cafe on Main Street, a team of American women just won the World Cup – and on the day after the Fourth of July, with  Japan left in their wake. I’m not patriotic, but I’m coughing. They must be, too. Bravo.

But, more importantly, and with a cough in my mouth, this city is engulfed in an eerie haze. The sun is an ugly orange and surrounded by bizarre, ember skies, and the smell of wood smoke everywhere.

Wildfires lately have consumed the Pacific Northwest. As of today, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, there are 181 fires, just here, in the province of British Columbia, and 48 of those broke out over the past two days. And south, in Washington state, fires sweep, tragically, through the epic faerie lands in a most remote region – the Queets River, of Olympic National Park (my favorite in the USA, one of the only rivers in that park where an old-growth forest watershed actually meets the Pacific Ocean), back east in the drier areas of the unkept, quiet wilds of Colville National Forest – one of the last homes for wolf packs in the Lower 48, and – and even further, near the urbanity of Spokane. And another, in the North Cascades National Park, another home of wolves and bears. And another, near Moses Lake. By the time you read this, there will be another. Guaranteed.

If there ever were a need for an environmental John Brown in the Northwest, it’s now, man, woman or child, or all three. And I’m not being provincial. Listen up.

It seems there’s little to do, really, except observe the thermometer and watch it go up in smoke. What has the local, provincial or federal government done to stop the encroachment of climate change in the Canadian portion of the Pacific Northwest, aside from enable it via ram-rodding tar sands projects and oil pipelines, or avoid the situation under the grant-making machine of Big Green’s smoke and mirrors? If it doesn’t make money, pardon my French, it won’t come.

And do we really need to mention what Obama has not done, wilting under the gaze of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, and not bothering to give the Big Green lobbying machines of the Sierra Club or the Rainforest Action Network, et al,  any time, if it really mattered? I’ve fantasized about dropping him in Olympic National Park, with fire gear and helmet on, so he gets a taste of the cough he’s inevitably created among the ancient cedars and firs, after those trees have lived 500 years (and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for that matter, sunk in the tar sands).

My nostrils are burning. My heart skipped this afternoon as I walked my favorite street in the city, with this local grocer and that local bistro, closed down, and saw elderly people with napkins covering their faces, and even one in a gas mask. There is an air quality warning in the city. A friend of mine is worried about his ailing mother’s health. Another friend, way off in the Black Hills of South Dakota. said that a smog advisory descended upon his area last weekend due to the way the wind blew, and the wind blew far, far southeast from Canada.

So, now my immediate question is: How do we brave the haze that is consuming this city, one I’ve lived in, on and off, for seven years, always with a cool, clean breeze driving off the summer heat, to a point where I’ve envied those who sweat in my Midwest homeland?

Now, We have it. Here. Weird 90 degree heat and humidity. That’s the new normal. And don’t tell me it’s a random occurrence.

Forests burning. Cathedrals. It’s a huge loss. If they were Notre Dame, we’d call the cops. But these Northwest forests are far more majestic than a French church. They offer sanctuary, like a healing chapel, and they foster life. Coastal wolves and bears drag salmon carcasses upstream and over banks into the woods, which provide nitrogen in the soil. The soil feeds the plants. The plants feed the animals. That’s true sustainability, and it’s a tragedy that’s going up in smoke. Why? Because of political maneuverings, neglect and greed. Money and handshakes.

I’ve driven and hiked through forests burnt. Washington’s Mount St. Helens – due to the historic  volcano blast –  and portions of Glacier National Park, Montana, and even a bit of Yellowstone in Wyoming.

And I wonder what my 11-year-old child will have when she gets older, to value, if we, like tonight, choose to honor the local Air Quality Warning and stay inside. She’s been asking me to write about climate change for a year. So, yeah.

If rainforests burn, like that of the Olympics, we are in real crisis. If you don’t yet have a handkerchief around your mouth, North America, you will soon enough.

Published in CounterPunch Magazine, July 2015

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