Updated: Nov 3, 2020
Written October 5th, 2020
I’m driving up I-5, trying to call my friend, but the cell service keeps dropping out. In between service, I’m watching the surroundings. The smoke has settled in the Central Valley--an uneasy haze that presses against the horizon. I finally connect with my friend and I realize to her out loud that I’ve gone nearly a month without breathing clean air.
I’m on my way to Redding, where I’ll live for the next year, most of my belongings in tow. I’ll commute to Red Bluff every day to work with the Tehama County RCD on regenerative agriculture and forest projects.
There’s newness in the air, and it’s not just the smoke. It is the weight of people beginning to understand that from now on, change isn’t just the arrival or disappearance of leaves on trees. It isn’t just the yearly shift of California grasses from green to gold and back. It is also the arrival of unprecedented climate “normals” and the disappearance of many things we once knew. In the midst of this new climate normal, I’ve started a new chapter of my life, moved to a new place, and am meeting countless new people. I’ve mastered my elevator pitch self-intro: “Hi I’m Rose it’s nice to meet you I just graduated from Berkeley I’m from the Bay Area I’m excited to be here.”
Climate change doesn’t change small talk. Or maybe it does. Many of the “small talk” conversations I have now end with the weather, which grips us like never before. These conversations are empathizing, and they cut to the heart of how the climate personally affects us all.
I’ve talked with farmers about droughts and temperatures that have cut harvest yields in half. My organization’s director told me about a fire that grazed her ranch. One man told me about his favorite fishing holes that just aren’t the same any more. I’ve heard about my friend’s relatives who live in the South being forced to relocate due to tropical storms. People have told me about their childhood, their memories, their history.
In return, I’ve been able to share my own stories. I’ve told people about my uncle who barely escaped Paradise in 2018; he’s a carpenter, and his workshop and home were lost in the blaze. I’ve shared how my family’s house in Healdsburg miraculously survived a wildfire last fall. I’ve been able to talk about the oaks there, which at first seemed about as charred as our neighbors’ houses, and which are now beginning to reawaken in little spots of green. Small talk stops being small when the climate enters the picture.
During GrizzlyCorps training, we talked to fire specialists and educators who told us that these catastrophic fire seasons don't have to be our new normal. Hundreds of years of mismanaged forests have made our land more flammable and less resilient during fire events. If we manage forests differently and use fire to our advantage by engaging in low-intensity prescribed burns like indigenous communities did for hundreds of years before us (in other words, if we think about fire in a less antagonistic way) burns don’t have to decimate us the way they do now. This is a problem that can realistically be solved.
I sometimes wonder what to do with that knowledge. I told it to a friend who was feeling particularly upset while experiencing the apocalyptic orange skies in the Bay Area--it didn’t help her much. She was grieving the world that we have lost. Who was I to tell her that things could be different when we are all adjusting to the different world we have now?
None of us have a complete answer on how to navigate this reckoning and reimagining of the world as it was and as it will be, but at least she and I were talking about it. At least we could connect and listen to each other.
A week ago, winds finally pushed the smoke away from Redding and the air was clear. I enjoyed the weekend by the Trinity River. I fell asleep under the stars one night to a nice breeze rustling the trees. Those same winds fanned the Zogg fire, which caused the evacuation of areas west of Redding and Red Bluff. Close to Red Bluff, the fire burned the homes of my coworker’s family overnight. Generations of their memories are now lost.
If I’ve ever learned anything about climate change, it’s that it is unpredictable-- both in how it manifests and in how people feel about it. Fire couldn’t be a more perfect example. Winds are fickle. They change quickly and cause fires to move even quicker. The burns destroy ecosystems and family history alike. The results and their solutions are polarizing, personal, and often traumatic.
When we feel powerless to this unpredictability, sometimes all we can do is talk about it. Word by word, conversation by conversation, we continue to connect. We try to build hope. We hope to heal ourselves and the earth.
If we have any hope for climate resiliency, which I fervently do, we must know that it starts with human resilience, human humility, and human empathy towards each other and towards our lands. It starts with me and the other nineteen fellows in GrizzlyCorps, going somewhere different, doing something new, building skills, and most importantly listening to new stories. Even if at first it’s small talk. Especially if it’s about the weather.