On the Beach

South Beach

South Beach campground, Olympic Peninsula

At the north end of the campground, in a compound of recreational vehicles, a tall pole sported the Stars and Stripes and the Gadsden flag – the yellow one with the snake hissing, “Don’t tread on me,” the one associated with libertarians, Tea Partiers, and white supremacists.

At the south end of the campground were the tents and hippy vans, the queers and more people of color than we have ever seen camping at South Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. That’s where we were, of course.

We chatted briefly with two young women about how to snag beach-front sites in the small campground that takes no reservations. When they had settled in, they invited us to their campfire that night. And that’s how we learned that Maria, daughter of Venezuelan immigrants, and her partner Lyv, granddaughter of lesbians, were living in Spokane and dreaming of a move to California. They had gotten to know the nice family on the other side of their tent, and they were so relieved, they said, to be surrounded by people they could trust. We felt the same.

Danger can arise anywhere, but recent events made us particularly apprehensive about camping on the peninsula this year. In June, a family described as multiracial drove through Forks on their way to a Forest Service campground. They were accosted in a parking lot by seven or eight carloads of suspicious locals and followed out of town. When they heard gunshots, they decided to leave their campsite, but someone had felled trees on the road, barricading them in. They had to be escorted out of town for their own safety. When we drove through Forks, we pulled into the gas station behind a black truck with hand-written white letters encouraging us to learn more about QAnon.

Sandy beach and waves on a sunny days

The view from our van (photo by Arline)

Still, we were glad to return to the campground where we have had good experiences. No grey whales swam by this time, but we took long walks on the sandy beach and fell asleep to the roar of waves. And the unexpected company of the young women cheered us. Our last morning, we woke to notes and drawings framed in driftwood on our picnic table: “The musings and stories you’ve collected on your journey through life are incredibly awe-inspiring to us both.” The day before one had said, “We want to be you someday!” That’s when I realized: we are now the queer elders. And the kids are more than okay; they are passionate and loving and creative and smart. We slept better knowing they were nearby.

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Dispatch from Seattle #2

A pile of puzzle piecesIn the picture on the box, several hundred colorful birds perch, fly, and hover on a white background. All have stick legs that look the same on the thousand tiny pieces spread across our dining room table. My spouse Arline and I don’t, as a rule, do puzzles. We started one on a vacation a few years ago, but we didn’t have time over the weekend to finish it. Now we have time.

There’s a method to putting together a puzzle. Start with the frame. We turned the pieces face up on the table and picked through them, looking for straight edges. It took little time to assemble most of the frame, but four pieces were missing. We looked for them for days.

puzzle2

In late February and early March, dread clenched my jaw, a return to the debilitating anxiety of my late 20s, which were almost thirty years ago. Every week brought a new momentous decision. Should I fly to San Antonio for a conference? Should I put my final weeks of winter quarter online? Should we go to dinner with our friends on a Saturday in March? One of the friends, a doctor, said we would be fine if we went early and used hand sanitizer after reading the menu. Two weeks later I would learn she was right, but I was on edge the entire evening. The next day, the governor closed restaurants and bars. His order limited my options, framed them. I no longer had to make my own decisions, and for the moment, my anxiety lessened.

After establishing the frame, I sorted puzzle pieces by color. I assembled several red birds — a cardinal, finches — and placed them in the frame where they belonged, according to the picture. Arline gathered bird heads in one corner of the table. Now we could pick through the pieces with eyes and beaks when all we were missing was a head.

The geography of our life contracted to our co-op apartment with occasional forays to the grocery store and daily walks. We have the comforts of a separate room for my office, of tall windows looking onto a park, and of a courtyard garden, where the two smallest residents of the co-op toddled after Easter eggs. Our building is community-minded; people leave warm muffins outside each other’s doors, and one neighbor lends us her golden retriever. Arline, retired, bakes and delivers loaves of sourdough bread. I am mindful of even more significant privileges – a job that can be done online, good healthcare in a city of medical specialists, a governor who is guided by scientists, and a representative in the House who advocates for immigrants, the homeless, and working people.

puzzle4But all of those bright birds – cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds – float on our dining room table in a disturbingly inchoate space, empty and ragged. Our puzzle-making has slowed as we stare at tiny fragments of legs, beaks, and severed wings.

By mid April, people in my Facebook feed were sharing their experiences with the virus, but they were far away. And then we got the news that someone close to us had tested positive. Arline and I looked at each other across the dining room table. How had we been lulled into thinking we wouldn’t know anyone directly affected? Of course, we would. We kept in close touch with the family, and my jaw tightened again. We lay awake in the night, dragged through the days. One morning we stood in line at Costco during senior hour to buy the family groceries. Weeks later, one member of the family has recovered and others have fallen sick. Every day we are grateful that the news isn’t worse.

puzzle3

I sit occasionally, listening to a book or music, and squint at the pieces. I look for one with a tiny patch of blue or red, the piece that will fit right here, that will make this bird whole. Sometimes I find one and, as it clicks softly into place, the fear eases. More often, I try to force together pieces that don’t belong. Bent over, my back begins to ache. I stand, scan the table, and remind myself that this one will take a long time.

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Dispatch from Seattle #1

The Highline Student Union building from outside

I opened the Zoom meeting on March 9, and as my students’ faces appeared before bedroom walls, living room windows, and closets, one blurted, “How sad that we aren’t together!” Sorrow washed over me. It was the last Monday of the last week of the quarter of English 101 Plus, a ten-credit option for students who want extra support. It draws recent immigrants, international students, returning students who have earned their GEDs, and teenagers swapping high school for college. We had spent ten hours a week together for nine weeks, and we had forged a community.

During the quarter, M had passed her citizenship test, and we celebrated with cake and soda at 8 in the morning. D’s wife had an aneurysm, and he moved into a hotel room near her hospital; we checked in with him every day he was able to attend. L told us about the kidney transplant she was waiting for. P let me practice Spanish with him for a few minutes in the computer lab each week.

Now there would be no end-of-quarter party, no hugs and photos, no celebratory gallery walk, where students post their last essays on the walls and we write compliments on blue and green sticky notes. My last communication with them would be over email.

I felt less emotional about my students in the advanced writing class that had been online all quarter — until I read their end-of-quarter posts about next steps. Some students plan to transfer soon to four-year schools. A pre-nursing student will volunteer in a hospital. Another wants to take her younger siblings to Disneyland.

My heart hurt as I wondered whether these dreams would be realized. Only one student, older than most of the others, commented directly on current events. He noted that we have no idea how the pandemic will affect our work and careers, whether the government will handle it well, and if our lives will be irrevocably changed. He said, “We have to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.”

And I realized then that I’ve been grieving a lost future. Whatever certainty I had about how I would spend the last decade of my career; how I would soon celebrate birthdays with grandchildren and drink wine with my parents on their patio; travel, go to music festivals, write another novel – the certainty is gone.

Certainty was always an illusion; I know that. But at least the future I imagined was within the range of the possible. Now it’s hard to know what that range even encompasses.

At the end of the quarter, I often tell my English 101 students that they will likely forget everything they wrote in this class. They won’t remember what their response paper responded to or what their rhetorical analysis analyzed. I certainly have forgotten most of my college assignments. But hopefully they will remember that they have learned how to learn, how to figure out a new genre, draft and revise and edit, ask for feedback, tap resources, revise again.

Someday those of us who survive will look back on this time, and we will have forgotten many things. We will forget the news report that kept us awake one night, the anxiety-ridden decision about whether to eat at a restaurant, the days counted after a possible exposure to the virus.

Maybe we will even forget the dreams we once had, the ones that never came true. But we will still have dreams. That’s what I keep telling myself.

 

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What’s Best

Loreen Lee

Loreen Lee with her memoir, The Lava Never Sleeps

It’s “best of” season. Best books of the year. Movies. Songs. And because we are approaching 2020, the lists are expanding to cover the entire decade.

It’s hard to resist such categorization. I keep a list of books I’ve read on Goodreads, and the site just sent me an overview of my year of reading: 34 books and 11,000 pages. I’m tempted to rank them.

When I scan my Goodreads list, I remember how often I laughed this summer while walking and listening to Luis Urrea narrate The House of Broken Angels. I remember the joy of attending the book launch party for my friend Loreen Lee’s long-awaited memoir The Lava Never Sleeps. And the fun of reading Carmen Maria Machado’s book of clever, often creepy stories in Her Body and Other Parties after meeting her at the AWP conference in Portland.

Great moments, all. But do they have to be ranked? What does best even mean?

Literary critic and academic Harold Bloom died this year. He’s famous for declaring that twenty-six writers belong in the canon – the “best of” list for all time. Naturally, he included only four women (the usual suspects: Austen, Dickinson, Eliot, and Woolf) and only two from countries outside North America and Europe (Borges and Neruda). He considered other writers “canonical,” but he singled out these twenty-six for extensive analysis.

Others have critiqued canonization better than I can (see, for example, Toni Morrison: “Canon building is empire building.”).

Carmen Machado

Fangirl moment with Carmen Maria Machado. Photo by Arline García.

What I want to say about canonization comes from a different perspective: as a writer. Of course, most of us writers would love to see our names on “best of” lists. Awards validate our efforts and make publication easier with the next project. The publicity increases the chance that readers will find our work.

But most of us will never see our work mentioned in The New York Times or ordered for college literature classes, let alone canonized. And still, we write. We write to explore, to understand, to feel. To know the satisfaction of creating something artful. And, whether our work is ever widely known, we find ways to connect with readers.

I read from my novel-in-progress at Two-Hour Transport in Seattle a year ago. Two-Hour Transport is a fantastic reading series, mostly focused on speculative fiction, held at Café Racer and organized by Nicole Bade and Theresa Barker (check out the anthology).

Allison Green reading from novel in progress

Reading at Two-Hour Transport, Cafe Racer, November 2018. Photo by John Pfeffer.

That night, I was reading in public from the manuscript for the first time, and I didn’t know how it would go. I read a scene about a man, a radio operator, who volunteered to monitor Mount Saint Helens in 1980. In that moment, he watches the volcano erupt,  knowing he will not survive. My hope was to honor him.

As I read, I could feel the room go still. I got to the last line of the scene. There was a pause, then audible sighs. I could feel it – out of words had come a real person, a beating heart, a life.

That is what’s best: when the writing connects.

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Of Books and Brownstones

The brownstone building that houses the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn

Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn

 

As a child, I knew nothing about the east coast; what I understood about the metropolis of New York City came from Sesame Street. The show debuted in 1969, so my family was probably living in Wisconsin when I first dropped on the floor in front of the television set to watch it. Although we wouldn’t have a color set for another ten years, even in black and white the show captivated me. New York was an exciting place where all kinds of kids ran down sidewalks to upbeat music. Friendly people sat on stoops. And they sounded different, like that grouchy puppet whose voice, I didn’t know then, was based on a Bronx taxi driver’s. If I could have, I would have moved to Sesame Street.

As I grew older, I read books set in New York, like E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a sister and brother sneak into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and live there. I longed for a museum so vast and sumptuous that a girl could hide for days, collecting pennies from the fountain at night.

In my M.F.A program, everyone had read Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and although its New York of cocaine-fueled parties wasn’t one I wanted to enter, I was captivated by the bravura of the second-person narration. As a counterpoint to the mostly white and male writers in the curriculum, I made my own reading list, and that’s when I discovered Paule Marshall’s 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones. Here again were those magical front stoops. By now I was living on the east coast; not only could I sit on a stoop myself, I could easily travel to New York.

On my first visit, I arrived on Halloween. My college friend was staying there temporarily, and, after I arrived, we dropped off my duffel bag and descended into the subway. We emerged in a Greenwich Village weirder and wilder than anything I’d imagined; of course, it was Halloween. Late that night, we returned to the subway, but my friend wasn’t sure if the next train was the right one. At the last second, she jumped on the train, the door closed, and I was left on the platform alone. This was pre-cellphones, and I didn’t have a phone number or address for where we were staying. A few people in scary costumes stood nearby. My throat closed in fear.

What to do? I waited many long minutes for the next train and got on it, hoping it was on the same line. At the next platform, there was my friend. We grabbed each other and held on, laughing.

That was over thirty years ago, and I’ve visited New York many times since, most recently last month. The magic for me this time was spending a morning doing research for my next novel in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. I am so grateful to the women who thought to collect all of this pre-digital material, attesting to the fact and beauty and persistence of lesbian lives: cassette tapes and videos, photographs and flyers, magazines and books (alphabetized by first name because, of course, last names are patriarchal). I could have spent days there.

Coincidentally, when we returned home, the Seattle Queer Film Festival was showing a documentary about the archives called “The Archivettes” – I highly recommend it.

Did I mention that the archives are housed in a beautiful old brownstone? In another version of my life, I am moving to Sesame Street, where I can visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives any time I want or just sit on the stoop, chatting with friendly neighbors.

 

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A Tribute

Arline Garcia: Faculty Member of the Year

Arline Garcia: Faculty Member of the Year, 2016

Two friends recently gave us sourdough starter at the same time and, not knowing what we were doing, we accepted both. One came with a name: Bobby. One came nameless. We soon took to thinking of our starters as “hers” and “hers.”

Sourdough starter is weird because it’s alive. I took my jar out of the refrigerator this weekend, and it was pulsating like some zombie brain in a lab. Apparently, this is because bacteria eat the sugars in the flour and turn them into acids; yeasts that like an acidic environment eat the sugars and give off carbon dioxide. And get this: some of the bacteria come from the person raising the starter. Scientists have compared bakers with their starter and found they have many microbes in common.

Arline is experimenting with making bread from sturdy grains, like spelt. She is also retiring. After using her hands for several decades to grade exams and record homework assignments, she’s now using them to knead. It’s a different kind of nourishment, just as essential.

I made pancakes with my zombie starter. Buttermilk, sourdough, blueberry pancakes. With barrel-aged maple syrup from the Woodinville Whiskey Company. They were as good as they sound. After breakfast, I left a plateful in the kitchen to cool before freezing, but one by one they disappeared. Not saying how many I ate.

When I was a child, my maternal grandmother made sourdough pancakes at our family cabin in eastern Washington. Now that I know her microbes were in that starter, I’m even sadder that I didn’t inherit any. Rob Dunn, a Professor of Applied Ecology who was one of the authors of the bread/baker study, said, “There was an essence of the baker in the starter the baker made, and that was conveyed in the bread.” My grandmother’s essence was nothing less than unconditional love. I swallowed it with her pancakes, her chocolate cake, her jams and jellies. She loved me through adolescent storms and adult choices she didn’t understand. A body knows when it’s loved.

Arline has loved teaching. I know because she has spent hours preparing for class, meeting with struggling students, delighting when students thrive. She develops relationships with students so strong that she can, when they’re not stepping up, gently call them out and call them back in — and then, usually, they step up. She creates classroom environments in which students of all kinds support and learn from each other: heritage speakers, first-time Spanish learners; young students, returning students; high school students, professionals; neurodivergent and neurotypical students; home-schooled and public-schooled and private-schooled students. I have heard stories about them all, and the common thread is that she cares deeply for their learning.

Now Arline is retiring and turning her attention to other pursuits. She wants to travel. She may learn to play guitar or speak French. She is baking. Last night she brought me a slice of warm spelt bread, melting butter.

As her starter bubbles on the counter — will you give it a name, Arline? — I honor her years of commitment to education. Her knowledge of pedagogy, her skill in the classroom, her passion for language and learning. She has made an incredible difference in many lives. And, like the essence of her in every bite of bread, some of her has gone out into the world with her students. They are out there living their lives, different people for having studied with her. And, in some way, stronger. Because students know when they are loved.

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Thirty-Nine Years Later

On the 39th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, I tagged along on a geology field trip with students from my college. This was my fourth visit to the volcano (spoiler alert: manuscript-in-progress), and I was hoping to learn something new. Thanks to instructor Carla Whittington, I did.

A kouign amann pastry and a sticker "Olympia coffee"

My butter-and-sugar fix

First, though, I learned that the kouign amann pastries at Olympia Coffee Roasting Company are wickedly delicious. I bought one in Olympia on my way through and, arriving at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, munched myself into a butter-and-sugar daze.

 

 

 

 

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

 

Inside the Center, the students roamed with handouts and clipboards. Most, but not all, had been born long after the eruption and were fascinated by their elders’ stories. At sixteen, I had watched the eruption column from the front yard of our family’s house in north Seattle. Carla, living in Minneapolis at the time, had put a cup outside her apartment window because ash was drifting eastward and she hoped to catch some. Sadly, she didn’t.

House destroyed by eruption

House on Toutle River destroyed by the eruption

Our first stop after the visitor center was a county park on the south fork of the Toutle River. Here, almost thirty miles from the summit, lahars flowing down the valley destroyed the park and surrounding homes. Houses collapsing near the road showed what an eruption and four decades of decay can do.

 

Includes a poem by Truman's sister

Memorial headstone for Harry Truman

At the old Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, now privately owned, the gate was open for the anniversary, and I saw the Memorial Grove for the first time. Harry Truman still haunts these forests, as do the others who lost their lives that day, most outside the official off-limits “red” zone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

View of the mountain from the observatory.

The mountain, thirty-nine years later

The best part of the day was at the observatory near the summit. Among the experts staffing information tables was Carolyn Driedger, a geologist who had been studying glaciers at the time of the eruption. She and Mindy Brugman had spent the afternoon on the ridge here with Dave Johnston, the volcanologist assigned to monitor the volcano that day. She and Brugman wanted to camp overnight, but Johnston said it wasn’t worth the risk. The next morning, at 8:32, he radioed the United States Geological Survey headquarters in Vancouver: “This is it!”

Carla, who knew Driedger from professional circles, introduced me to her, and Driedger told me that scientists did not know then that volcanoes could erupt in a lateral blast. Only afterwards, as they reviewed changes to the terrain, did they understand what they were seeing near other volcanoes.

But as interesting as it was to learn about the volcano from Driedger, the more visceral thrill was simply listening to someone who had lived through this moment in history. Thirty-nine years ago I had been waking up in Seattle while Driedger and Brugman, driving back toward the mountain, heard the news. Her story connected me to that moment and to all the others whose lives were affected that day: Johnston, Truman, the dead and the surviving. Time was a spiral, not a straight line, and for a moment, I was there as the volcano blew.

 

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Apocalypse

Ruins of building stairs with stuffed animals.

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” So begins N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which appeared under our Christmas tree wrapped in cheerful, glittery paper. Arline gave me the boxed Broken Earth trilogy, knowing I’ve been obsessed with apocalyptic novels this year. I just started reading it, so don’t ask me yet how Jemisin plots three novels after the world ends.

Dissertations have no doubt been written on why we enjoy stories about the end of the world. It’s probably for the same reason people enjoy horror (although I don’t) and murder mysteries (these I do). Narrative imposes order, which makes the unimaginable not only imaginable but possibly cathartic. Even the mere fact that each sentence follows the last makes life feel more controlled, less scary. Most of the time.

Samuel Delaney’s 1975 classic Dhalgren, which I hadn’t read until this year, was the least consoling book, probably because it’s the least comprehensible. A young man who wears only one sandal and can’t remember his name wanders a devastated midwestern city. It reminded me of Joyce’s Ulysses, also disorientingly difficult to read and, for me, a book one is glad to have read but wasn’t particularly glad to be reading. What I’ll never forget about Dhalgren is the psychedelic stream of sentences and an ominous elevator, its door stuck open, that eventually swallows an innocent, as cities do.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sigrid Nunez’s Salvation City. A flu pandemic orphans an adolescent boy, who is then adopted by evangelicals in a small town. Of the novels I read this year, it’s the least apocalyptic; in fact, I came to wonder why the plot needed those millions of deaths. Were they the only way to get the son of a history professor and lawyer into the home of a store-front-church pastor and his wife, people his parents would have ridiculed? Regardless, Nunez tells the story of Cole’s coming of age as he navigates the mysteries of this new community with such grace and respect for the people around him that I stopped waiting for the major plot developments one expects from a good apocalyptic novel.

However, if you’re looking for those heart-stopping moments in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death delivers. In a post-apocalyptic desert world, perhaps in what we now call Sudan, a girl, born of a soldier’s rape of her mother, grows to realize she is the savior her people have been waiting for. Onyesonwu’s journey from child to sorceress, battling her own demons, is classic and classically satisfying. That Okorafor weaves in contemporary political and social issues makes the story surprising and new.

This year I read another 1970s novel I had neglected until now: Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. Set in a post-nuclear landscape of small, struggling towns, the novel tells the story of an itinerant healer who travels with her bag of snakes. Why had I never read this classic of feminist speculative fiction? I think, in my young-adult desire to reject stereotypically nurturing female characters, I was turned off by the idea of the snake healer. But reading the book now, I’m sad I missed it at that age. Snake is a humble woman in a dangerous world, trying to use her skills and knowledge for the common good. She might have been an appealing model for a young woman trying to find her way.

In the year that Ursula K. Le Guin died, I re-read many of her novels, some of them apocalyptic. In Lathe of Heaven, a man struggles with his ability to change the world by dreaming. Even when he tries to change things for the better, his intentions produce warped, disturbing versions of our world. Le Guin, as always, is a wise and loving writer. She guides us through the apocalypse to a renewed world that, while never perfect, nonetheless offers us space and time to pursue justice, to demonstrate compassion, to flourish.

As disturbing and apocalyptic as this true world too often feels — this real one, not of paper or digital words, but of wood and stone and skin — it, too, affords space and time for justice, compassion, and flourishing love. This is what I wish for all of us in the new year. And many more books to read

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Toasted

Oregon beach, hazy sun, person walking two dogs.

Forest fire haze on the Oregon Coast, September 2017

A week ago, the sky above Seattle turned hazy, and an eerie orange sunlight fell across our hardwood floors. The air smelled burnt, toasted. Yesterday, we had the worst air quality for a twenty-four-hour period in recorded history.

Almost exactly a year ago, Arline and I were camping with friends in a forest service campground near Mount Rainier when we noticed a brown haze high above our Eurovan. A construction worker from the highway came through and said smoke from British Columbia fires was coming our way. The camp host had been that morning to Yakima, east of us, and said it wasn’t possible to see ahead more than a city block, the smoke was so thick. It was over ninety degrees next to our river, and we were hot and irritable. We headed to Packwood for the air-conditioned Mountain Goat Coffee and Bakery, where we researched the fires online. Could we find somewhere else to go, less hazy? Even the beaches looked bad.

Arline was six weeks out from cancer surgery, and the smoky air worried her. We decided to cut short the trip. Our friends stayed but we packed up and headed to Seattle. I was so exhausted emotionally and physically from coping with the cancer, and so in need of a vacation, that I cried as we left the campground.

But as we traveled home, the air got worse. Enumclaw sat under a dirty haze. On the approach to Seattle, we couldn’t see the skyscrapers; it was as if the city was socked in with fog, orange instead of white.

That night, we got online again. The dot over Seattle was bright red: unhealthy for all. But Mount Rainier had some of the best air in the state. Our friends texted that it wasn’t bad. The next morning, we packed again and returned.

This year, we took into account the possibility of forest fire smoke when planning our August vacation with our friends. Instead of the Cascades, we’re going to a tiny island in British Columbia, 170 miles northwest of here, as the crow flies. There’s no guarantee it, too, won’t be in the path of smoke, but we’re hoping.

And so we begin to adapt. It’s a sickening feeling, remembering the years and years of Seattle summers, when heat didn’t climb until after Fourth of July, and for two glorious months the sky was almost always the purest blue. Where will these changes take us? How will we adapt? For how long?

When I returned from that trip last year, something kept bugging me. Although the campground was stiflingly hot, and the sky never turned fully blue again, at night campers all around us built fires in their pits and sat around them, roasting marshmallows. The entire state was under a burn ban but not the national forests; they were guided by federal policy.

Finally, I called the ranger’s office in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and asked why there was no burn ban in the national forest campgrounds. The man who answered said that campfires were perfectly safe. The trees were difficult to ignite, and it was extremely unlikely a campfire would start a fire in the forest. Also, he said, the forest service has a different mission than the state parks and serves a different constituency; “we serve the people,” he said. The people want campfires. They call him up and ask if they can have a campfire, and if they can’t, they won’t go camping. I was so astounded I just said, “Well, now I understand the reasoning.”

I get that the forest service is involved in commerce and industry in ways that state parks are not. But surely there is a general consensus on when a burn ban is a good idea. And you can’t tell me there’s a huge difference between people who camp in forests owned by the national government and those who camp in forests owned by the state. Perhaps most significantly, burn bans “serve the people,” too.

What I heard from the ranger was an ideological bias against regulation, a willingness to risk our trees and our health. Because as long as campers can have the same camping experience they’ve always had, they’ll be happy. They’ll ignore the orange skies, the burning forests, and the warming planet. They’ll adapt.

 

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The Ones Who Stay

A sad mouse statue ringed with green lights

Recent events have reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s much-anthologized story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which a utopian society depends for its continued existence on the suffering of one child. Some, when they learn of this requirement, leave in search of a different kind of society, but most stay.

Of course, our society is no utopia, and more than one child suffers; more than the two thousand children taken from their parents at the border suffer. But Le Guin knew that. Her parable brings us face-to-face with our complicity: At first, when young people of Omelas learn of the suffering child, they are shocked. But then they begin to rationalize. Isn’t it better that one child suffers so that everyone else may prosper? If the child were released from the dungeon, surely it could no longer function: “Indeed,” Le Guin writes, “after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.” And so the people of Omelas accept the child’s suffering and even believe their own lies about it.

One version of this utopia is white supremacy. People who can justify separating brown children from their parents have already decided that these people are not as worthy, perhaps not even as capable of feeling, as white children and white parents. They imagine an Edenic United States, when it was whiter and more powerful and more prosperous. That this country never existed does not seem to bother them. They believe that, if the children suffer, their city on a hill will shine on.

But I don’t want to let myself off the hook here. As much as I protest this white supremacist utopian ideal, I benefit from it. I’m like the citizens of Omelas who wake from bad dreams in the night but continue to partake in the joys of utopia — in my case, vegetables picked by migrant farm workers, electronics made under grueling conditions, the legacy of wealth and education that came from my homesteading ancestors, etc. and more etc. I read the news. I go to an occasional protest and send an occasional donation. But I don’t walk away.

Last week I attended a tribute to Le Guin in Portland, an evening of love and laughter in an elegant theater from the 1920s. Editors read funny emails they’d received from her, and writers shared reminiscences (China Miéville said Le Guin told him the description of the scary Shadow in The Wizard of Earthsea was based on the tardigrade, a microscopic animal). Margaret Atwood attended via prerecorded video. She said she was talking to us from a planet called “Canada”; the universal translator was translating her words so we could understand them. She told a story about asking Le Guin: “Where do the ones who walk away from Omelas go?” Le Guin couldn’t answer.

And where would I go if I walked away? Justice, of course, is not a place. I find myself tossing and turning. I don’t believe the lie that the child suffering for Omelas is better off in the dungeon, but I have trouble walking away from the benefits I accrue from that suffering. Someone, I keep thinking, will show me the way out. Meanwhile, I guiltily sleep.

 

 

 

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