25 September 2015

Walking Unafraid in a Frightening Time

The saying holds that people who keep their heads while everyone else loses theirs don't understand the situation. My experiences this summer taught me that the people who don't lose their heads might just understand the situation as fully as possible.

I spent the summer amid the sound of First Aid Kit, a Swedish folk band with a flair for Americana, and the fury of a Pacific Northwest burning in the face of global warming. We typically overcome the kind of sadness and fear associated with watching a beloved place shrivel up and incinerate by turning away from the most terrifying details. As much as I might have liked to do that at the beginning of the summer, by the end, I realized that this time (and from now on), I would, as First Aid Kit's song says, "Walk unafraid."

I bought the song, which comes from the soundtrack of Wild, along with the band's Stay Gold album in early May before I returned home for summer vacation. The music became the soundtrack of a summer that contained equal parts devastation and empowerment. I listened to very little else, but the songs never faded. They played in my head through adventures that filled my heart and events that broke it.

I saw Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Olympic National Park with lyrics like those from My Silver Lining echoing in the vastness of the extraordinary scenery. I watched the overwhelming heat of July bring a usually vibrant ecosystem to its knees and August's wildfires and their accompanying smoke finish the job with merciless suffocation. By that time, Fleeting One, the eighth track on Stay Gold seemed all too appropriate.

Still, I never turned away or tuned out. I took it all in. I reached a point where I knew and could feel everything that was happening. I could tell how close the land and plants were to breaking. Several times, I just had to cry. Then, a strange thing happened: Out of the chaos came the confidence of clarity. I'd played Walk Unafraid so many times in those three months, but suddenly, I was doing what the song said. I understood the situation fully, and I met it head on.

Trees had already started dying on my parents' property by August 2 when I turned on the sprinkler for the first time. We haven't watered our yard for years, but we still have a good sprinkler and some long hoses. During the next two weeks, I used them to get water to the native trees and plants on the property. At first, I wasn't sure if I was having any positive effect or merely tilting at windmills. I didn't even know how to feel when I read that Olympic National Park was also using sprinklers on its forests. Suddenly and unexpectedly though, the weather shifted in the slightest of ways. A bit of rain fell, and the temperatures cooled a little. Combined with my efforts, these changes helped the local plants revive. I felt the satisfaction of knowing a situation, responding to it, and making a contribution.

Although the last images I saw of the Pacific Northwest as I drove east for the school year were shrouded in smoke, I looked upon them without flinching. Those scenes would have torn me apart before. This time, they hurt, but I also knew nothing could break my connection to that place or my commitment to helping it as we face global warming together.

It's the same effect that occurs when music puts people in sync, and it's only possible when everything (joy, sadness, fear) is fully experienced.

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