This story is the only one I really know, it’s who I am and why I’m drawn to this work.
I grew up skiing at a small double-peak in Central Oregon called Willamette Pass. Its low elevation has always made for slushy snow and early springs, and a lot of people end up driving on by in search of better snow. That never mattered much to me, though. When I was young, lift tickets were an expense that was hard to justify for my parents. They spent their honeymoon cross-country skiing in the Sierra Nevada. They enjoy the hard work of skiing, the solitude, the time to think. They may never realize how close downhill skis can come to the gift of human flight. On a more practical level, downhill skiing is easily twice as expensive as cross-country, and as a young family, we were lucky to be able to afford even a few weekends away. So the quality of the snow (or lack thereof) didn’t matter so much to me. Every day up there was a novelty that would leave me floating.
My opportunity to get out skiing more came in early high school, when I was admitted to a youth program of the local ski patrol. When I think back, what first comes to mind isn’t the skiing, but the ritual: the anticipation of the daily snow report, clothes laid out the night before, the smell of hot wax in the burning cold air of the garage. Then the stupefaction of the 5a.m. wakeup and the sleepy warmth of the director’s colossal red truck, the vision of the untouched mountain through the trees, the sudden proud professionalism of a morning meeting, and then finally, at long last, the thrum of the chairlift’s diesel, the scramble to the lift line.
Nearly half the upper mountain was taken up by a tree-filled run called SDN, or “steep, deep, and narrow.” Not many people really loved that idea the way my friends and I did, so every bit of fresh snow would be ours. We’d roll off the lift, giddy, follow the path into the hidden side of the mountain, and ski till we couldn’t see tracks. Then we’d stand there, hesitate, and listen to a world on mute.
There’s no white noise in a snow-filled forest, no wind, no chairlift machinery, no echo. Every noise passes through the air once and is finished.
We’d shift slightly and drop through that world, our minds quiet too, doing only what we needed to sweep long arcs in the snow.
The patrollers came from a wide range of political backgrounds, but no-one ignored the world that they lived in, what they saw every weekend. I joined in 2007, one of the first years when changing weather patterns affected the ski season. The adults spoke rarely of the late snow pack and the erratic storms, and only with closer friends, but in the timbre of their voices was the jolting decline of an institution many had been serving more than half their lives.
In 2014, when I first began this project, the mountain only opened for two days, and then only on the lower mountain. There were no powder days, no silence amongst the trees, no kids flying down SDN.
The droughts aren’t lost somewhere off in the hills, though. The absence of rain in Oregon is not something that goes unnoticed or unmourned. In my hometown, when the long sunny days of summer draw down into the first rains of fall, and you go out to walk along the river to let tension seep from your shoulders into the light, free air, you know you’ll meet others. They’ll be out running, biking, dancing. And you know you’ll see in the way their smiles get away from them that they too have been waiting for this day.
The mountains where I grew up are called the Cascades. In their very name is a dream of frigid glacier melt crashing over obsidian cliffs, of mist-fed moss, of forests as old as the last ice age. But in Oregon, like California, climate disruption is pushing ecosystems to their limits. Droughts run the rivers dry, turning ancient trees and saplings into kindling for wildfires and disrupting the healthy cycle of burning and regrowth. Pine beetles decimate whole forests, their habitat expanded by the unusual weather patterns. Climate change threatens industry and ecosystem, livelihood and home.
That’s where I come from. Just like everyone my home will be forever altered by climate change.
I’m sure we’ll adapt, we always do, but what will we lose in the process? Climate change has already contributed to the crises in Somalia and Syria. It will continue to convert injustice to crisis all over the world, and will hurt the poorest of us the most, those who don’t have the means to adapt. Mitigation is a necessity, and time is ticking ever down. An era of relative plenty could be ending as grain yields plateau, and water becomes more scarce. In the end, we don’t know how much more time we have to stem the spread of scarcity, but it’s not a lot. Time is, for now, our scarcest resource.
If this picture puts a well of despair in your stomach, look again. There is still ample cause for hope. We have workable solutions just waiting to be put to work. Drastic climate action won’t just promote justice, it’s the first step away from a path of destruction and decline, and the next step toward a world of more genuine equality.
And the truly exciting thing is, we’re already tending toward the better path.
People from all races, creeds, geographies and social classes are changing the way they live, right now. They’re starting to exist in ways that cooperate with each other and the world around them, ways that allow them to prosper more equitably and stably than economic growth ever did. In many ways, in many places, we’re still stuck at the crossroads, lost in the thrall of more things and false pragmatism, but in others we’re already well on our way to the next generation of social change.
Where are these people, you might ask? This isn’t the environmentalism of the 70s, they’re not going back to nature. They’re in cities and towns and farms across America, and even more so, around the world. They’re getting into “the good kind of trouble,” as John Lewis would say, they’re building responsibility into the core of new businesses, they’re putting real thought into their consumption. Generally, they’re just living their lives, but doing it in a way that reflects our changing world.
But to most of America, these change-makers are invisible. Our newspapers and television networks don’t pay them much mind. Old narratives rule, ones that don’t take into account the new data we’ve gathered since the end of the cold war. I think it’s time to change that.
A follow-up to this story