I’m Afraid of the Air…

Outside the sun is rising, a burnt orange ball on the horizon, ominously beautiful. I watch it from the safety of my bunker, formerly known as my home. Like some apocalyptic, dystopian novel, I have become afraid of the air we breathe. It’s an alien invasion of either forest fire particulates or Covid virus. A mask seems like such a flimsy defense against our marauding atmosphere here in the west. Several people, including myself, have wondered, “When will our air be breathable again? When can we give up our suffocating masks and be normal?”

Covid, according to the latest from the scientific community, won’t die down until next year some time. The summer wildfires in our droughty western climate are an entirely different matter altogether. Out of control forest and range fires will continue, says reporting in the New York Times (9/11/2020), until humans change our behaviors.

“What percent of the wildfires this summer do you think are human caused?” I looked at my husband over the rim of my coffee cup this morning.

I’d been doing some research on the subject, and I was curious what he thought. I know my husband to be a well-read man, and as a farmer, an astute observer of the natural world, the weather, and the climate.

“Low, I think human caused, that percent must be low,” he said. “There was that lightning storm earlier this month. I think that’s what ignited the northern California fires.”

I was surprised by his response because he was uncharacteristically, dead wrong. According to my research, 80% of wild fires are started by humans. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says the biggest issue is that towns and cities are allowing land to be developed for homes in wild and forested areas susceptible to fire. It’s called a “wildland-urban interface.”

As I look out my patio window at the smoky blanket overlaying the landscape, I’m reminded of a Cormac McCarthy book I read several years ago called The Road.

The book was about a man and his son seeking to escape the effects of a nuclear holocaust.

The world was devastated and food was scare because the earth was coated with dark clouds of ash and debris. The earth had plunged into a cold, perpetual twilight affecting all living things, including our food source: plants and animals. Again, the root cause of such a horrific scenario was human behavior.

Can we change our behaviors? How much? Sometimes I wonder. Our basic needs are for air, water, food, and security. What if these needs come in conflict? Our need for clean air battles with our need to feel secure. We want to feel safe living in a natural setting like the forests far away from city crime and ironically, city smog.

Fortunately, Forbes Magazine (5/24/2019) reported on the path to behavior change and two of the three steps are already happening.

More and more people are recognizing that western wild fires are the new normal and need to be addressed.

Secondly, solutions are being developed, cities are starting to zone more cautiously, and homes are beginning to be built with the environment in mind. The third step is harder: making behavior change desirable. To that end we’re all looking to the future, which doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, but can be exciting and new. Though climate change, the problem behind western wild fires, is ongoing, we’re slowly innovating our way to a carbon-free future. My husband, maybe in an effort to redeem his reputation, offered this comment: “You know Tesla? Their electric car division is now worth four times the stock value of gas-powered vehicles. Imagine that?”

 

Image Credit: Dale Hooley, wearing his respirator      Image Credit: The Road

A Wind that Blows Nobody Good

On a trip to the coast recently I enjoyed watching the wind send ocean spray flying down the beach.  Not all winds though, are so friendly.  Just today the news reported that an inland hurricane, a derecho, packing 100 mph winds, had flattened crops and destroyed buildings and property in Iowa.  Last week, Hurricane Isaias unleashed wind and rain across the Eastern Seaboard.  And a couple of days ago, multiple tornadoes ripped through greater Chicago causing extensive damage.  As the old Jimmy Reeves song says, these were ill winds that “blew nobody good.”

Ill winds have been part of my history—and as a matter of fact, greater Chicago too.

I grew up not too far from the “windy city” in northern Indiana. When I was eleven-years-old on Palm Sunday1965, two tornadoes struck my little town. Twin funnels cut a swath of destruction killing 1200 people and flattening a trailer park just south of where I lived.  There were a total of 47 tornadoes sighted in the Midwest that Palm Sunday.  To this day it’s still considered to be one of the deadliest and most violent tornado outbreaks ever recorded.  Some people in our town were not even aware of the severe weather forecast. They were sitting in church pews celebrating Easter week when they heard the roar of the twisters.

Unfortunately, the tornado season that year did not end with the Palm Sunday tornadoes.  A month later, again on a Sunday, a tornado was sighted in my town June 6.

I remember this tornado even more than the Palm Sunday twins, because it was the day after my brother Sam died.

Sam and I were taking swimming lessons at the YMCA pool when he lost his life.  Though it happened a long time ago, I still remember how devastated my family was.  We gathered together in the little living room of our ranch-style house, crying and hugging each other. Then suddenly, we heard an eerie wail rise up from the street outside, a sound that had nothing to do with our grief.  Firetrucks were roaming the neighborhood and blaring their sirens.  They were warning people to take shelter because a tornado had been sighted.

I walked out the front screen door to see the firetrucks passing by, and then noticed my grandfather standing in our yard watching the sky.  I stood by him for a while, when another man strolled over and asked Grandpa what he thought about the weather situation.  Grandpa just shook his head as if he couldn’t take one more piece of bad news that day.

Eventually, he responded to the man, telling him he thought the weather didn’t look good, the sky was too green and the air too still.

This was the first time I’d heard about one of the more significant warning signs of an impending tornado: the wind stops blowing.  Apparently, tornadoes create a low pressure vacuum, something commonly known as the calm before the storm.  We were all thankful when we heard on the radio that our area was given the “all clear” by the National Weather Service.

After I married an Idaho farmer and moved out west, I had to get used to the never-ceasing winds that scour these high desert plains.  I’d get nervous when the skies darkened and the wind turned into a full gale.  One year a storm came roaring through the canyon near us.  The wind shook our trailer so much, a favored print by the French artist Jean-Francois Millet, fell from the paneled wall, and cracked the frame.

That wind storm almost sent me to the corner of the room cowering in fear.

I’m still afraid of extreme wind events, though today for an entirely different reason.  I know derecho’s, tornado clusters, and increasing numbers of hurricanes are all signs of the climate changing.  Just because we’re dealing with a viral pandemic does not mean this particular problem has gone away.  But unlike a sudden tragic death, we can do something about climate change—and that gives me hope.

 

Image Credit:  Palm Sunday twin tornadoes 1965       Image Credit:  Derecho

 

 

How Curiosity Killed the Cow-girl

There’s nothing like a good steak.  You know, medium rare with just a little pink showing, tender and juicy.  I like my steak best with a nice Idaho potato and a fresh, crisp side salad.  I’m thinking about this as I sit here on the farm, gazing out the front window at the cows in the pasture.  They’re chewing on clumps of grass peeking through the snow.  We sold our big cow herd several years ago, but we reinvested in a few cows with the goal to butcher them, and give the meat away to our children and their families.  It was a generous gift.

I have friends and relatives though, that want nothing to do with eating meat—for a variety of reasons.

Some have become vegetarian or vegan because of health issues.  They’re either concerned about their weight, or their cholesterol, or both.  I’ve argued with them that people lose weight a lot of different ways.  Why make such a draconian sacrifice as giving up meat?  The Paleo, the Keto, and the Atkin’s diets all encourage the consumption of meat and protein over carbs.  But one of my friends announced that he’d become a vegan because of the environment.

“What?” I asked him. “Does this mean you’re no longer going to make that wonderful meatloaf recipe with green peppers and onions?  All because of cow burbs?  Please, tell me it’s not so.”  My friend may not be a fancy cook, but he’s a good one.  He makes great comfort food.

Occasionally, I’ve ran across news articles on the potential for herding animals like cattle to harm the environment.  Apparently cows, through their digestive processes, emit harmful methane gas into the atmosphere.  Reading news like this affects MY digestive processes.  Herding cattle is a way of life for us, so I’ve generally ignored these kinds of articles.  They’re too extreme, I tell myself.  Besides, the wide desert expanses in the west, which support only sparse grasses, are perfect for foraging creatures like cows.  It’s an efficient use of the land.  Also, cows eat highly flammable grasses like cheat, protecting against range fires.

My final word about herding cattle is cultural.  The west, after all, is the home of the cowboy.  Cattle are a tradition.

But still I was curious.  And we all know how curiosity killed the cat (or cow).  Being farmers we’ve watched the weather year in and year out, and it’s become increasingly apparent, even without all the scientific alarms: the climate is changing.  Exactly, how much does herding livestock have to do with this?

Opening my computer I waded through several articles on climate change and either the Australian fires, or the melting Arctic.  Finally, I found information on the environment and livestock.  A chart showed that herding animals like cows and sheep did the most damage to the environment.  The journal Science reported that avoiding meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” to reduce our environmental impact.

One article said consuming 4 pounds of hamburger is as hard on the environment as flying from New York to London—and most of us eat more than 4 pounds of beef a month.

This was such sobering news I just stared at my computer a minute.  I’m still processing it, wondering about our life style and the fast-changing world we live in.  Is there some “middle ground” on this issue?  I don’t know, but I did come across a bit of good news for meat lovers.  Apparently poultry and fish have considerable less impact on the environment.  The impossible burger is looking more and more possible–as is the chicken steak.

 

 

All image credits:  Diana Hooley, Dale and Diana Hooley Farms

Big is Beautiful

(How big is Alaska?  What is the largest national park in the U.S.?  Why did the cod fishing industry collapse in Alaska?)

 

The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.

“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.

He just looked at me.  “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”

I shook my head humbly.

“Okay then.  You’re good to go.”  I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window.  “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.

“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.

“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state.  Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”

I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos.  But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was.  Alaska is large—and in more ways than one.  Let’s talk about geography first.  To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around.  The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S.  But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.

Then there are the Alaskan people themselves.  I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback.  He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity.  It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly.  My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.”  I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life.  I feel petite.  And that’s saying something.

I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.

Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother? 

The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking.  Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet.  I can’t complain though.  Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense:  Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.

Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear.  In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots.  I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”

Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change.  Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.

According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees.  The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment.  Halibut still seems to be plentiful though.  And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge.  I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.

One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.”  Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state.  I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze.  It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.

Tap on these links for more posts on Climate Change or happenings Out West.

 

Image Credit:  All images Diana Hooley

Fired Up and Ready to Go to Alaska

Who wants to go to Alaska?  Not me, I’m not a fan of cold, dark, and dreary.  Everyone else I know though is: my daughter, my in-laws, my friends.  Keith worked as a nurse on various cruise ships and of the many places he’d traveled to in in the world, Alaska, he said, was the most beautiful.  Good thing because that is where my husband and I are headed to this week, obviously his idea more than mine.  The weather is supposed to be good in September—except for the fires.  And smoke.  Forget I ever said anything about cold, dark, and dreary.

Alaska has been hit by global warming.

Still, there’s a question as to whether Alaskans think that’s the problem.  My daughter commented that on her family’s visit to the Great Alone, they stopped at various natural and scenic areas along the way, listening to park rangers and guides address questions about melting glaciers.  She asked one guide what was behind the glacial melt but couldn’t get a straight answer.  The guide didn’t want to discuss the human causes behind climate change: our fossil fuel and carbon consumption.

I was surprised to hear this.  Public employees, with presumably some kind of science and naturalist understanding, were shying away from a full-bodied explanation of the topic.

Maybe Alaskans aren’t really in denial.  Maybe the tourist industry asks their guides and interpreters to limit commentary on melting glaciers.

It’s not only too political (whoever turned climate change into a political issue should be forced to fight fire on the Kenai Peninsula), but also, consider their audience:  gas-guzzling tourists flying, boating, and driving to the remote northern reaches of our continent for entertainment and pleasure.

My hand is up, of course.  We’re guilty, my husband and I—or going to be this week.  But wait.  It’s not simply that I’m a carbon hypocrite and wedded to the leisure lifestyle of the retired.  It’s that I’ve read the science and know that though I nobly recycle, support green energy, and fly sparingly—our climate is still expected to heat up regardless.

Richard Rood, professor of climate and space science at University of Michigan says we’re feeling the effects of a warming climate already, with an average temperature just one centigrade higher than normal (online at The Conversation, July 2017).  Rood says we can expect it to get a lot hotter, at least 4-5 degrees hotter.,   According to Rood it will take hundreds of years to rid us of all of the atmospheric carbon accumulated since the Industrial Revolution.  He also says though, whatever efforts we make to go green will help slow down global warming.

The important thing is to limit the threat to plant, animal, and even human life.  To limit extinction.  As I write this last sentence I’m reminded of a young woman I taught years ago at Boise State University.  We were talking about ways teachers can get junior high students to read their science textbook, when this young lady raised her hand.

“I don’t get what the big deal is with all this global warming stuff,” she said.

I didn’t want to mention the “extinction” word then.  At the time, it seemed like overkill.  So I talked about rising seas and coastal flooding instead.  I never dreamed of suggesting fires in frigid, wet Alaska. 

Climate change is a complex subject, no doubt, and even more importantly, we don’t really have a solution to the problem.  But we can vote.  We can vote in support of candidates who are at least willing to confront the issue.  Having said that, a gentle reminder folks:  there’s an election next year!

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mage Credit: Map of Alaskan fires         Image Credit:   Glaciers melting

Game of Thrones

I’m the only one I know my age who’s a fan of Game of Thrones.  This isn’t really surprising since a recent survey of the show’s fan base revealed that 72% of people watching GoT were 18-29 years-old and almost 82% were male.  While I fit neither of these demographics, my husband, being male, fits one.  But he has the same summation for both Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings trilogy:  “Just a bunch medieval-looking people running around chasing each other with swords (bah humbug).”

For a devotee of any work of art, disparaging comments like this are enough to trigger my defenses.  I could say of his love for plants, birds, and all things science:  “It’s the same thing every day, growing, tweeting, and photosynthesizing (boring)”—but I don’t.  I take the high road instead and tell him his old, shriveled-up mind can no longer comprehend all the wonderful nuggets of insight embedded in fantasies like those created by George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones.  Speaking of George R. R. Martin, to understand just what a creative wizard he really is, even though his books and the TV series have a strong appeal for younger adults and take place in a Middle-Age, British-like empire, Martin himself is a 70-year-old New Jersey native (pronounced “New Joi-zy” if you happen to hail from that state).

Some might question these nuggets of insight I’m talking about considering GoT is a fantasy-based work.  Since the story line is all about various kingdoms and their kings and queens warring over the right to be supreme ruler and sit on the Iron Throne, you’d think the theme of GoT would be power and power structures—and it is.  But to my mind this is a very superficial understanding of Game of Thrones.

The genius of Martin’s work is how he blows stereotypes to smithereens and in doing so, gives us again and again, a much more intriguing and broad understanding of the potential human beings have for doing both good and evil.

Women are often the ruthless rulers in Game of Thrones—not the men.  Queen Cersei, always watchful of potential usurpers to her throne, is threatened by her future daughter-in-law, Princess Sansa.  Cersei serves Sansa and all her family notice of her power by beheading the King of the North, Sansa’s father–as Sansa watches from a castle window.  There are many shocking, yet interesting plot twists in GoT, aided and abetted by these stereotype-blowing characters previously mentioned.  The most intelligent and thoughtful person in Game of Thrones is the least physically powerful:  Prince Tyrion, a dwarf.  Diminutive Lady Arya is a dangerous assassin, and the big, lummox Samwell Tarly plays against type as a perceptive librarian.  Jon Snow is an illegitimate bastard and cast out of his home, ordered to command a wall of ice in a frozen outpost.  The wall is intended to keep heathens called the Wildings away from the other civilized kingdoms.  Yet Jon Snow, unbeknownst to himself or anyone else, is the true hero and the key to the mystery behind Game of Thrones.

For me, Game of Thrones ask some serious questions and poses a certain conundrum which I think is applicable to our world today.  GoT asks whether or not all these kingdoms can lay down their swords, their need for control and power, and work together against a greater evil, death personified in the White Walkers.  The White Walkers are frozen, bloodless zombies that have the potential to wipe out humanity.

Repeatedly, the kings and queens are warned:  stop fighting among yourselves.  Winter is coming.

It’s not too much of a stretch for me to see the analogy in our real world and our current political landscape: we need to stop the sniping over lesser issues and address the zombie in our own living room.  The climate is changing and the atmosphere is heating up.  Species, including our own, are at risk. Be forewarned:  summer is coming–and it may be a long and a hot one if we don’t act before it’s too late.

Image Credit:  Game of Thrones

To Fly or Not to Fly

When I read the tragic news about another crash of a Boeing Max 737 jetliner, this time in Ethiopia, and how the pilots fought the programming and the automatic controls to keep the plane in the air, I remembered a sci-fi movie I watched about a coming war between man and machines.  This movie might have been a “flight” of some screen writer’s imagination except that the imminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking worried about the peril of intelligent machines. Hawking believed AI or artificial intelligence had the potential to threaten mankind.  Still, I doubt he ever considered malevolent autopilots becoming a problem.

Nervous flyers might be hesitant to fly after hearing about the Max 737 crashes.  I get it.  I’m not a fan of flying either.  I’ve fought irrational fears of flying for several years.  In fact, one time I boarded a one-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, and in a martini fog (acquired at the airport bar trying to bolster my courage) I staggered up from my aisle seat and blew alcohol fumes into the stewardess’s face when I begged, “Miz?  Hey miz?  I wanna get off the plane.  Can I?  Pleeze?”

There are other, more rational reasons to reconsider flying as your form of transportation, which have nothing to do with machines running amok or phobias.  According to Sciencefocus.com the amount of CO2 spewed by one jumbo jet traveling a distance of 400 miles is the same as 336 cars driving that same distance.

So, the approximately 20,000 flights taking place daily across our planet emit a tremendous amount of destructive greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

That’s why, despite having largely conquered my flying phobia, I decided on a recent trip to New York City to fly one way—and take the train home.

I felt very good about taking the train back from NYC—noble even. After all, rail transportation accounts for only 2% of total transportation greenhouse gases.  I could rest easy riding the rails—and I did.  I took numerous naps in my deluxe sleeper, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train on the tracks.  Due to the research I’d done I knew taking the train meant my carbon “shoe” was a modest size 2 instead of a clown flipper size 14.  I was relaxed until our train slowed down coming into the Philadelphia rail yard.  Then I blinked my eyelids open and gazed out the window to see dozens of CSX rail cars loaded with coal.

The thing about taking a train is that you share tracks and rail yards with other trains, especially freight trains.  Coal is primarily moved by freight trains.  For some reason, pure black carbon in the form of coal seems much more threatening to me than the nebulous greenhouse gases blown out of a jumbo jet.  Our train passed one coal car after another in Pittsburg, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake.  I finally stopped seeing coal cars when the train dropped me off in the middle of the night at a lonely passenger shelter in Elko, Nevada.

Traveling green can be challenging no matter what form of transportation you choose to take.

The good news about flying is, there are ways to go greener. Check the airplane statistics when you book.  Many jets now use biofuels.  Also, most major airlines offer carbon credits you can purchase to support various green initiatives.  Of course, if you really want to lessen your carbon footprint, nothing beats staying home.  But then you’d miss out on a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and who wants to do that?

image credit: airplane