Recently I received my Medicare card in the mail. How the hell did this happen? Suddenly I’m among the elders. Young people call me sir, out of some generic habit of respect for old people. Marypat and I have sporadic conversations about retirement – whether we can, how it might look, whether we really want to, what adventures might still be ahead, and which of them are pipe dreams no longer very accessible to us. We are discussing another major northern expedition in Canada, and wondering whether we can pull it off. We talk about becoming vagabonds, living out of a van, traveling and visiting and exploring. We talk about a lot of things, while the days march past, friends and family members die, others enter the world, nieces and nephews get married, start careers, buy houses, succeed and flounder by turns.
I have so little to complain about. I have health. I have love and companionship. I have strong family bonds and essentially no strife. I manage to make a living doing mostly what I like to do. I live in a secure part of the world, for now. Despair and tragedy are fairly distant prospects covered by the nightly news. The sun rises spectacularly every morning. The moon waxes and wanes, washing the sky with its creamy light. The rivers run downhill and the chickadee calls each morning.
And yet, looming over it all, over the quotidian rhythm of my days, is the specter of something truly sinister and unfathomably grave. Above and beyond the politics, alarming as that has been, Mother Earth is struggling to regain some semblance of equilibrium in the face of our excess, and she wields gargantuan force. From unprecedented floods in Texas to absolute Stone Age devastation in Puerto Rico, from “flash drought” in NE Montana to cataclysmic fires in northern California, from earthquakes in Mexico to hurricanes hitting Ireland, the scale and power is staggering. I say it is a response to our excess, and I believe that – oceans warming, injected wastewater deep underground, mountains of waste and garbage, overcrowding, denuded landscapes. How can the earth, the organism that sustains us, not respond? I’m no scientist, but common sense would suggest that the kind of burdens and demands we have placed on the natural balance would require a reaction.
Don’t get me started on the politics. I’m tempted to start the litany, begin the rant, but we all know it, are already tired of it, and are sickened at heart because of it. It is a pall as real as the smoke-heavy skies we endured all summer in Montana.The longer I live, the more I am convinced that the right response to damn near every situation is acceptance, generosity, love, sympathy and compassion. Our politics, now, are the absolute antithesis of that.
And so, yesterday, the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, Marypat and I loaded up the ancient van with two solo canoes and the dog. We spent the afternoon paddling the lower section of the East Gallatin River. It was one of those, “wrapped in gold”, days, as Marypat likes to say. The russet grasses undulated in the breeze. We startled coots out of the weeds. Beans lay on his bed, resting his muzzle on the edge of the boat. A red-tail screamed that iconic scream from the top of a cottonwood. We stroked along, side by side, while the early snows in the mountains set of the edges of this bowl of horizon we are lucky enough to live in – the Bridgers, the Tobacco Roots, the Spanish Peaks. Yellow leaves shook loose from trees, gusted to earth. Fish jumped. Sunlight dappled the river, bend after bend.
We came home in the waning day, unpacked and stowed the gear, as is our time-worn habit. People arrived for our new tradition of Sunday night dinners – family, friends, friends of friends. We sat around the table sharing warm, plentiful food, talking, telling stories, laughing. Not a cell phone in sight.
If you believe, as I do, that the way you are in the world changes the world, then that is what we were doing. It sounds pretentious, yes, and it is, to think so grandly of one’s impact, but what else do we have?