On January 24th at the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park, I killed a mosquito. At night as I fell asleep, I listened to the rain, and in the morning I woke to the drip-dripping sound of melting icicles hanging from our cabin roof. A sound I associate — from deeply ingrained childhood memories — with Spring. In Ontario roads would turn into small creeks as the snow melted from March to May. Fields became mud and everywhere was the sound of gushing and dripping. Water everywhere while crocuses and trilliums began to push their way up towards the light.
Sadly, this is no longer the case.
I was in Polebridge for the weekend to celebrate J’s birthday. We took E out of school on Friday to give ourselves more time together. Friends had loaned us snow shoes, we packed some food and off we went. Polebridge and its population of 24 did not let us down. The famous Mercantile Bakery was open for business, our cabin was empty but for a pile of freshly chopped logs and we made ourselves at home cooking on the wood stove and playing cards with occasional trips to our porch to look at the stars.
It rained on our first night and flies were buzzing in the cabin. In January. In Northern Montana. J and I didn’t say anything to each other about it until we got back to Missoula as I think we both felt if we acknowledged the clear fact of just how screwed the climate is we would have been too depressed to enjoy a rare weekend together.
The following day there was just enough snow to stick on the snow shoes and head into Glacier, which is exactly what we did. The snow was too wet and sticky for sledding and it was so warm we stripped down to our t-shirts.
That night. More rain. The next day the ground was like an ice rink. And it was warm. That was when I killed the mosquito. I could feel waves of depression flood through me. Bears have been spotted coming out of hibernation in Washington State and Nevada. In Juneau, Alaska this week, temperatures are above freezing — even at night. Meanwhile the East coast is being buried in snow. I feel it’s too late to regain anything resembling a balanced ecological system.
The drive from Missoula to Polebridge takes one past the sharp jagged teeth of the Mission Mountains, along Flathead Lake. North of Kalispell when you reach the northern tip of Flathead Lake you become sandwiched between the Lewis and Clark range of Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains. The landscape, being Montana, is vast and imposing and somewhat terrifying.
But what made this terrain all the more remarkable was the burnt stumps of trees left over from two massive forest fires: one in 1988 and an even larger one in 2003. The later one devastated the West side of Glacier National Park and the damage is still there to see. The word that kept creeping into my mind was: blasted. It was a blasted, barren landscape of blackened trees like the ones you see in paintings and photographs of World War I battlefields. I thought of Paul Nash who after witnessing the Great War said: “I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever … and may it burn their lousy souls.”
The devastation we saw on the way up to Glacier is the result of summers too hot and dry not to burn. The 2003 fire lasted for three months and burned 310,000 acres, including 133,000 acres in Glacier — more than 10 percent of the Park. No human lives were lost but old-growth forests and habitats for a variety of animals are lost forever.
With all this in mind, it was difficult to really enjoy the weekend with the carefreeness I wanted to. I recently reread the introduction to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She wrote this book with the words of W.B. Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ in mind. ‘The widening gyre, the falcon which which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,’ were her ‘points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.’ Much of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem deal with atomisation, with things falling apart. It had been a struggle she tells us to write the book because she ‘had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ She goes on to say that in order for her to work at all she would have to ‘come to terms with disorder.’ Maybe in these words lies an answer to the conundrum of how to live with the constant reminder of a dying planet, of an earth no longer being something one knows and understands. Perhaps in order to move forward and not be stuck in this train of thought one has to simply ‘come to terms with disorder’. Forget about the patterns we are programmed to find in nature.
But I have another question, which I have not seen addressed anywhere or read about. This is the question of how much of this knowledge of disorder and of things falling apart does one pass on to one’s child. I don’t want E to be fearful and anxious about her future and the future of the planet, yet she and her contemporaries will be the ones on the front line of extreme weather conditions as the planet heats up. How much should a seven-year-old know about this.
Despite the gloom inside me, the power of the huge sky and the land and the mountains calling us on walks was too strong to ignore. The three of us played outside, rolling down banks of wet, sticky snow for hours at a time and then headed to the Mercantile Bakery where we ate as many huckleberry bear claws as we could. IN the mornings we watched the sun burn its way through the early morning mist to reveal jagged mountain tops the colour and shape of freshly dug quartz. In the moment all was extremely good. It’s tomorrow and the day after that worry me to death. Disorder. Come to terms with it.