Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

It’s raining in Fairbanks today. Maybe some of the rain can help put out a few of the 200 forest fires in Alaska right now. It’s the first time since Monday that the skies don’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You likely have no idea just how pervasive the smoke is. When I blow my nose, I smell smoke in my mucus even though I haven’t been outside for days.

We had well-below average snowfall in most of Alaska this past year, and the lack of meltoff already increased the threat of forest fires this summer, even before summer began. So it’s not entirely unexpected — though, as this is my first summer in Alaska, and I’ve never lived where forest fires were the norm, it’s a thoroughly unsettling experience. I look out my window and it appears, as my university’s official Facebook account put it, “like Mordor.”

View out of a highway from a driver's windshield. The air  is  an orange haze from smoke. Evergreen trees line the highway, and a car in the distance.

Not a current photo, but this will give you some idea. Photo by rickz via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1IAUebn

What disturbs me about the fires is that most of them were set by people, not by lightning strikes or what have you. This in spite of an state order not to light fires.

And I wonder what would possess people to start the fires to begin with. We’re under orders, but the orders are difficult to enforce, particularly in a state so sparsely populated. So it falls to each person to be accountable to themselves and to be responsible. And hundreds have failed to do so.

Perhaps it’s Alaska’s characteristic culture, the individualistic frontier spirit, that compels people to flout the law so. But I’m not willing to write it off to the culture, particularly when I see this mindset playing out all over the world. It’s disturbing when a person puts their self-interest so far ahead of everyone else’s. It gives rise to oppression and tyranny, when the needs of the few holds sway over the needs of the many.

As we edge closer to the precipice of major climate disruption and the effects of mass extinction, those who grasp power, who selfishly put their own interests over the needs of our entire species — such people hold the keys to the extinction of our own species.

To preserve one’s own species is one of the primal drives of nature. Can we be such fools as to bring about our own demise?

The Desolation of Smog

Whenever the temperature dips below -20 F (-29 C) in Fairbanks, the city gets smothered in a blanket of smog. Part of this is our weird topography —  a flat river valley bound on two sides by mountain ranges — which creates what is known as a temperature inversion. Warm air gets trapped beneath denser, cooler air and can’t rise. Thus, all the smoke from the wood-stoves and all the auto exhaust intermingles with the fog that visits us in winter. At its best, the fog creates hoarfrost on the trees (and we have lots of trees,) such that it looks like you’re living inside a Christmas card. But at its worst, it creates an awful smog that drives me to wearing an allergy mask during the dead of winter. The locals euphemize the phenomenon as “ice fog,” and by all accounts they seem to be inured to its effects. The smog is so thick that I assumed it was the sole contributor to the annual average for the air pollution of the city.

A winter scene of a straight road going off into the distance. Bright blue sky above. A single tree to the left of the road, a forest to the right. All the trees are covered in hoarfrost, and the ground is covered in snow.

Something like this. Photo by LadyDragonflyCC via Flickr. Original format. http://bit.ly/1fulGjO

Yesterday was the longest day of the year (though really we haven’t seen true darkness since late April, thanks to our extra-long dawns and dusks,) and Fairbanks celebrated its Midnight Sun Festival, the largest outdoor event in the state. Our summer-collegiate baseball team, the Alaska Goldpanners, played their annual Midnight Sun Game, considered amongst the unique and original events in sports. It was a glorious first day of summer.

This morning, though, I smelt something odd. At first I thought the motor was burning out on my desk fan. Great, I thought, I have to replace it, but good thing I’m headed to the store. On my way out the building, the same burning smell permeated the building, and I half-wondered if the building was on fire.

Then I set foot outside and realized that this is what forest-fire season looks like in Fairbanks.

There are over 100 forest fires in Alaska at present. The closest is near the town of Nenana, an hour’s drive west of here. I had assumed Fairbanks was safe from the effects of the fires, as long as they kept their distance. But, like I said, Fairbanks is in a river valley bound by mountains, and Nenana is to the west. Which means that all the smoke of the fires is channeled directly to the city.

Visibility is almost as low as it is during the worst of the winter smog, and my breath sears my lungs. It looks like it’s time to break out my allergy mask once again.

And yet, I do enjoy living here.

Why? First off, I lucked into a great program for my degree, where my colleagues have become my friends and my professors have become my lifelong mentors. We have a community here, and that’s what I most wanted out of graduate school. Fairbanks is also a nice place to live, smog aside. The people are warm and friendly and sociable. We have unique cultural opportunities, like the World Ice Art Championships, and the city attracts people from all over the world. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to prefer living in small towns over big cities. Not that Fairbanks is that small — about 80,000, depending on how you count it — but, compared to some of the places I’ve lived, it’s small, or, I suppose, just right.

The smog still sucks. But one thing I have learnt in life is that there is no perfect place. No matter where you live, there will be things you like and things you don’t like. It’s a matter of what compromises you are willing to make.

And, for a couple more years, wearing an allergy mask on occasion is a suitable compromise.

Legacy

I have likely expressed some of the following sentiments elsewhere in my blog, but I’m too lazy to go through every post to see if this is the case. Nonetheless, this is what is on my mind and heart today.

Father’s Day is always a hard day for me. Facebook fills up with friends posting photos of their fathers accompanied by loving sentiments. Or they post photos of their husbands whose parenting skills they praise.

To consider my own father is tough enough. I’ve written before about him, a sociopath without a capacity of love or an understanding of empathy. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to come to terms with his illness, to understand why he was the way he was without okaying his abuse.

But harder still to contemplate that I will never be a father.

An intricately drawn family tree in black ink  on paper that resembles yellowed parchment.

My branch of the human family tree ends with me. Photo by Via Tsuji via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1eBqG6h

Read the rest of this entry

Distraction

I find myself terribly depressed right now. There are a few triggers  specifically associated with summer — the lack of structure that school provides, the lack of nighttime in Alaska (which I won’t see for about two more months.) It’s a struggle just to get out of bed, or to shower, or to dress, or to make myself something to eat or drink. I’m trying to be kind to myself, trying to find some way to help me out of this funk. But nothing is working so far. Many days I can only accomplish the tasks that require the least mental work, because even my brain is fatigued. In fact, I’m having to write this relatively short blog post in several sessions because that’s all the brain power I have today. But I couldn’t not write this post, so here I am.

Anyway. My laptop is an easy distraction for my depression. I can run a marathon of some sitcom I’ve seen before on Netflix with little effort of my brain. I can play a simple game of Boggle or Bejeweled. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook gives me the ability to talk with those most dear to me about what I’m going through.

Three grey striped kittens a few weeks old, sitting in a row on a light blue blanket.

I’ve long held that Facebook is best suited for sharing kitten pics anyway. Photo credit: Mathias Erhart via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1TBVtzD

But Facebook is a double-edged sword Read the rest of this entry

When the Atheist Went to Church

Small white wooden church at sunset.  Barren trees to the left, traces of snow on the ground,

Once a native, now a stranger. Photo by keeva999 via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1FPtg14

I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.

We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry

Erin Go Blah

Been awhile since I’ve written here. It’s certainly not because I’m not writing. Indeed, I’m working on essays and stories and the start of my thesis, on top of my schoolwork. This has become, I suppose, the space in which I write when I have something big and timely to say.

I’ve had my head bitten off before for bringing up this subject. I particularly don’t enjoy being figuratively decapitated, but if there’s anything I’m learning about writing, it’s the need to set aside ego in deference to the truth.

And the truth is this: St. Patrick’s Day is kind of sucky.

Chihuahua wearing a green St. Patrick's Day top hat, surrounded by four-leaf clovers.

And it sucks even more to be a pet on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Faith Goble via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/grafixer/

Let’s take a good, hard look at how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated. Read the rest of this entry

Old English

I just had a new essay published in Cooper Street. Check it out here.

Publication update: “An Epic in Three Words”

I had an essay published today at The Rumpus. Please check out the link here:

http://therumpus.net/2014/09/an-epic-in-three-words/

Post, Publish, or Perish

Right now I have a great idea for an essay. It came upon me just a couple of days ago, inspired by an exchange on Facebook. And my first thought was, oh, this would make a great blog post.

But as I sat on the idea, it grew. I thought of other connections the initial idea had both to my own life and the larger world. So what was going to be a lovely post for today has now turned into something different. Read the rest of this entry

Greetings from Alaska

So nearly a whole month has blown by since my last post. Forgive me; I’ve been understandably busy, moving 2,500 miles away and settling down in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I’m still in awe of this place. But I feel right at home.

More to come, to be sure.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,107 other followers