Shelter in Place
There was a time in my life when I thought that only wildness would save me. And I don't mean wildness like you go on a long hike and find yourself. I mean wildness like civilization ceases to exist; spires of glass and steel replaced by towering cedars, cracks in the concrete giving way to long-suppressed wetlands. Going wild. I believed it was the only thing that would smooth me out; like a river stone tumbled in the rapids, the end of warehouses stuffed with plastic “comforts”, and the rise of raw reconnection to survival would sand my sharp edges down and I would become a better version of myself—less angry at least, less afraid. This is what I’m thinking about as my boots crunch the gravel of the old rail bed beside Osprey Lake. This place, while beautiful, lost its wildness a hundred years ago when the most expensive kilometres of track ever laid in Canada were completed to form the Kettle Valley line.
It’s the first week of October, and Brian and I are at our cabin in the mountains outside of Princeton for a hunting trip. Really, Brian is hunting and I’ve been solo hiking. We maintain contact through handheld radios in case something goes wrong for one of us—but so far, so good and it’s been an amiable week of tracking and comparing notes about the trails in the evening. There isn’t much game at the moment; temperatures are unseasonably high and the deer haven’t started to come down from the higher elevations yet. Though autumn has unfurled its full flag of colours and the fire-smoke of summer has abated, night temperatures are still well above freezing.
The aspens overlooking the lake to my right are radiant in orange and yellow hues against the grey-blue sky and I am uplifted by their showy display. Their real purpose though lies beneath my feet, where a massive network of roots holds the valley and mountainside intact beneath the second-growth forest. Tooth and claw marks on the soft bark remind me that this is a place possessed by beavers and bears among other creatures—including the human I can hear wielding a chainsaw at one of the lake properties (probably cutting firewood). My feet hit the wood trestle that crosses the marsh and I’m at the spot where I always linger a few minutes before turning around. The reeds and grasses of the wetland provide a home for many species of bird, freshwater mussel beds, and the occasional snake, and it’s moosey, which means it’s the kind of wetland-at-the-edge-of-the-forest where you might get lucky and see a moose.
In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the land a lot, listening to loons and chattering squirrels, following deer trails through beetle-ravaged woodland, and crossing barbed wire fences in long abandoned fields. Back in that time of my life when I believed only wildness could save me—believed that wildness was even still possible—I hung around with a lot of people who prepped and readied themselves for the day the world broke apart. The stockpiling started in the lead-up to Y2K and mostly involved food stores, and land purchases out in the sticks, but also included buried guns in the desert, and money in lockboxes sunk into the deep loam of the rainforest. Safeguards against a banking system in free fall, or the need to hunt food for survival.
Of course, this system of just-in-case never got accessed as midnight came and went on the year 2000 without any widespread technology failures. Funny how technological collapse now seems like the smallest of our worries.
Though I put little thought into Y2K prep (my single action involved filling the bathtub with water on the night of, just in case the water supply was disrupted), I found myself moved in later years to get a bit more organized in case of environmental or disaster-based disruptions to the food supply. Hanging out with folks who were already on that train shaped my belief that not only was it possible to plan for a shaky future, it was necessary because no one else would be coming to the rescue when things really went awry. Since around that time, the late 1990s, a whole survival culture has sprung up based on exactly those beliefs and is fueled by a culture obsessed with collapse at the hands of asteroids, unlikely zombies, runaway technology, or a combination of all of the above.
But between recent urban disasters and forest fires in the places close to me, I’ve come to understand that by the time disaster feels imminent enough to react to, it is almost too late to do anything about it.
Case in point: a few years ago, when I still worked in an urban office and was screen-bound in my beige cubicle one afternoon, the sound of multiple sirens started bouncing up the glass towers of the city. A quick Google search turned up headlines about a fire in a container at the Port of Vancouver.
At the time I lived about ten blocks from the Port, and CKNW live radio was telling me that our whole neighbourhood from Main to Renfrew Street were under a “shelter in place” order. Up until that moment, I’d never heard that term, but I quickly understood that because the fire was potentially toxic with unidentified chemical gasses, residents were being told to stay inside their homes, and all traffic was being re-routed away from the area. I felt the ripple of that news right down to my fingertips as I picked up my desk phone and punched our home phone number in to call Brian who was at home with my step-daughter.
“Have you seen the news?” I asked, and before waiting for a reply said, “You need to close the windows. Get Mica inside, don’t let her go out...”
Alarms at the Port happened with such frequency that Brian hadn’t thought anything of them on that particular day, and because he wasn’t in front of his computer, he didn’t know he was supposed to be sheltering in place. It turns out that no one comes around to your home and tells you when there is a threat of this type unfolding.
I wasn’t sure if I should go home after work. Buses were not running to the Eastside of Vancouver at all and although I could walk the six kilometres easily, I wasn’t sure if it was safe to do so. At the same time, I hated the idea of being away from my family in case the incident grew in proportion. “What should I do?” I asked, to which Brian’s voice wavered as he said, “I don’t know. Just watch the news until it seems okay?”
And so I waited in my cubicle until an hour past quitting time. At that point the SkyTrains were running again so I hopped one that would take me to the stop nearest our house, and then walked the three kilometres home alongside other women who were rushing to daycares, or families at home. All of us hustling down the sidewalk, and right into the chemical fumes that enveloped us as we crossed the threshold of First Avenue. The acrid air scratched my nostrils and my throat, clawing at my latent asthma as I fished around in my bag for something to use as a filter. Coming up with nothing but Kleenex, I tugged up my shirt to form a makeshift gas mask as I continued the last few blocks towards home. A city official had declared it no longer dangerous to enter the neighbourhood, but I suddenly realized that they didn’t really know if that was true. Someone had just decided to call it, likely because it was commuter hour and what do you do with thousands of people who can’t travel to or through a major part of the city?
I climbed the steps of our little blue house on our street lined with beech trees, and as I entered and registered safety, I promptly burst into anxious tears.
Later that night in our attic bedroom, I lay in bed holding Brian’s hand. Even though the cabin isn’t ideal as a long term homestead, I had always thought of it as a place we could go to wait out any disaster. But now I realized how naive I was. How would we know when it was really time to get out? That was the question nibbling away at me as I walked home from the train, the scent of chlorine wafting around me on the street. How does one know when the long emergency has begun?
Standing at the edge of Osprey Lake, on this too-warm autumn day, this question is as fresh in my memory as the recent summer’s fire-smoke. The loons dive for fish among the reeds a few feet out from the water’s edge, and although I enjoy their show of skittering and diving, I turn towards the rail bed and start heading back to the cabin. I’ve known for quite some time now that as much as I marvel at these moments of wildness, they are not enough to pull me or the people I love to safety. Wildness isn’t out there to save us and even if it was, we couldn’t get to it in time. Best case scenario is that we’re in a place we can shelter when the future comes at us too fast to duck.
The October sun is edge-bright with its imminent disappearance behind the hills on the other side of the lake and I’m thinking of getting back to make dinner when the radio in my pocket crackles. On the other end is Brian calling me up the mountainside to help him carry out the buck he’s just shot, so I turn off the trail and start making my way up the hillside to the clearing where I know I’ll find him.
Trembling aspen are one of the most beautiful things I know about this world. They are a massive interconnected plant for one thing, and they serve as a natural fire break in mixed forests. Sadly, they are "managed" as a weed, and sprayed with pesticides to make room for tree species that can be commercially developed. This needs to stop.
March recipe: Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)
Many years ago I learned that barley keeps very well in dry storage without going rancid, and so I bought an 11 kilogram bag of it to buffer our food supply against emergencies. That, by the way, is a *lot* of barley. I have had the chance to perfect my use of it in soups and stews in the intervening years. Almost time to buy another bag!
1 lb ground beef
2 stalks celery, diced
2 cups mixed frozen vegetables or use a combination of diced carrots, green beans, and corn nibs
6 large mushrooms, chopped into pieces
2/3 cup barley
7 cups chicken stock
1 small can tomato paste
3 bay leaves
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Saute diced onions and celery in some olive oil over a medium heat (or on the Instant Pot saute setting)
Throw in the ground beef and stir it around until it is browned
Put the rest of the ingredients in the pot.
If you are using an Instant Pot, put on the lid and set on the soup or high pressure setting for 35 minutes. Quick release when done.
If you are using a pot on the stove, bring the soup to a boil and then quickly turn down to a simmer for 45 minutes until the barley is the consistency you like
In the studio
This month in the studio I was recording music! Brian's music in particular as he is working a new album titled "Campfire Songs of the Apocalypse" (it's a bit of a household theme). Over a few short days we laid down an album's worth of tracks with Jordan Koop at the Noise Floor (our neighbours and friends) with some fantastic musicians including Dinah Dee, Bob Blair, Max Cossette, Jonathan Teague, and Tom Jones. While I don't have anything to share with you from the new album just yet, Brian Green's first album, The Breaking, is available on Soundcloud. To keep informed about the release of the new album, follow his songs page on Facebook.
Overstory by Richard Powers. This novel surprised me in so many ways, not the least of which is Powers' vivid description of the forest activist movement in the 1980's and 90's. Also, it's about trees communicating with each other and with people, the richness of tree community, and the fact that humans in their current form are probably not going to survive. I cried pretty continuously while reading this novel, so be aware if these are themes that move your needle; it's an intense read.
Last month, I mentioned "Operation Backfire" in my essay. This month, The Intercept asks, how a movement that never killed anyone become the FBI's Number One terrorist threat. An old friend of mine is featured in this article. He's facing trial later this year after thirteen years living overseas; this article speaks to his case and its context.
"From one perspective, we are always living within the enlightenment of Buddha. From another perspective, no matter how hard or how long we practice in this lifetime, we will still be limited individuals... At all times we have the potential to act with either magnanimity or egocentricity, to do either right or wrong. Both Buddha and demons are living within us, so we need to live moment by moment, being led by vow and repentance." Shohaku Okumura from Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo
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See you next month and if you want to read more of me in the meantime you can find me at red-cedar.ca.