Lessons in stillness
Comfort for the Apocalypse, July 2023
In the early morning, after dropping my husband off at the dock on his way to the city, I drive by a house that belongs to some friends. It has been hot since late spring, and their house is illuminated by the full morning sun as it rises. Like most of us here, they leave their windows open all the time to capture whatever scent of breeze comes in from the ocean. They are still sleeping when I go by, the white curtains drawn and moving slightly, and for whatever reason, the sight of their house in the early light like this makes me feel a deep vulnerability. It puts me in mind of a prayer, the open windows suggesting a plea for respite against the hottest days on earth.
When it has been hot and dry here for too many days in a row, our island community enters the stillness of “shutdown”. This is a designation made by the fire department that requires the downing of any tool that could create a spark when the risk of fire is extreme. Activities that are limited or prohibited include lawn mowing, land clearing, chain-sawing, outdoor welding, explosive use, and so on.1 In other words, it gets very quiet here once the heat comes on in full force.
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While shutdown is a drag for workers who rely on these activities to make a living, it also brings a restorative peace one rarely encounters in the machine-world. Only when the machines go quiet do we realize how much their volume dictates our own, an ever-amplified world drowning out the scrape of branches against one another, and the sh-rring of hummingbird wings. Right now it is so quiet I can distinguish subtle sounds from one another, waves lapping at the rock 100 feet away, soft air moving the fir branches just enough to make them audible. I can also hear my neighbour collapsing his ladder, a car approaching from the direction of the village… a scooter goes by; a squirrel chitters an admonishment.
This year, shutdown was declared while I was away at a silent meditation retreat in the mountains. When I returned home, it took me a couple of days to register that my neighbourhood was quieter than when I left and why that would be. As much as I appreciate the hush that extended the silence of my retreat, extreme fire risk puts me on edge. In the last few years, supercharged fire and smoke patterns have changed the way I spend my summers. I no longer wish to be away for long stretches of time in case we need to wet down our roof or otherwise participate in community fire planning. I organize my trips to the Interior in spring or fall when it’s less likely to be on fire. I recently cancelled a trip to the west side of Vancouver Island because highway instability (due to a recent forest fire) has made me question the ease of getting home in an emergency.
Smoke has been minimal on the coast so far this year, and the evening ocean swims have been divine. On the surface, it’s an idyllic summer, one in which it’s easy to forget that BC has now surpassed 2018 for the worst fire season on record with over 14,000 square kilometres burned. In the mountains where I was just on retreat, the hot afternoon thermal winds reminded me daily of how quickly a spark would take off were it to land in the brittle-dry forest all around.
Between writing the above and sending this out today, shutdown has ended (perhaps briefly - we only had one day of rain and have returned to drought conditions since), and the chainsaws are back in full force. We really leap to the machines as soon as we can! But what I wanted to close with remains the same: Shutdown offers us more than a fire safety measure if we listen into the silence which asks us to examine how we can survive with fewer machines, in a quieter world, with a focus on restoration rather than growth. It asks us to listen the hummingbird, the fir trees, and the neighbour next door whose windows are open to the sea against the hottest days on this earth.
This is the flax plot I grew with some friends starting in April, just before mid-July harvest.
In the workshop
Not really in the workshop but at a farm up the road, my local fibre pod rippled (threshed) our flax yesterday. This process involves removing the seed heads from the stalk. We can now move onto the next stage in processing our flax into linen. Although we don’t have dedicated flax processing equipment, we made do by clamping some large wool combs to sawhorses and made short work of the seed and chaff by pulling the stalks through the offset tines of the combs.
The new book Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast by John Vaillant is really worth a read if you want to learn about climate change, the oil industry, and the new reality of fire as told through the story of the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 (still the costliest disaster in Canadian history). Superbly written, gripping from start to finish, and essential reading if you want to understand why fires today aren’t acting the way they used to, and what the consequences of that might be.
Wild Mind Wild Earth: Our Place in the Sixth Extinction by David Hinton: this beautifully-written short work weaves poetry, philosophy, and history together in an examination of the need to reconnect our to our deeper, wild earth relations, if we are to stop their ongoing destruction. A book of dharma wisdom about how to live more ethically in these times.
The article What to do With Climate Emotions by Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as I listened to co-workers back east recount climate horror stories impacting them this summer (tornados and floods). How do we cope emotionally with the fact we are really in this thing right now? There is no straight answer for sure, but Tolentino offers a thoughtful essay as one response.
Despite my hope to return to this newsletter in February, life turned out to be a series of shocking events this spring, and I am now back in therapy. Happy to say, things are more stable again and I’m doing some internal work that has long needed tending to. I’m also learning to draw, spin wool, and grow/process flax into linen which are all healing endeavours in one way or another.
Using a scythe is also banned during Shutdown which I am both charmed and confused by. A quick Google search on “fire started by scything” turns up nothing. It seems odd that scything is banned but jackhammering is not given that compressors can and do catch fire.