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A Quartet

by Gretel Ehrlich

Painting: Joy Garnett

Slowly if at all, the aspens’ last gold withers, the undressed Earth’s slow burn. Every season misshapen, the planet skewered on its axis en brochette. Early snow, when it does come, is a form of exhaustion.

Twilight to dark. No boundaries, no life-raft, no rescue. I’m neither man nor woman in search of sonnet or elegy: groundlessness is its own form.

How long has the carrying capacity of the planet been exceeded?

I’m leaving in a few hours, hounded out of my heart’s home by ozone blasts, carcinogenic hydrocarbons in local groundwater, the aggression of traffic, noise, prostitution, drug use, land abuse, and animal deaths coming from Sublette County’s Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline, where 4,500 more wells will go in soon.

A last, lonely chipmunk climbs the log walls of my cabin and peers through the window until we are eye to eye. He asks to be let in as if he’d forgotten how to hibernate. I’d gladly open the door for him. “Have at it,” I’d say, but when a snowflake hits the back of his head he flees.

I drive the length of the hundred-mile-long wall of mountains—my Wyoming home—where more than a million more acres of valley floor, the Green River, and foothill moraine between the Gros Ventres, the Wyoming Range, and the Wind River Mountains is about to be divvied up by oil companies for drilling.

We humans have made a world where common sense, compassion, and care for each other and the planet have become rarities. Yet that same world keeps sending messages: two blue herons fly from opposite directions toward each other and meet midair. They squawk and call, then one turns and, joining the other, flies wing to wing.

The Earth cannot be managed for monetary profit only. To survive, biological health must come first, real wealth counted in human creativity and solar dollars.

I’m driving behind a long line of Halliburton trucks when the end of the cordillera comes into view. Beyond is Brown’s Park, Killpecker Dunes. I’m perched on some edge, even while moving, “hanging ten” on the eve of extinction. Is this a natural part of species diminution?

Up north, ice shelves break and sea ice is leaf-floating on the gold ocean’s rising empire. Autumn ends. As we drive, I try to register how it feels not “to be.”

Someone pulls on the new moon’s slim handle and snow falls. The mass balance of every glacier and ice cap has shifted. Global warming doesn’t mean just desertification, but also weather violence, purple oceans, yellow methane skies, and a band of continuous hurricanes moving around the equator.

A snowy owl descends onto a neighbor’s deck and calls. No answer. Two inches of snow falls every hour. In the Arctic I heard the ululating mating songs of bearded seals and the roar of pack ice being pushed by strong winds into land-fast ice; saw it rise into a wall, and I wonder, how will the new wilderness of a world without humans sound, and to whose ear?

Snow falls from the roof in soft thuds. How much has been crushed? How much gone missing? Currently, there are 3,071 critically endangered species in the world. Snow stops as abruptly as it started. “The Earth is moving faster now,” one Yup’ik woman said, meaning dependable weather, winds, migration patterns, and ocean currents are no more.

The Burgess Shale taught us to expect the unexpected, to behold “otherness.” Ice instructs us about impermanence. Climate change teaches us speed.

A long plume of cold smoke bridges two mountains, then dips into the valley between. I’m in Wyoming again, where smoke and snow mixes with oil-field smog that both shields and carries the sun. At the end of the last ice age ten thousand years ago, Rocky Mountain glaciers began to retreat, grinding, scraping, and polishing fortresses of rock as they receded. Accumulation and ablation were held in balance by a static interglacial climate. Now massive melting is the dominant key.

“Always changing, always moving” is how one Inuit woman described the dynamic world of ice, reducing her ninety-one words for ice down to two or three. Soon she won’t need that vocabulary to navigate or stay alive. The latitudinal ladder on which I’ve climbed to the circumpolar north has been pulled. Glaciers are bursting, rivers are running fast uphill.

Here, in Wyoming, fire has replaced snow. Clouds heave up: it rains ashes. The night is red. Wildfire “spots forward.” Each window frames a smokescape. A V of geese is swallowed, a western bluebird, a neighbor’s blue plane, a whole day.

In the morning black and broken pine needles cover my outdoor writing table. They are dark pins that have burned, that no longer hold things together. A bull moose moans for a cow in heat, antelope run skittishly toward the trees where a wolf sits waiting, then away into dappled sunlight. The ground gives little grass. There are no wildflowers. The aspens that leafed out early later froze. The wolf, having eaten no calves, no lambs, no antelope, is shot dead.

I live on a glacial moraine surrounded by kettle ponds. At one time each was a water hole for elk, deer, antelope, coyote, grizzly, black bear, wolverine, and wolf. Each was home to nesting ducks—teal, bufflehead, goldeneye, mallards. Some were nesting places for tundra swans and sandhill cranes. Now, only the largest ponds have any water at all. My neighbor’s rowboat gets farther and farther from shore as the water recedes.

Four pairs of American widgeons and their hatchlings swim in ever-smaller circles as the volume of pond water shrinks. Then one morning they are gone. I follow their tracks: they’ve waddled over rough terrain to the last pond with water. That afternoon, four cow elk, four calves, and a yearling moose—animals that should be grazing the pocket meadows of the high country—join them.

July comes on with a sudden, ferocious downpour followed by unrelenting heat. Ninety-degree days were once unheard of at eight or nine thousand feet. Now they are the norm. Alpine fescue—the bluest, finest, most delicate bunchgrass of the alpine ecosystem—is brittle and breaks under my feet. As ponds drink themselves dry, I plant seedlings, capture rain, harvest sun in solar panels, but carelessness—mine included—is the driving, drying force of our world.

Now it’s August. A glacial erratic in the middle of a dry pond bears the marks of high water—three feet deep. To the west another wildfire breaks out. I watch a plume of black smoke unfurl into a red wall of flame. But that same canyon burned last year—how can it burn again?

Climate change–inspired drought pushes into redundancies: fire that burns itself, water-swallowing ponds. The oil companies and others like them are perpetrators of greed—hungry ghosts, or pretas—who never get enough. They are eternally obsessed. Instead of listing Inuktitut words for ice, I count the ways dollar-wealth can be the font of ecological poverty. The full moon in eclipse turns the color of something dead.

Almost Winter
Early September. Still summer but almost winter—that’s what we high-elevation residents call this time of year. But something has slipped out of its skin. My friends in Wales, Alaska, Iglulik, Nunavut, and Qaanaaq, Greenland, say that trees are walking north, barracuda will soon replace narwhal, polar bears are going brown, robins are already singing evensong as another Arctic twilight descends.

A third fire breaks out, this one just four miles from my cabin. It leaps from canyon to canyon, crown to crown. There’s no use calling it in. I already know that the fire-fighting helicopters are elsewhere. Three hundred thirty thousand acres are burning in the American West right now.

Perched on a huge boulder, one of many broadcast like seed by a retreating glacier across this thousand-acre-long meadow, I watch flames rise from stands of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Once this valley was carved by ice. Now it is being reshaped by fire.

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Gretel Ehrlich is the author of many books, including The Solace of Open Spaces and This Cold Heaven, and the winner of multiple awards and fellowships.

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