We sling that air quality data like statisticians, the numbers tumbling from our armchair-meteorologist mouths: “113 in Mazama, headed up there for a quick run,” or “261 this morning; I wore an N95 to harvest carrots in the garden.”
The smoke, immaterial for most of us most of the year, was once again thrust to the forefront of our minds last week. Our stinging eyes, our itching throats and our smoky laundry on the clothesline told the story: it’s fire season.
When the smoke is bad, at first it’s all we can focus on. The flat yellow light, a perpetual apocalyptic dusk. The grit of particles on the hoods of cars. The blind faith that those air filters we run 24/7 are actually capturing more than just the pollen and fruit flies. We venture out into the gloom only when we have to, nodding at other figures hunched grimly toward their own errands.
“We’re lucky it’s just smoke,” we tell ourselves. And we are — so very, very lucky. This particular smoke isn’t from our own homes burning, our own farms and ranches, our own livestock, our wildlife and wildlands, our own life’s work up in flames; smoke and flames didn’t claim our people. The smoke reminds us that our neighbors in other parts of the region were not as lucky.
And so we accept the smoke, the price we pay for living in this dazzling valley, in increasingly disconcerting times, on an increasingly warm planet.
When the smoke has been thick for more than a few days in row, in the Very Unhealthy or Hazardous zones, when we haven’t seen the sun as more than just a faint hint at a bright spot above us, we can think of little else. But then we get used to it. We stop noticing the constant whir of the air filters, we accept the new view from our living room windows — featureless, a sallow ashen wall — we stop finding it strange to seal gaps in doors with blue painter’s tape.
Then suddenly we get a break: a patch of blue sky above, a puff of wind, a midnight sprinkle. We don’t even need the numbers to confirm what we smell (petrichor); what we hear (Canada geese); what we see (a star, a distant hillside, the actual sun). At times like these, we rejoice, run outside, relax our tense shoulders.
And, unfortunately, most of us then stop worrying about the problem itself: the choices we make about the way we live.