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The Climate Crisis Has Stolen My Dream

And I won't be quiet about it.

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Once again, I am doing what I do in our Colorado valley every chance I get: looking out the window at the mountain, soaking it up, breathing in its strength and calm and beauty. It’s June 7, 2014, late in the afternoon, almost a year after the fire.

I peer out, expecting calm. Then gasp. Flaming red and orange clouds radiate from the horizon up toward the peak.

I am not sure of what I see—something gorgeous or something terrifying.

“Hon!” I call. “Look at this!”

My husband, Joe, looks out the window and then both of us head to the deck to see more clearly.

A spectacular sunset? Another fire?

“What is it?” I ask. My heart thuds, my breathing quickens.

We watch and wait, looking for the movement that would indicate this is smoke rather than clouds.

The colors remain static, unshifting. There’s no smell. Can we trust that, as is almost always the case—except for that one time— it’s the sun, burning 93 million miles away and sending a gorgeous reflection to Earth? We can trust that, yes. It's a halting trust, a trust that requires effort and some internal dialogue.

It’s just the sunset, it’s just the sunset, it’s just the sunset. Really? Is it just the sunset? Really, it is. It’s just the sunset.

We inhale in appreciation of the beauty and the lack of new chaos. I exhale.

This fearfulness is new. Once a sunset was just a sunset, a raincloud a blessed sign of needed moisture. This year, though, I am on my guard. Our refuge, our place of peace has an overlay of danger. My confidence in the steadfastness of the mountain and its valleys and ridges has been shaken.

I didn't expect fear. I thought this was the year all would return to normal. Last year was the big event, the disaster, the East Peak Fire that burned 13,000 acres of nearby forest and incinerated about 70 percent of the trees in our 200 acres of Colorado wilderness. Then came the floods rushing down the mountain, with no vegetation left to stop the flow, pushing trees and boulders like they were twigs and gravel.

Our tiny, handmade, off-the-grid summer cabin was protected by firefighters, but the forest was too big to save.

I expected this year to be our resurrection, but the year after the fire is even harder, with more floods, landslides, noxious weeds, and stressed animals, plants, and humans. I had a sense of chutzpah right after the burn, an assuredness that we could ride this out just fine. And we will indeed ride it out one way or another. And we may be fine eventually. But the timeline is far longer and more jagged and uncertain than I had wanted to believe.

I grieve the loss of our forests, but more importantly, I grieve the loss of faith in the future. Fear follows me, tickling my neck with unnerving reminders that we humans may no longer be able to live our lives scurrying around open fields and verdant forests the way we once had. That what had been pockets of peace, like our remote valley, might be most at risk. And for those of us who love the land, that’s about as personal as it gets. This is a way of life we wanted for our kids and grandkids. And they may never see it again, certainly not as it had been.

Friends remind me of fires that have given birth to gorgeous new forests, and I hang onto that. But the number of fires recently is unnerving—in the past decade, the United States has lost an area the size of New Jersey every year to wildfires. Every year. This is change on a serious scale and we’ve not seen the end of it. We may be just at the beginning. And right now Australia is burning at an unimaginable scale. What comes after these fires in that beautiful country is almost impossible to imagine.

No matter what I do now, I’m always looking behind me, ahead of me, wondering what’s there and what that means for the Rocky Mountains I have known and loved for almost 70 years.

I keep walking, hiking, moving through this dangerously changed landscape, over downed trees and across flooded streams. I move. We plant—pines and firs, primarily, to help replace our lost forest. And I write, to remind you, me, whoever of what we've lost, what we're losing, and what we literally cannot live without—our forests, the lungs of the earth.

I am fighting my fear, but it breaks my heart that I have to. I understand the appeal of denial—I'd like to pretend this is all a myth, some leftist exaggeration. But the evidence confronts me each time I walk into the forest and am faced with acres of blackened trees and I read the news of fires around the world—bigger, deadlier, more numerous than we have ever seen.

Our forest is not growing back on its own—the fire burned so hot it killed the evergreen seeds. The only seedlings on our burn scar are those we've planted.

The climate crisis has robbed me of my dream of a life in the wilderness. If we don't act, it could claim all our dreams of any life in nature.

The fear has changed my buying patterns—nothing I consume can be as important as this land, so I finally totally give up meat, live with the clothes I have or buy used ones, drive less, and am simply aware of the cost to the planet for every decision I make. I talk about the stressed Earth as often as I can —to friends in casual conversation, to my elected representatives locally and nationally, to presidential candidates. I no longer worry about turning people off with my preoccupation because I have seen what the future can hold.

I question whether we should be here, in the woods, near the next fire. Where, actually, should we be? I have no idea.

I have morphed into a significantly different creature in the years since the fire. My initial focus was on resilience—on how the forest would adapt, and how I would be strong and courageous alongside it. I didn't expect to feel so broken and fearful, so weak.

But I have earned my fear and I no longer deny it nor apologize for it. I am a different kind of strong woman than I envisioned myself to be—I am finally courageous enough to acknowledge my terror.

•This is an excerpt from Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss

See also:

Is Climate Change Our Next Mental Health Crisis?

Complacency on Climate Change Is Killing Us

Can We Break the Spiral of Silence on Climate Change?