Polly Campbell faces the flames of climate change

It’s kind of a shack, really. A cabin in a California national forest that’s way too small for all the people who love it. Two rooms downstairs, two up, a deck with a view, furniture held together with duct tape and rope, tents set up in the woods as extra bedrooms. It looks pretty much as it did when my grandparents bought it in 1960, and every year I’ve spent there since. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

This last summer, my husband and I drove out and spent two weeks with all my relatives, days of swimming in ice-cold lakes and hikes and card games and a little family friction to give it a little drama.

We drove home across the tinder-dry West with the smoke of forest fires behind us. Shortly after we got back, the Caldor Fire started about 30 miles from the cabin. It didn’t seem like a threat at first. There was plenty of time to get it under control before it reached us. But each day it got a little closer, until one day it started quickly climbing up Highway 50. I was calling my siblings, obsessively refreshing the fire map. And then it happened: on one of my refreshes, the outline of the fire completely surrounded the cabin road. I lost it, and cried on my husband’s shoulder. Called my daughter crying. Called my sister crying.

As it turned out, there was a temporary mistake in the map just long enough for me to see it. On the next refresh, the fire was only just close. A few days later, when everything was contained, the fire had stopped across the road, sparing our cabin, just barely. There were pictures on the maps of other cabins nearby, looking vaporized. 

We’ve all known that the cabin has been in danger from fire. The thought that every year might be the last is pretty obvious, but my mind has always veered away. My mind also veers away from the ultimate cause of the fires. Fires in the west are a result of a drought that is a result of climate change that is a result of humans acting like we can do whatever we like to the Earth without consequence. I have cared about global warming for decades, but the emergency is so upsetting to me that I’ve found it hard to look at it straight-on. 

Experiencing the grief of climate change destroying something I love has given me a certain strength to look. I’ve been through something terrible, even if it was only for half an hour. And I now can better stand and face the climate disaster. It’s time to arm myself with up-to-date knowledge, to stop skipping over articles about it, to talk about it out loud. And to do something.

And how am I supposed to do that? 

The environment got to this crisis as the result of billions of small acts since we started burning coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But it can only really be solved by large acts made by large entities: from the United Nations to national governments to big corporations. It’s obviously not enough for me, or lots of people like me, to burn less fossil fuel by driving an efficient car, or any of the many steps we’ve taken in my household. It’s too late for that. Probably the most important thing at this point is activism: persuasion, protesting, voting, joining a movement. The big players should be shamed and leaned on. 

But I can’t imagine asking for large changes without making small ones myself. It’s a matter of lining up life principles and about taking collective action. Individual action is often mentioned as a way to feel less guilty. Hey, we’re all guilty, and we’ll continue to be. But it does help to feel less helpless. And it’s one way of being part of a movement. Encourage Ford to continue going electric by buying an electric truck. Get solar panels when an incentive is offered, so incentives will continue to be offered. If you bike to work, join a bike group that works for active transportation. If you like to hike, join a conservation group. Give money to effective environmental groups. 

In other words, make small changes, but amplify them by telling other people, telling companies, telling governments at every level. It’s uncomfortable, painful to feel the grief of forests gone, species wiped out, a planet completely changed. But feel it and be motivated.

Turn around and face the flames.

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Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.

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