Apr 30, 2020
A Future with Fire: Desiring Tuesday on this Very Long Monday
Last week I criticized some spatial data that equated average miles traveled with social distancing success. According to the national map, my county was doing great, and I questioned it, saying “who knows—some people might cut their commute but still be hanging out with their neighbors!” Then the other night, two miles from home, my gas light turned on—a month after my last fill up. Were they right, or was I? In this era, we’re all the keepers of our own social data.
Is it bad to say I miss spending time in my car? My heated seats, my commute to work, those daily 40 minutes of maternal bliss: alone time—what I would call “quiet time,” even though music is blaring. The other night, my two miles found me with John Prine, singing “Long Monday,” which I’ve had on repeat since he died from COVID-19 a couple weeks ago. Ominously prudent, the chorus says:
Gonna be a long Monday
Sittin’ all alone on a mountain
By a river that has no end
Gonna be a long Monday
Stuck like the tick of a clock
That’s come unwound – again
My long Monday started on Monday, March 16, when my 5-year old’s school closed. And it still feels like Monday today, because tax day passed and I haven’t finished my taxes—because I’m indulging too much and waking up too late and working too hard but also not enough, and my kid is spending more time with me than ever but seems to be wanting me more and more. Who knows what will happen when (if?) he goes back to school. The Groundhog Day parallels are not escaping me as I wake up to another day at home, another day of triple duty working and parenting and homeschooling, another day feeling an odd joie de vivre offset by the deepest dread and worry. It has been the longest Monday.
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I’m going to ask you to do a visualization exercise. Imagine yourself living in a fire-adapted world—the one that we in the fire community are all incessantly thinking about and working on and striving for. Imagine ten years from now, being thanked by the next generation for your role in achieving this vision. What are they thanking you for?
My dear friend, Dr. Sarah Ray, is a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, and she recently asked her students to do this same visualization, but with a focus on a future climate-changed world. She thought it would be an empowering and invigorating exercise, helping them see where and how they could contribute to climate adaptation and resilience. Instead, the exercise fell flat. She realized that they couldn’t visualize a resilient future at all; the scale of the problems that lie ahead for these young people—what she and others call the “climate generation”—is too much, paralyzing. She realized that her students need more than encouraging visualizations and empowering messages; they need real coping strategies if they are going to effect change in this “age of overwhelm.”
Last week, on Earth Day, Sarah released a new book on this topic—A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety—and I hosted an interview-style webinar to help share her insights and ideas. The research and tools she’s developed on climate change have clear application for all kinds of crises, including catastrophic fire, and—more recently—COVID. In some ways, those things are all one and the same: as sea levels rise and Australia and Paradise burn and the world shuts down because of an invisible but deadly virus, it’s hard not to feel disempowered—it’s hard to visualize a better future. It’s hard to imagine this Long Monday ever becoming Tuesday.
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In her book, Sarah outlines seven strategies for cultivating resilience, and she roots them in research and theory on emotional intelligence and mindfulness. Each chapter of the book discusses one of the strategies, and like any other “field guide,” you can skip around the book to find the pieces that are most useful for you.
As I read the book with my usual fire lens, I was drawn to chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 is titled “Be Less Right and More in Relation,” and Chapter 6 is “Move Beyond Hope, Ditch Guilt, and Laugh More.” With these two chapters, Sarah pretty well captures the philosophy behind my life and work.
In “Be Less Right and More in Relation,” she describes the polarizing nature of climate change, and the propensity for all sides to forget the goal—positive change—because they are so focused on being right. She argues that “when we wonder why climate deniers refuse to believe the scientific consensus, or ask with disgust, “What is wrong with these people?,” we are forgetting that most of our beliefs have nothing to do with science and everything to do with emotions. And we are shutting down constructive dialogue before it has even begun” (p. 97). She urges us to forget being right, and to focus instead on hearing and being heard. I think this approach is vital not just in the climate change context, but also in relationships, politics, and—of course—fire.
One of my favorite things about prescribed fire is that it consistently proves to be a depolarizing space—a venue for different kinds of people (often otherwise at odds politically or socially) to realize and further their shared values. But even outside the prescribed fire realm, we in the fire community have opportunities to better hear and understand the communities with whom we work. As we try to make fire adaptation more resonant and widespread, we must remember that “Getting more people on board will not just be about them getting ‘enlightened’ to our way of thinking; it will involve them determining how the problems are framed and approached in the first place” (Katherine Hayhoe 2018—as cited on p. 100). Along these lines, Sarah urges us to meet people where they are, focus on issues at a local scale, reframe the issues in resonant ways, and build our skills in fostering justice and approaching others with compassion. I think local fire management models have the power to do just that—it’s one of the things that drives me in my work on prescribed burn associations. Think global, act local—right?
In Chapter 6, Sarah takes on one of my biggest pet peeves: the use of guilt as a tool to change behavior. There is a lot of interesting psychology around guilt, but the most important thing to know is that “behavioral adaptations based on unpleasant feelings, like guilt and self-loathing, are not sustainable” (p. 116). Making people feel bad for building in the WUI, for example, or for not managing their fuels the way you would—probably a poor strategy. Rather, Sarah urges us to move beyond guilt, and even beyond hope, and to be driven instead by desire. “What’s better than hope? Empowerment to work toward a way of being for which you yearn.”
Before I became friends with Sarah, I didn’t know that pleasure and desire are actually fields of academic study. And this isn’t just about physical sensation. Desire, as she writes, “is an essential affect for building resilience,” because “desire entails the anticipation of pleasure, whereas most climate narratives invoke threats and risks” (p. 123). These fear-based narratives are common in fire, too.
So how can we leverage pleasure in fire? Everyone who’s been on a burn knows the thrill of fire—the exhausted exhilaration you feel after a good day of burning, the red cheeks and chapped lips and simple joy of cold water, the warmth of having reintroduced the land to its age-old friend. Prescribed fire is hard work, but it’s also pure pleasure. (Recall I wrote a blog last year called “Indulging in Fire.”) And when we visualize the future outcomes of our work, we’re not just picturing the avoided mega-fires of the future; rather, we’re yearning for open woodlands and forests, hungry for carpets of wildflowers, eager to work in places where fire-resilient landscapes are a physical reflection of our communities and economies. These are the core tenets of our work in the FAC Net, FLN, IPBN, and TREX. We desire fire adaptation—we yearn for connection with people and place—and that makes us resilient.
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It’s now April 27, and I am wrapping up yet another Long Monday. But a few things have changed since my 2-mile drive home the other night. My car now has a full tank of gas, I have a new song on repeat, and it’s 8 pm and my son is howling like a coyote pup. And I’m realizing that my yearning for normalcy might not be so bad. Some anticipation of pleasure—some added desire for our work, for our friends, for our projects and our partners—might in some ways make us rather than break us. Thank you, Sarah Ray, for guiding us here.
If you’re interested in buying A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, consider buying it from Sarah’s local bookstore, Northtown Books in Arcata, CA. Sarah will donate all the proceeds of their sales to the store. https://www.northtownbooks.com/
To watch Katharine Hayhoe’s TEDtalk, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.” from TEDWomen 2018, visit TED.com
 Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, Fire Learning Network, Indigenous Peoples’ Burning Network, and Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges.
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