We spent the weekend camping, just the four of us. A long hike through the newly green forests of Vermont’s northern mountains. A 5-mile loop to the fire tower and back, led by the 10-year-old, who finally has the stamina to do this sort of thing. She hummed along the steep trail with her walking stick and darted up the rock ledges, encouraging the dog. We ate lunch at the crumbled remains of a Civilian Conservation Corps cabin, taking in the view, which was real, alive and true.
I like to think that this is the sort of freedom the fallen had intended to protect — the fresh air, the scenery, the time and access to move freely about this place we call home and absorb all its sensory pleasures. I like to think that my duty to the deceased is to cherish what we have, so I savored the sound of water tumbling over rock, the smell of honeysuckle and balsam, the squish of moss and mud beneath my feet. I looked out over the layered ridges in the distance, admired the variations of blue and green. I listened to the crack and hiss of the evening campfire, and enjoyed a conversation between owls on the cusp of night.
Later, when the camping was done and we’d returned to cell phone range, I learned that Brian Doyle had passed away. Taken from this life by a cancer of the brain, diagnosed just last Thanksgiving.
It is not lost on me, the timing of his final act. Brian was a man of wisdom, of deep humility and faith, his body of creative work a reflection of these traits (take, for instance, his essay, “Memorial Day”). It makes sense to me, somehow, that his exit from the earth occurred during a sanctioned time of remembrance, a time when we are reminded of our debts to those who came before us, when we question what, exactly, has been sacrificed so we might continue our quest for the American dream.
I think maybe Brian was a master of that pursuit, a master of finding happiness and other phenomena of the human condition within the folds of our pockets, in the everyday moments tucked between the recesses of our minds. Even in the wake of his diagnosis last fall, when the uncertainty of illness and pain loomed before him and his family, he requested of his friends and followers, simply: “Be tender and laugh.”
This has been hard. I have been sullen and short-tempered with friends, with family, with total strangers — I guess because lately, the state of our union has felt to me like a terminal diagnosis. I have descended into the rabbit hole of internet research, obsessing over best case and worst case scenarios, grieving candidly over the serious illness I feel is plaguing my country now — a “big honkin’ brain tumor,” as Brian Doyle called his own particular affliction.
Tumors of this sort work swiftly. Over the last six months, I have watched and protested as the powerful and greedy have begun to dismantle all the systems that were put into place to protect the historically oppressed and vulnerable among us. I have contacted my elected officials and marched for the integrity of science in policy while the Trump administration denies the realities of climate change and maneuvers to hoard and squander and pollute the land and water that we’re all supposed to share. It has been like witnessing a death — an intentional death, a dirty secret back room deal to divide the entire estate while those in charge hold a pillow over the gasping mouth of our democratic ideals.
Fuck this cancer. Fuck cancer fuck Trump fuck Pence fuck McConnell fuck Ryan fuck Sessions fuck Pruitt fuck Bannon fuck Tillerson fuck Kushner fuck Spicer and DeVoes. I am sad, I am angry — so much that I am no longer making good on my pursuit of happiness.
Last weekend, my family and I wove through patches of purple and painted trillium in the forest surrounding Lake Elmore — a park that was gifted to the State of Vermont by local citizens in 1936. This was a dark period in our history, when Americans suffered under the Great Depression and Dorothea Lange snapped her iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, to expose the poverty and exploitation of migrant laborers, and Hitler’s dictatorship in Nazi Germany was metastasizing into a global concern. A period perhaps not so unlike the one we are facing now.
And yet, within periods of despair, there are glimmers of light. A community of readers come together to celebrate a departed writer’s gorgeous words. A group of local citizens donate a tract of land, so that 80 years later, a family might take a hike together in a forest and reaffirm their definition of joy.
Jesse Owens earned four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, disproving on a world stage Hitler’s unfounded theory of Aryan superiority. It was the very first televised Olympic Games; the world was literally watching. Remember that story? That beautiful black body exploding away from the line, pulling farther and farther away from the others in the race. A moment of human excellence, shining in an arena draped with hatred and aggression. Oh how it must have felt to be American on that day, to rise above that stain.
It must have been something else.
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.