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The joke of our slow extinction

The joke of our slow extinction

THE FIRST THUNDERCLAP ISSUED like a whip heading north. Above, the swift current of cloud created a kind of optical illusion as it pulled over the bluffs and, combined with the sonic boom, could almost convince me it was the cliff tipping over on me. I tried to take another picture of the glacier’s off-white slope against the grey sky but the battery was dead, even after I’d tried rubbing some static charge into it against the sleeve of my sweater.

Gotta go, I thought.

I’d been on plenty of bald slopes like this during my years treeplanting, up high enough you can feel the ozone before and after a lightning discharge, but it was no excuse to stick around. I knew how quickly summer storms could collapse on you. From the lip of the glacier I could even make out familiar clearcuts, wended into distant mountain ranges like brown lesions, where I’d weathered similar flash storms.

I took one last look at the glacier — even from this distance I could make out its diminishing perimeter, the pressed scree that a century earlier had been buried six feet at this time of year. Growing up in the Slocan Valley in southeastern British Columbia I’d always had peaks and mountain ranges as a backdrop, each with daring and heroic names like Asgard, Loki, Macbeth, and Devil’s Couch. But it’d taken me nearly two decades of living in the same place to explore some of them.

Below, I could make out the small township of New Denver, hedged to Slocan Lake, where I’d set out earlier that morning by kayak. It was a dying city, emptied by high costs of living and an influx of rich homeowners who spent less than two months a year in the area. I felt a grip of regret, and wondered if the glacier that shared its name would suffer the same gradual attrition — a wearing away until there was nothing left. The ice field was like a white flower, sinking back to its source.

There was another interruption of thunder. The small bowl of the glacier funneled the impact like an instrument, and I felt it in my legs and stomach and picked up my pace. Halfway down, following the creek back to the tent, the rain started to accelerate and turned to hail by the time I reached the floor of the narrow valley.

It was all blow-down, Engelmann spruce twisted from their roots like bottlecaps, and when I finally ran the gauntlet of branches and split trunks my clothes were soaked. I dove into the tent, frantic to get out of the weather. My shoulders and the back of my neck stung where the ice had pelted me. Another shock of thunder rippled from above and I could see the walls of the tent shake. A small darkness closed across the sky and was almost palpable, as if someone had slammed a lampshade down on the sun.

I forced my breathing to slow and closed my eyes.

The siege of hail slowed with my pulse to a consistent tapping. I wanted to laugh. My whole body shook with exhaustion. I wrapped my sleeping bag over my shoulders and shivered and peered out of the tent’s flaps once more and saw the glacier winking at me from the summit. There’s a kind of exhilaration in stepping over the liminal barriers of what the body is capable of, in what my childhood hero and poet Gary Snyder had once referred to as a “practice of the wild.”

This practice is an exercise in both gratitude and humility. And out of this a relationship develops, one between human and her environment, which is mutually contingent. That is, a person cannot exist without their environment, just as their environment cannot exist without them — it is the most original and ancient form of symbiosis. And it’s a dying way.

Occasionally it’s still felt by those whose vocation takes them into the wild places. Loggers, treeplanters, trappers, bush pilots. It exists now like an endangered species in First Nation cultures in the area, like the Salish and Sinixt. As I huddled in the shadow of the glacier, I bit back on the clarity of my sadness. It was full of anger, not just at big issues like global warming and the proposed Enbridge pipeline and the previous genocides of cultures who held these ancient values. It was easy to be angry about those things, things I couldn’t be held accountable for, but felt like I needed to be.

I was also angry at myself. That it had taken me so long to come here. At my own negligence to the practice of the wild.

I opened the tent and stepped out into the slash and inhaled as deep as I could manage. The rain had dispersed, but I could hear the small round sounds of water drops falling from the boughs of spruce, their slap on the broad leaves of thimble-berry bushes.

Somewhere through the trees, its voice echoing from the edge of a kettle lake below the bluffs, a loon’s laugh called to me. I put my hands together and called back, trying to signal him that it was safe. There was a long silence, the slow stamp of after-rain on leaves and underbrush. Then another laugh.

It was a joke, I thought. The glacier, me, and this slow extinction. All of it seemed absurd. I had no idea how long the ice and snow above me would last, or how long the loon would keep watch over the valley. But for the moment I felt like I was home, the way only someone who has been absent from it for a long time really can. I felt my own life, my own struggles — university, relationships, traveling — all inextricably tied up in the contemplation of the creek beside the tent, meandering from its source.

I laughed again, shaking with the effort, and my voice was somehow alien and I felt the life around me shrink from it. I laughed harder. I laughed because there was nothing else to do.

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