Due to the peculiar nature of layovers, my flight back to Chicago from Southern Oregon took me through Los Angeles. As we flew over the California coast, I saw billows of smoke rising into the air—evidence of the wildfires tearing their way across the dry ground. I was sad, even disturbed, by these fires; they poked at my desperate feelings about climate change and environmental preservation. But I was removed from them in every possible way, soaring miles above in a machine that only added fuel to the fire of the climate crisis.
Instead, my mind was on Oregon and the beautiful Rogue River Valley I’d left behind. I had been there for a storytelling training, once in March to begin and once in October to close out. The place had captivated me—three mountain ranges joined and merged at this valley, filling the horizon with sharp blue shadows. The terrain—the climate, even—varied depending on what side of the mountain you stood on, or how far up you were. I explored mossy creek gullies and snow-capped peaks, drove down winding roads through oak savannas and sat in quiet pine forests. I hiked up volcanic landscapes and watched the valley spread out beneath me. I loved the way the topography was open enough to be a like a map—I could see each landmark no matter where I was, miles and miles away, and hold the shape of the valley in my mind.
At night, I watched the mountain shadows fall over the pastures and vineyards, and I breathed in the smell of wood smoke. In the morning, I cut up pears grown nearby and saw the sun move over the Cascades. This place brought me such deep peace and gratitude.
Almost a year has passed since that trip, and we’ve circled back around to wildfire season again. I’ve watched with pity as the skies across Washington and California fill with smoke. I’ve wondered how long it will be before we finally take climate change and it’s exacerbating effects seriously. And then, this week, I saw the news on my facebook feed, echoed by the many friends I’d made in Oregon: the Rogue River Valley was burning. The fire was un-contained. The wind was whipping the flames past the farm I’d stayed at during both visits. A colleague’s house was burning down.
Pain filled my stomach. The images of towering flames caught my breath. I felt like I wanted to throw up. Helplessly, I listened to a live video as the firefighters named roads I knew and prepared to evacuate whole communities. In my mind’s eye, I could trace the path of the fire as it devoured that beautiful place. I cried. I railed. I was no longer in an airplane looking down at a distressed but unfamiliar landscape. I was all but choking on the ash made up from a place I loved.
We cannot save the world in the abstract. That’s not how we humans work. The word “courage” comes from the word “heart,” and we fight most fiercely for what we love. The magnitude of the ecological crisis we face—climate change, species loss, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, fiercer storms, degraded soil—it’s all too much. One brain cannot face the enormity of it all and still have the power to act.
So, instead, we must let little pieces of the miraculous world God so loves into our own unfathomable hearts. And it is then we witness how God’s own passion blazes within us, ready to travel through overwhelming grief and impossible odds to show us just how much we love the world, too. We feel our kinship with some small space on the planet, and we grow a determination to help that place flourish.
I can’t stop the fires scorching the beautiful Oregon valley that has captured my heart. Not a single one of us can clean up the whole ocean or reduce carbon emissions enough to make a difference. But because I have opened wide my heart to the love of God present in some small patch of God’s good creation, I will find the courage to love the earth well. To protect the places that bring me delight. To cultivate the imagination needed to envision new systems of energy and commerce. To re-align my rhythms with that of the place I call home. Even to let go of the possibility of ever visiting Oregon again, if that’s what it takes to protect what I love. If we are driven by fear, we will fail. When we are driven by love, that’s when miracles happen.
The change we seek won’t happen overnight, but, spurred by love and sought together, it will grow like fresh new plants after a forest fire—resilient and ready and bursting with hope.