Fine — Until We’re Not

Cai Emmons
4 min readJun 29, 2021

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I have always adored summer. The sun. The heat. The long lazy days. Visits to lakes and rivers and ocean beaches. Picnics and barbeques with friends. Fresh-from-the-garden vegetables. And vacations — who doesn’t love a vacation? Fantasies of summer get me through the seemingly endless days of winter darkness. I know a few curmudgeonly people who insist that fall, or spring, or even winter is more stimulating than summer, but I’m quite confident that any poll would reveal most people favor summer.

Last week, however, as we passed the solstice and embarked officially on summer, my pleasure was tinged with fear. A heat dome was settling over the West. Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest where I live were predicted to top 110 degrees. Such high temperatures in June, weeks before the predictable heat waves of mid-summer, are unheard of. We will smash records. People will die. Heat waves, I read recently, kill more people than any other extreme weather event. And heat this early in the summer, in a year of already record-breaking drought, is sure to result in earlier and bigger wildfires.

The summer of 2020 was notable for its wildfires up and down the West Coast. Here in Oregon the Holiday Farm Fire devastated sections of the McKenzie River, destroying trees and homes, displacing thousands. That fire burned for months and threatened to encroach on urban areas, as did other fires farther north and south. It will take decades for those areas to recover. During that disaster the air quality here was the worst in the world, far worse than India and China. Miles away from the fires, the toxic smoke kept people inside. Though my home was not in the direct line of the fire, I was terrified. I could see that there might come a day when our home would be threatened too.

I grew up in New England loving extreme weather events. The excitement they brought and the interruption of routine. During hurricanes we would go to the attic and watch wind drubbing the trees. When we had blizzards that sometimes dropped more than two feet of snow, we would head out our front door on X-country skis. These crises were dramatic entertainment. A few branches might fall and occasionally we would lose power for an hour or two, giving us an excuse to light candles, but we never felt our lives were threatened. People weren’t going to die. I had the limited view of a kid, of course, but even my parents didn’t seem worried.

I don’t need to point out the obvious — things have changed. Dire weather is threatening people year-round all over the world, and the human death toll has been on the uptick for years. In interviews with survivors of such weather events, you’ll often hear the word “unreal.” People seem to be saying they failed to imagine they could be undone in this way, and now they understand something new: that solid homes, modern conveniences, and even skilled emergency responders can’t always protect us. High winds, pummeling rain, storm surges, tornados, fire, temperatures at both ends of the scale all have the power to conquer us. We are fragile in the face of such natural forces, our mastery limited.

A few years ago here in Eugene, Oregon where I live (a place where moderate weather tends to prevail), an ice storm in early December took out our power for close to a week. A giant old-growth tree crashed through our neighbor’s garage roof. Fallen branches and trees blocked the streets. The first day of that storm brought with it the excitement I’d felt as a child, but the excitement paled when it became clear the power would not be restored for a number of days (it turned out to be six). Each day the temperature inside the house sank. We wore head lamps and coats, cooked on a camp stove, and went to bed early, as bed was the only place we were truly warm. We often awakened in the middle of the night, hearing cracks that sounded like gunshots, as more branches and entire trees succumbed to the weight of ice that refused to melt. For some meteorological reason I don’t understand, the roads were free of ice so at some point every day we drove to a café for internet and a hit of warmth and community. At home again in the dark and cold we returned to our animal selves, foraging for food and warmth, trying to relax in the discomfort.

I’ve become nostalgic for a kind of weather conversation that used to be common. It was a way to fill conversational silences or connect with strangers. You were in a taxi and feeling friendly. “Can you believe this heat?” you might say to the cabbie. “Supposed to break soon,” he’d say and you would both laugh. Conversations like that acknowledged the weather might be inconvenient or uncomfortable, but it wasn’t dire, it certainly wasn’t threatening anyone’s survival.

What strikes me is how cavalier we are when these crises happen elsewhere. Our imaginations fail us. Close as I was to the Holiday Farm Fire nine months ago, I still cannot picture fire on my doorstep. Most of us can’t. We continue to feel (falsely) safe. We have solid homes, fireproof rooves and sprinkler systems, flood-proof basements, insurance policies, and battalions of heroic emergency responders at-the-ready if all else fails. And even if we don’t have any of those things, the odds are in our favor, right?

I know how foolish this thinking is, and yet I persist in thinking this way. I don’t know another way to live. If I give my brain over to contemplating the dangers, I will go crazy. So, I carry on as usual. I will be fine — until I’m not.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.