Everyone has a favorite season, which, at least in my definition, is the season that makes you feel most like yourself. I respect all of your favorite seasons, and your reasons for them. For me, that season is summer. I like feeling hot, and I like summer dresses, and I like summer foods, but I think my most powerful attraction to the season is the meanderingness of it. Days seem to last forever, like a long Möbius strip of warmth and grilled items and cool water. They’ve already started when you’ve woken up, the sun already high in the sky, and, at least where I live now and grew up, are somehow still going when you go to sleep, because the sun doesn’t really set until well after 10 pm.
As a kid, those endless summer days were founts of boredom and subsequent self-amusement. I’d figure out ways to segment the day with grasshoppers to catch, MLB baseball box scores to scrutinize, and coins to scrounge for use at the pool, where I’d bike (somehow, uphill both ways!) and spend hours before treating myself with a 50 cent Payday from the vending machine that still sold cigarettes for $2. The summer was when I reread Babysitters Club books, when I was allowed one precious hour of television (usually spent on a re-run of Star Trek: The Next Generation), when we’d go camp at the local reservoir and drink Shasta pop and spend hours making mini-dams in the creek, when I’d get out of the pool and lay on the hot cement to dry while the sound of the oldies radio station played softly in the background. My mind learned to be content with itself.
That feeling expanded as my junior high and high school summers filled with summer camp, much of it spent at a barebones Presbyterian one about an hour north of Spokane. The camp cost very little, and you could tell: the fanciest thing about it was the “candles” aka “blocks of cheap wax” you could make if you were lucky enough to get Arts & Crafts for your morning activity, or maybe the floating dock with rusty corners just ready to give tetanus to the next gaggle of 7th grade boys who tried to swamp a bunch of girls instead of just talking to them. The cabins were just a single room with five bunk beds with thin, rubber-enclosed mattresses. Maybe your counselor had a boom box, maybe you just spent your afternoons making lanyards, maybe you spent it swimming the quarter mile to a tiny island only to turnaround and swim back. The camp was so isolated that the howl of a cougar on the other side of the lake would dance off the water and convince campers it was right outside the window. God I loved it.
At this camp, there was a maze of thin, pine-needled trails that led from the cabins to the lodge and the water. I have a snapshot in my brain of a moment, walking one of those trails alone, just smelling the summer of it all, the bug spray and the bark of the trees and the clarity that I had one purpose, and that purpose was to be outside.
I’ve had a lot of echoing moments in the years since — particularly in the Central Cascades of Oregon, where I spent nearly every weekend of the mid 2000s — and part of my resistance to New York summer was always the overwhelming difficulty of outside: the trash and radiating cement and humidity of it all. (For those who don’t live in the West, we essentially do not have humidity here; its absence, plus the fact that the temps reliably fall at night, radically transforms the experience of summer). I made do in Texas, where the majority of summer is darting from one over-air-conditioned space to the next, because Fall and Spring felt like Summer. And then I came back to Montana, where the summer feels like the axis around which the rest of the year rotates.
Living here has reacquainted me with my love of winter, particularly vis-a-vis outdoor activities, but I still mentally tick down the weeks until I can put away the winter poof and walk the dogs without gloves, usually sometime in mid to late April. The economy of the state as a whole has been gradually transitioning from extractive industries to tourism, which has led to a host of largely untreated problems and very logical resentments. Some of that tourism takes place in the winter, but the primary tourist season, the time when tourist-directed businesses make the money that will stead them through the year, is summer.
Two and a half months of near-perfect weather is the gift to Montanans who make it through the winter. It’s why there’s so much derision for people who come just for the summer: the gift feels unearned. At the very least, visitors must not disrespect it, or the people who cherish it after making their way through seven False Springs. The preciousness of summer is one of many reasons that the wildfire smoke, which sinks into the Missoula Valley and struggles to leave, feels so threatening — and so deeply, deeply sad. As anyone from the West who understands forest fires knows, fire itself is not, per se, the problem; Indigenous people have long used fire to stave off more fire. The problem is unbridled fire, facilitated by extreme drought brought on by climate change, which transforms the season of summer into the season of smoke.
Here in the West, we knew it was coming. The drought forecasts were alarming and dismal. I bought a big air purifier that promises to blend in with the decor of your household, and the aesthetics of it all, the move to blend with our daily lives, is infuriating. I first tasted the smoke in the air last week. It lifted, briefly, but has now settled in for what the local smoke forecaster says will almost certainly last until the Fall rains arrive. It’s a month early, people say. But it’s here. Over the last decade, the West had slowly ceded August to smoke. But July, too?
Smoke is life-threatening to people with respiratory issues. For everyone else, it’s shitty in ways we don’t yet understanding. And then there are the secondary effects: it makes you cranky. It makes your hair greasy, your acne flare, and, by messing with your sinuses, it can make your teeth ache. It makes me feel alienated from my body. I’ve spent the last week bumping up against a general ennui and sadness, trying to name it, but its name is just fucking smoke. It’s devoured my summer and, in so doing, my sense of self. Who am I without the restoration of my favorite season? What is my axis, if not this time? How do I feel like myself when the windows are always closed, when the air inside feels tinny and canned, when all of this feels like our future?
And that’s just the deeply individual corner of the existential dread. I’m worried for people whose livelihoods force them to be outside — particularly those whose immigration or financial status doesn’t give them the option to push back. I’m worried for people whose homes are close to the fires that create the smoke, and I’m worried for the firefighters — including incarcerated ones fighting for as low as $2.90 a day — on the front lines.
Those are all legible and urgent worries to me. But my own, accumulating grief over this summer, and the summers to come — it can feel too large to even look at. And yet here I am sitting with it, unable to escape its gaze or walk out the door without it. Because it’s not just the summer, of course, that I’m mourning. It’s an entire understanding of the world and its resplendence. The intellectual knowledge of this growing loss has been there for some time. But the body is catching on and breaking down.
I’m so sad for us, for the story that we’ll have to tell ourselves and whatever generations remain: that the opportunity for change was there, and we failed to take it every day, even as our understanding of the world, the parts that made it most precious and sustaining, crumbled before us.
Forgive me for this wave of grief. The windows are closed, and my thoughts are harmonizing with the soft, blank whir of the air purifier.
Recommended Reading: “Congrats, you’re a climate reporter now.”
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