By Jo Salas
Published in Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming, edited by Steven Pavlos Holmes. Torrey House Press, 2013.
You want me to tell you what it was like, before? Of course I remember. Sometimes I wish I didn’t, that my old brain had dried out after all these years.
Well then. I remember the summers. How we welcomed the warmth after the cold winter. I remember having dinner outside almost every night, on the deck. You could eat like royalty from local farms—corn picked an hour ago, bursting with sweetness, voluptuous tomatoes, beets and beet greens, blueberries and peaches. Sometimes we had more than we could eat, can you imagine that? I would chop up a big bundle of fresh Swiss chard and throw it into the boiling pasta water a minute before the pasta was done. Then toss it all together with gorgonzola and sautéed walnuts.
What’s gorgonzola? Oh—something we used to eat. A kind of cheese. It was particularly delicious. Tangy and soft. It came from Italy. Well, you asked.
Sometimes a thunderstorm would roll in from the hills but we’d stay outside, under the deck’s roof, relishing the clean wind and the cooling raindrops on our backs. The air was so hot. Each year hotter for longer, it seemed. We got special shades to insulate the windows, then air-conditioners, when the shades were no longer enough.
The cats would stretch contented beside us as we ate and drank wine and talked, but when they heard the thunder they’d run inside to hide. Safe as they felt with us, nestling bonelessly on our laps, their little cat brains told them that we could not protect them from the dangers of rumbles in the sky. I felt so tender towards them, those two cats. Ben and I used to tease each other that they were like our children. We were sure we’d have real children one day. We were young, not much older than you all are now. We thought we had time.
No. Don’t ask me. I can’t think about that.
Come a little closer, please. My voice gets tired. No, that’s close enough.
Where was I?
Yes. In those long evenings, the flowers on the deck were luminous and fragrant: white and purple petunias, nasturtiums, phlox, alyssum. Pansies. The morning glories rolled themselves up tight for the night, waiting for the morning sun when they’d open out again into their triumphant blue. I planted masses of flowers on the deck each spring and they’d bloom all the way into October. There were deer, you see, lovely to watch but they ate everything I tried to grow in the yard. Eventually I gave up and turned the deck into my flower garden. And surrendered the yard to the deer. They seemed to assume the apple and pear trees were for their sole benefit. We didn’t mind. We enjoyed watching the deer families gather at the end of the day to eat fruit that had fallen to the ground, as well as whatever they could reach by craning their necks up. Sometimes an enterprising young one would stand on her hind legs to reach a tempting cluster.
No, we didn’t want to kill them. We had enough to eat. We were never hungry.
There were so many birds, too, finches and sparrows, cardinals, even bluebirds. A hummingbird who’d visit each flower on the deck, its invisible wings whirring so fast you could feel the vibration. Sometimes a flock of huge wild turkeys strutting by. Hawks cruising on the air currents along the cliffs. The birds were a constant presence around us with their singing and their flight. A blessing.
Well, it may sound like paradise to you. In a way it was. We just didn’t realize it. There were lots of things wrong in our world, no shortage of misery, but there was paradise too. And it’s gone.
Our house was on a country road not far from here. A small ordinary house with a rambling yard. There were other houses around. Empty now, of course, and half ruined.
Yes, we knew our neighbors. We were friends with all of them, except the man who insisted on spraying chemicals on his lawn. So many people were ill, even then, before all the pandemics. I was afraid for Ben more than myself, though he seemed perfectly well. A foreboding. I hated the idea of carcinogens drifting in our windows and seeping into the water table and our well. Not to mention poisoning the wild creatures and the ground itself. The neighbor said I had no right to comment on how he kept his lawn. He harrumphed about property rights. I suppose now, if he’s not dead, he might agree that I had a point.
They lived in the city, that couple, and drove up every weekend, about eighty miles each way. They had an enormous car that must have used a great deal of gas. But almost all of us were all guilty in that regard. We had to drive our cars everywhere because except in the cities there was no other way to get around. If I wanted to go into town I had to drive.
Please don’t shout at me. We just didn’t think we had a choice, in those days. I know it’s hard to believe now. A few people tried, but not enough. Don’t you think we’re paying the price? In some ways it’s worse for us than for you young ones. At least you’re not shattered by guilt. You’re not tormented by remembering.
Where was I?
One thing that’s still the same is the cliffs. Sometimes I walk to the edge and look down and I think about how ancient they are. They’ve seen animals evolve and they saw the first humans to come here, and they see what we’ve come to now. And they’ll outlast us, too. I could see them from my house, in the distance. I used to watch from my bedroom when the sun first rose, waiting for that brief spell of pink when it looked to me as though they were radiating light rather than reflecting it. I would watch, and then when it was over I’d get up for my shower. I loved the flow of hot water on my skin. It was a ritual. Sometimes I’d let myself stay in the shower for a long time, just for the pleasure of it. We all used as much water as we wanted, for washing, for drinking, for plumbing. I remember reading about how much water we used compared to someone in a poor country, and I was shocked, but I didn’t see how I could help. I could hardly send water to them, could I?
You’re right. We did take a great deal for granted. It’s hard to understand now, but we didn’t think it would ever change. We simply couldn’t believe it would change, even though we were warned for years.
Ben used to leave early for work. So I was alone for breakfast, and I usually had the same thing. Brown bread, toasted, with butter and jam, and a cup of Irish tea. That’s all. Perfect.
I’m not crying. Don’t touch me. Do you think I’d cry about breakfast?
Well. Sometimes I had music playing while I ate my breakfast, a recording of Bach or folk songs or music from Africa, whatever I felt like. It was just a matter of pressing a button and it sounded as though the musicians were right there in the room. Or I’d watch the news, though it got worse and worse and finally I really couldn’t bear it. So many terrible things that I couldn’t do anything about. The music was much better than the news. The music always made sense. All day long, if I wanted. We never gave a thought to the electricity that flowed silently into our houses, except when a storm knocked it out for a couple of hours. Then we’d complain and feel helpless until it came back on.
I agree, it’s better in some ways to make your own music, the way you young people do now. It’s just that—most of that other music is lost. Completely lost. Centuries of it. You can’t imagine how beautiful it was. I can still summon it in my mind but I can’t play it to you.
Almost every day I was in touch with friends and family thousands of miles away: my parents in California, my oldest friend in Sweden, my brother Tom in Nairobi. It was so easy, because of computers and email. We could telephone too, just pick up the phone and hear each other’s voices. It cost hardly anything. But there was always the time difference, so email was often better. Now it might not matter so much, since night isn’t really night and day isn’t really day. But I can’t talk to them anymore, time difference or not. I can’t talk to anyone who isn’t right in front of me, like you. I don’t even know if my family is alive. It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? I talk to them in my dreams, sometimes, and wake up sad.
We did manage to see each other, on occasion. We’d save up money and plan a reunion, usually in California. And we’d all fly there. We might grumble about the cost of the ticket, or the annoyances of travel, but we didn’t worry about being able to meet again in a few years. Tom once warned us that the time might come when we’d be stuck wherever we were, no more hopping across oceans and continents. I remember that, because although I laughed like everyone else and accused him of hoping he’d get stuck in Kenya so he wouldn’t have to come to the next family gathering, his warning bit me like a snake and never quite left my system. And look at us now. He was in Nairobi when the breakdown started and everything unraveled. I wonder what it’s like there now. I wonder if Tom’s alive and looking back helplessly, like me.
Well, I suppose you’re right, it’s possible that things are better in other places. We’ll never know, will we? They could also be worse. We have each other. We have our little shelters. We have the caves if we have to hide. People lived in them a thousand years ago, did you know that? Long before the white people and the towns.
Where was I?
During the day I worked by myself. My job was rewriting things that other people had written, to make them better. Not a terribly useful job, looking back. I’d studied writing in college. For a while I’d wanted to write novels, but it was too hard.
You like the way I tell stories? Thank you. I’m glad.
Anyway, I was often bored, so I was pleased when Ben interrupted me with a phone call or an email. We’d make a plan for dinner, where to meet or what he might buy on his way home. Sometimes friends would join us. We had a friend called Margaret who was always trying to get us to go to meetings about climate change. Or the war in the Middle East that went on for years, for no good reason. We did go with her a couple of times but it was so depressing. They’d talk about the awful things that were happening, and how the government had caused them or was making them worse. Margaret and Ben and I were almost the only people at those meetings under sixty, it seemed to me. All these gray-haired hippies getting rattled about what was going on but no one knew how to fix it. Sometimes I suspected they enjoyed having something to rail about, it reminded them of their youth. It just made me feel hopeless so I stopped going.
No, I don’t know what happened to Margaret. You’re right, at least she and those others tried. So if they’re still around perhaps they feel a bit less guilty than the rest of us but their efforts didn’t help in the end, did they?
Sometimes, if I had to come into town, I’d meet Ben for lunch at a place where you could sit outside at round wooden tables. There was a sandbox for little kids. They liked children at this place. Each Halloween they’d give gingerbread and hot cider to everyone who came by after the parade. Main Street was closed and all the kids and their parents would walk down the hill in their gorgeous costumes, witches and aliens and insects and skeletons. Hundreds of people together, can you imagine? Ben and I stood on the side of the road calling hello when we saw families we knew. Sometimes we’d dress up too, just to entertain our little friends. One year he was a carrot, a very tall and skinny carrot with twinkling eyes. I was a potato.
Halloween was the very end of October and often it was a mild night, one of the last before winter came. It made me melancholy, the approaching winter. I don’t know if you can imagine what it feels like to be very cold. But our house was snug and we had a deliciously warm bed. And after it snowed it was so beautiful, the thick pure white over everything, the blue shadows and brilliant light.
I wish I could take you to that town. Just a main street and a few side streets, small stores, restaurants, a library. A friendly place. You could chat with someone you ran into on the street, or the ladies in the post office. The library building was two hundred years old, a jumble of low-ceilinged rooms with wooden floors. I liked it there. It had a special kind of silence. The books sat on their shelves so quietly, yet you’d pick them up and open them and you’d be in another world, with voices and places and times that you’d never known.
Please don’t say that. Don’t you think I’d want you to have all this, and more? Don’t you think we would have done everything humanly possible to change direction, if we’d known what was going to happen?
Yes. I know. You’re right. We did know. We just didn’t want to believe it. Maybe you would have acted differently if you’d been around. You’d have been more courageous. If I tried to tell you how sorry I am I’d never find the words. I’d collapse in remorse. What good would that do? Here we are.
Ben usually came home around six in the evening. I’d finish my work and we’d have a glass of wine and cook together. We both cooked. We didn’t always do things together. He didn’t like dancing. I didn’t particularly like going to rock concerts. A mistake. We thought we had years.
Please. I can’t bear to remember. Do you understand? Of course you don’t understand.
Give me a minute. No I do not want a hug.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be harsh. It’s not your fault. It’s my fault, our fault. We let that world destroy itself and we lost everything. Everything. Not just for us but for you as well. I try to look at the future and I can’t see that it’s ever going to get better.
You’re right. The future is not my territory. Maybe you or your children or theirs will change things in ways that I can’t imagine and will never see.
Where was I?
Once in a while on a moonless summer evening we’d put a blanket out on the lawn and lie there side by side, holding hands, looking up at the night sky. The cats would join us, puzzled but happy to find us out there in the night. The sky was so dark and clear then, we could see countless stars, some brilliant, others barely a smudge. We’d see whatever planets were passing. Sometimes shooting stars. Even a visit from a comet. So thrilling and beautiful. We can’t see the stars any more but they’re still there, just as bright. They don’t care what’s happened to us. They’re safe from anything we could ever do.
Ben and I would look up at them and think about how the light of those stars began its journey to our eyes hundreds or thousands or millions of years ago. Each one had its life cycle, billions of years long, but still, a life cycle. Some of those stars were so old, so distant, that for all we knew they no longer existed. Everything ends. And so would we. I felt it as a comfort.
Oh my dear ones. Here we are. Here we are.