A long plume of cold smoke bridges two mountains, then dips into the valley between. I’m in Wyoming again, where smoke and snow mixes with oil-field smog that both shields and carries the sun. At the end of the last ice age ten thousand years ago, Rocky Mountain glaciers began to retreat, grinding, scraping, and polishing fortresses of rock as they receded. Accumulation and ablation were held in balance by a static interglacialclimate. Now massive melting is the dominant key.
“Always changing, always moving” is how one Inuit woman described the dynamic world of ice, reducing her ninety-one words for ice down to two or three. Soon she won’t need that vocabulary to navigate or stay alive. The latitudinal ladder on which I’ve climbed to the circumpolar north has been pulled. Glaciers are bursting, rivers are running fast uphill.
Here, in Wyoming, fire has replaced snow. Clouds heave up: it rains ashes. The night is red. Wildfire “spots forward.” Each window frames a smokescape. A V of geese is swallowed, a western bluebird, a neighbor’s blue plane, a whole day.
In the morning black and broken pine needles cover my outdoor writing table. They are dark pins that have burned, that no longer hold things together. A bull moose moans for a cow in heat, antelope run skittishly toward the trees where a wolf sits waiting, then away into dappled sunlight. The ground gives little grass. There are no wildflowers. The aspens that leafed out early later froze. The wolf, having eaten no calves, no lambs, no antelope, is shot dead.
I live on a glacial moraine surrounded by kettle ponds. At one time each was a water hole for elk, deer, antelope, coyote, grizzly, black bear, wolverine, and wolf. Each was home to nesting ducks—teal, bufflehead, goldeneye, mallards. Some were nesting places for tundra swans and sandhill cranes. Now, only the largest ponds have any water at all. My neighbor’s rowboat gets farther and farther from shore as the water recedes.
Four pairs of American widgeons and their hatchlings swim in ever-smaller circles as the volume of pond water shrinks. Then one morning they are gone. I follow their tracks: they’ve waddled over rough terrain to the last pond with water. That afternoon, four cow elk, four calves, and a yearling moose—animals that should be grazing the pocket meadows of the high country—join them.
July comes on with a sudden, ferocious downpour followed by unrelenting heat. Ninety-degree days were once unheard of at eight or nine thousand feet. Now they are the norm. Alpine fescue—the bluest, finest, most delicate bunchgrass of the alpine ecosystem—is brittle and breaks under my feet. As ponds drink themselves dry, I plant seedlings, capture rain, harvest sun in solar panels, but carelessness—mine included—is the driving, drying force of our world.
Now it’s August. A glacial erratic in the middle of a dry pond bears the marks of high water—three feet deep. To the west another wildfire breaks out. I watch a plume of black smoke unfurl into a red wall of flame. But that same canyon burned last year—how can it burn again?
Climate change-inspired drought pushes into redundancies: fire that burns itself, water-swallowing ponds. The oil companies and others like them are perpetrators of greed—hungry ghosts, or pretas—who never get enough. They are eternally obsessed. Instead of listing Inuktitut words for ice, I count the ways dollar-wealth can be the font of ecological poverty. The full moon in eclipse turns the color of something dead.