I started writing this week’s on a cool, soft, moist evening in central Vermont, with Kiki snoozing in the easy chair behind me, and the windows open to catch any breeze and let in the sound of the rain dripping from the eaves. The setting hardly could have been more idyllic.
Central Vermont, though, is not where I’d planned to be at that moment. I was supposed to be two time zones west, sitting on a shaded veranda in Wolf Creek, Montana, sipping my usual pre-prandial and chatting amiably with one of my oldest friends and fishing buddies. The next morning after breakfast, we’d begin the first of several day-long floats down the Upper Missouri River, casting tiny, almost-invisible flies to the large brown and rainbow trout that long have haunted this beautiful stretch of river — one from time immemorial, the other since 1889. Brown pelicans, the most graceful of fliers, would float by above. As usual, I’d imagine Lewis and Clark’s crew dragging and poling their loaded boats upstream and, on their return run, gleefully shooting downstream toward home. That setting, too, hardly could be more idyllic.
Except that my friend and I weren’t there. Instead, just as the economy had begun to burst into action after the pandemic downturn, another pestilence had struck. This is part of the letter we got from our outfitter: “We are capping our guide trips for the remainder of the summer season and will be taking no more bookings … for July and August. We hope to resume … in September at which time we will re-evaluate and proceed accordingly. Hopefully things will improve as fall approaches. We recognize that this is an inconvenience for those making last minute plans for a guided day on the Missouri, … but we feel it’s in the best interest of the river, the fish and all of our clients to do what we can to reduce our impact for the remainder of the summer season.”
We canceled. My buddy opined there was “no sense roasting at 100 and taking our tackle for a ride.” I googled the Wolf Creek weather and the river statistics. The next couple of weeks, the days are all in the 90s, and the river is flirting with 70º, almost lethal to trout.
Here in the lush, green Great Northeast, we tend to think of ourselves as insulated somewhat from the climate change-induced horrors we read about to the south and west of us. But every so often, we hear an ominous rumble of that distant thunder. This was one of them. I’m quite aware that two retired old guys being frustrated from enjoying their fly-fishing vacation is hardly a blip in the cosmos. But I have a strong feeling it may be a harbinger.
If you’ve ever stood in a salt marsh as the tide comes in, you remember the trickles flowing into the lowest spots, pebbles disappearing, the little waves on the deepening water, and finally the conviction it was time to get the hell out of there. That’s how this is happening.
Many skeptics have long made fun of Albert Gore and wish Bill McKibben would just shut up; but those two are turning out to be right. Greenland and Antarctica really are shedding ice at increasing rates; high temperatures in the American West have exponentially exacerbated the threat of forest fires; the mighty Colorado River is already failing the millions of people who’ve been relying upon it for irrigation and power; Germany (which doesn’t stagger easily) is staggering from deadly floods in the Rhineland; homeowner’s insurance in calamity-prone areas may soon be out of reach or impossible to obtain; and the fishing guides and outfitters of the Upper Missouri are sitting on their hands and waiting for a change that may not occur in human history.
The story of Noah’s ark, which appears in other ancient traditions, is clearly a myth. But myths and fables have serious aims. Noah was a crackpot, until it started to rain. The United States, with its history of anti-intellectualism, from the 1828 Jackson-Adams presidential campaign right through to Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, and now achieving apotheosis on the internet, has had difficulty in addressing complicated concepts, or solutions to them that involve significant personal or corporate discomfort. (A supporter of Adlai Stevenson once called out, “All thinking people are with you.” “That’s not enough,” he quipped. “We need a majority.”)
The heat is on, and it’s increasing. If the Gulf Stream continues decelerating, as it has been, the west coasts of Ireland and Norway will be, paradoxically, much colder. In the South Pacific, the island nation of Vanuatu is the most at-risk country in the world, thanks to increasingly violent and frequent cyclones, rising sea levels and tsunamis. The 48 contiguous states of the United States just recorded their hottest June in 127 years of record-keeping. This is not a normal warming cycle. Changing the moon’s orbit, as one congressman has suggested, won’t do much to affect it.
One reason for the disconnect between “existential threat” and “government hoax” (beyond the fact that many folks can’t define “existential”) is the confusion about what’s to be done. While we proles increasingly swelter and find our opportunities shrinking, the people we’ve elected to represent and protect us seem to be doing nothing but rearranging the deck chairs, jockeying for advantage and assuring their reelection. The few politicians calling for stronger measures are labeled radical. Bernie Sanders: “As cities around the world experience 100-year floods every year, as the Pacific Northwest is inundated with wildfires, and as heat waves around the world burn and suffocate wildlife, I ask again — how is bold action on climate considered radical, and this new normal is not?” Much as I hate to be pessimistic, the solutions, if there are any anymore, will require a vast corporate effort. The American people, responding to the national need for simple mass vaccination, have demonstrated their contempt for intelligent, sensible solutions.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.