Home Commentary The Way I See It The Way I See It: Between Fire and Water

The Way I See It: Between Fire and Water

This past week I noticed my paddle board — practically untouched in its resting place against the house — gathering slugs. I was feeling grumpy and realized that getting out on my board might be part of a simple mental health solution.

Sunday arrived, and with it a rare window of free time. Although wild storms containing rain and hail were moving through the area, I knew I needed to make this paddle happen.

Given the weather extremes this summer, it’s been easy to feel anxiety, if not outright panic, when the slightest suggestion of “severe weather” pops up on my phone. But I know I need to spend time on the water today.

As I travel down the sweeping passage that is Route 100 in the Mad River Valley, I keep a close eye on menacing clouds gathering in the east. I’m praying for even a short window to provide a moment of internal and external calm.

Despite the ominous clouds and threat of precipitation, I soon find myself floating, tucked away in a favorite hidden cove on Blueberry Lake. My spine is upright, sitting bones connected to my makeshift life vest meditation cushion.

I consciously take three deep breaths on my floating sanctuary. For the first time in a few weeks, I notice that I am breathing deeply. It’s been a bumpy summer (to say the least), and I’m aware that small moments of decompression have been hard to come by. I silently whisper “thank you” to whomever is listening.

It’s not lost on me that what has become an annual summer wilderness paddling trip was bookended by two catastrophic climate disasters: wildfires and flooding.

In July, as our inaugural trip to La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve in Quebec inched closer, a group of friends and I realized that the park was surrounded by this summer’s Canadian wildfires.

Although we hoped that the fires would be contained enough for us to make our journey, we saw real-time images of the park on social media. People were literally paddling in thick, toxic smoke. We decided to cancel our reservations and made alternate plans.

On the back end of our redesigned trip to northern Maine and a section of the Penobscot River, we were in for another surprise. Emerging from the wilderness on July 11, after a week without any cell or internet service, my phone blew up. I scrolled through 80 text messages from concerned friends and family all over. We quickly learned of the catastrophic flooding in Vermont.

We scrambled to find an alternate route home from Maine as our usual route was closed due to roads washed away by the flooding. My post-trip peace and calm was instantly replaced with fear, anxiety, and even panic. Montpelier, the place I had called home for more than 20 years, was one of the hardest-hit towns. My heart felt like it was breaking.

Yet here I sit, stealing a moment of peace and resilience on the water. The same elements that can be so destructive also offer great solace and inner peace. What a paradox. “Stay centered,” I whisper to myself. “This beautiful broken world needs us to be grounded in the midst of chaos.’’

I watch the dark clouds that I had my eye on, now menacing in the north, but feel the gentle afternoon sun on my back as it sets in the west. A family of geese chatter and snake along the west side of the lake, and the eastern sky is the most brilliant blue, dotted with puffy white clouds. It feels like mid-August.

The mingling scents of goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, apples, and pine fill my nostrils. I take another deep breath. I am fully aware that moments of decompression are hard to find these days.

I am grateful to have found a few minutes in which I actually feel my whole being responding to the kindness of this place. My paddle board drifts among carnivorous sundews, pitcher plants, and signs of beaver industriousness. I float for a time in some middle place between the storms of life.

As I look ahead to autumn, my hope is that we remain grounded in the midst of chaos. That we continue to nurture ourselves and one another through the gauntlet of a changing climate.

I don’t have the answers, but perhaps in the place between fire and water we might sink our roots deep and reimagine our relationship to the Earth that is our home. May we ask ourselves the hard questions and have the courage to respond with truth and compassion. May we slow down and finally listen to this world.