The Stability Fantasy

Emmett FitzGerald in Orion Magazine:

LAST YEAR, I watched Orange Sky Day play out on Instagram from a lake on the other side of the country. In a deck chair I scrolled through countless images of the uncanny wildfire sky, with caption after caption reminding me that this dusky light was from the middle of the afternoon. My beleaguered San Francisco Bay Area friends, who had spent the better part of a month trapped inside due to smoke, ventured out of their apartments to document the otherworldliness. At first, I felt lucky not to be at my home in Berkeley. But that feeling was quickly replaced with survivor’s guilt, as I watched my friends suffer while I read a dystopian novel and drank a beer.

I almost didn’t make it to the East Coast last year because of the pandemic, but after a month spent reading articles on airplane ventilation, I decided it was worth the risk to see my family at least once in 2020. I traveled from San Francisco in one of the N95 masks left over from the previous year’s fires and quarantined for a week in my friends’ New York City apartment. Two COVID tests and a borrowed car later, I was hugging my mother in the driveway.

A few days into the visit, I went on a canoe trip with my dad. We paddled a circuit of ponds with quarter-mile carries between them. There have always been loons in the Adirondacks, but on that trip we saw more than I could ever remember. Sometimes it was just a pair, sometimes five to ten of them swimming together in little groups, or “rafts.” Later, Dad and I watched a bald eagle leap from the top of a white pine to snatch a perch from the lake. It rose from the water with the fish in its talons and flapped off toward the sun.

For a brief moment that day I forgot about everything. Not just the pandemic, but about all the other crises that kept me up at night—climate change and ecological collapse. I let my brain overinterpret the loons and eagles as signs not only that these lakes were healthy, but that the whole planet was thriving. The birds were abundant, the air was clear, and for a brief moment, I felt profoundly calm.

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