Refuge and Struggle: How We Feel about Nature Now

by David Oates

photo: Tom Clausen

Looking at this photo brings a rush of feeling ­­– complicated, lovely, heartbreaking: a simple still life captured from the churning reality of the sea and the shore, which of course means also the weather, the wind, the atmospheric chemistries and grinding tectonics and magmatic uplifts and erosions and all high things toppling and washing down to the sea, all far things brought to shore, all shores grinded and washed away – all accumulating here, in this moment of randomness.

And . . . that this is beautiful.

Why is this beautiful? What excess of indifferent cosmic love has so arranged our universe, that dead randomness be beautiful?

Can you stand on the shore and not feel it? Or under the starry night?

Our hearts are broken by beauty. And mended by it. And we are undone, truly, in feelings and cycles beyond resolution. All we can do is go mute. Wipe the tear away. Turn our faces to a loved one, to see if these runes might be written there too.

Sometimes they are.

But now, in 2022, how are we to think of natural beauty and solace? When the seas are acidifying, rising, heating up. The whole planetary heat-budget going haywire. Species dying, ecosystems crashing. And worse to come.

This is an essay about lost refuges. Can I still stand on the shore and be restored, spiritually renewed? Yes. But, Reader, it is very hard work. Hard, heavy work.

* * *

What is beauty in this actual world?

The opening photo, by Tom Clausen, was taken at La Push on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, where an unforgettable interlude of my life unfolded.

Years ago, I went with a hiking buddy to try the novel challenge of a backpack trip along the wild shore north of La Push. Though the snowy peaks of the Olympic Range towered to our east, we seldom saw them – the shoreline is crowded with dense temperate rain forest, on cliffs and headlands that rise steeply from the shore. There’s no ocean-front highway there, nothing but the crowded damp green life of the forest to bear us company. (It’s very good company, by the way.)

We hiked with one eye on the tidal chart. Sometimes there was a wide sandy beach for us to march along, leaving footprints like Robinson Crusoe. But often the strand narrowed, or turned to stony shingle and boulder fields backed by steeply rising ground. Not good places to be caught by high tides.

The typical rhythm was to hike a few miles along a curving crescent of beach, observing before us the next cape or cliff, where the strand would dead-end. There we learned to expect a rough steep trail of hewn wood planks or stone, with a cable hand-guide to help us scramble and pull ourselves up . . . to walk across the forested headland . . . and then down another cabled trail to the next crescent shore.

Finding camping spots above the high-tide mark. Nestling out of the onshore winds. Feeling the distance from our ordinary lives, the living seethe of the green world behind us, and the all-conquering sea before us. Getting into a rhythm of breathing, staying warm, eating and sleeping. Life elemental.

* * *

An Oregon beach. photo: author

A coastal forest is a good place for meditating on the strangely beautiful frailty of life.

We know the sea will eventually take that forest. We see the massive old trees crowding the shoreline, we see the bleached and battered timbers piled tangled on the sand. But for now, today, this week and this century – there’s enough stability to feel, in our little human way, at rest. Trees come and go, but the forest feels permanent. Older than old.

That’s the classic “nature-writing” moral: accept the brevity. Absorb the beauty. And trust the long-term wisdom of nature. We have our Thoreaus and our Emersons and our John Muirs to remind us. It’s what I built my life on, the antidote to the crudity of money-chasing American (and global) culture.

But now, decades later, I know that global warming is taking this human-scaled rest away from us. Change is now, this year or next or next decade. The changes are coming fast, catastrophic, global. Our places and moments of hearts-ease are stolen and we are all become refugees, every one of us, all around the world. Refugees-in-place. What is familiar will be taken. Seasons will become bizarre, strange, uncanny – like last summer’s 115-degree (Fahrenheit) days in Oregon – a thing so far from precedent I cannot readily express how deeply wrong it feels. Unsettling. Oh the gentle summers of the nineteen-nineties! How demurely, as a transplanted Southern Californian, I used to smile at the so-called “scorchers” that came and went in a day or two. . . with cool air flooding in overnight off the Pacific, and soon a return to mornings and evenings that needed a fleece or a nice Pendleton woolen (from just up the river!) thrown over your summer T-shirt.

photo: author

But now we see that our wet, cool climate is leaving. It will move somewhere far north of here, as Saharan summers destroy our cool pacific forests.

What is coming in their place we know not. What is there left but grieving?

* * *

Watching the Pacific northwest heat up is disturbing on every level. For me there’s a biographical emphasis beneath it. At midlife, around the age of forty, I gave up on the attempt to fashion a life in Los Angeles and headed north, to make my stand in Oregon. But I remember how I almost made it work in LA.


To live in Los Angeles was, for my kind of person, made endurable only by a canny knowledge of places that could offer relief – rebuke, really – to the sprawling choke of moneymaking and  vanity and ugliness. The whole LA thing, as The Dude might have put it.

I had been born and raised on the inland side, hard up against the San Gabriel Mountains, fifty miles from the coast whence the whole city’s smog would be gently blown by onshore breezes and accumulated around us into a hazy brownness we wouldn’t much notice until sunset (or sunrise), when it glowed orange like a lid of poison. Though we felt it, breathed it, moment by moment.

But I managed as a young adjunct professor to find a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, on the western edge of the megacity, the coastal limit. Immediately I accessed its high-priced opportunity: to stand on the shore, back turned to the whole tawdry enterprise, the Pacific before me – to feel in sudden entirety that eternal note of sadness, largeness, shiftingness, mystery: a whole-soul change of perspective, available instantaneously. It was my daily magic. A laundromat for the soul, with vigorous rinse cycle.

In fact, the global-warming catastrophe was already well under way by then – the mid-1980s. But I guess it takes a while to seep into the mind’s emotional reality. Certainly I read my Barry Lopez, my Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner and all the eco-prophets. I believed them, tried to echo and develop the message. But a Pacific shoreline is always one-half wilderness, even with Highway 101 traffic behind you. And, for an hour each day, that wild deliverance was my momentary reality.

* * *

photo: CNS Courthouse News Service

When a deeper retreat was needed, there was the desert redoubt called Joshua Tree, a wilderness reserve just a few hours’ drive south of LA but a land of such strange abundance and antiquity that it formed a kind of cathedral for me. A place of renewal.

One night I answered the call of some longtime friends and joined them there. It’s an odd place, the tall-standing yucca “trees” with their arms upraised amidst ridges large and small formed of pileups of egg-round pinky-gray granite. Pieces the size of houses, of Volkswagens, of dinosaur-eggs. Stacked, stable, teetered.

I got there after nightfall and found the friends at their dinner campsite, yellow firelight showing their faces and flickering on the granite stonework just behind them. It was a good welcome. A moon just showing above the horizon. A clear fall sky, blue-black, getting cold and starry.

After late dinner and a lot of talk, my old climbing pal proposed a midnight adventure. “Come with me,” he said, grabbing climbing gear and some headlamps. We walked in silence across the now moon-bright desert, so abundant in its cactus, cholla, and the rest of the pointed verdancy of high desert.

Our stunt was to climb a little wall of granite not yet busted into boulders. It could be done safely enough. A rope already there, so just a little top-rope exercise in the moonlight.

On the pleasantly rounded rim above the desert we sat quietly. And the crescent moon like a barely silvered mirror surprised us by showing the rest of the moon’s disk faintly illuminated by earthlight – our own light hinted back to us and completing the planet-like circle as if wholeness were a fact we had failed to notice.

“Look at that, Oates,” he said, affectionate in the way of straight boys. “Just look at that.”

I’ve been looking at it ever since. That night, that place, that silvered mirror of. . . something.

Something I always needed. Something that fed me even years later, simply in being remembered.

* * *

That’s the immemorial truth. Now the truth of the moment. Joshua Trees are desert plants but are not immune to heat, drought, the combined impact of what could be called global weirdness. In September of 2020, a federal court granted Temporary Endangered Species protections. In a news story on NPR, reporter Lulu Garcia-Navarro interviewed environmental activist Brendan Cummings, conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity and the author of the legal petition. She asked him, “What is climate change doing to these plants?”

As it gets hotter, we’re seeing less reproduction in Joshua trees. If you visit Joshua Tree today, the adult trees you see in the population sprouted when the climate was about, on average, 1 degree Celsius cooler than it is today. Now, the young trees – ones that are, like, 10 to 20 years old – if you map out where they are relative to the adult trees, it’s about half the area. In other words, even under the mid-range scenarios that assume we as a society get it together and address our emissions, we’re likely to lose three-quarters to 80% of our Joshua trees. And under current scenarios, we lose all of them.

One year later, a federal judge ruled to move the trees another step closer to full Endangered Species protections. From the news report:

They’re a slow growing and long-lived plant; a Joshua tree can take up to 60 years to reach its full size, and live for 500 years or longer. The oldest known Joshua tree is estimated to be around 1,000 years old.

The iconic species may get another chance at inclusion under the Endangered Species Act after a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in favor of WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group championing the Joshua tree’s cause.

The court found Fish and Wildlife acted in a way that was “arbitrary, capricious, contrary to the best scientific and commercial data available, and otherwise not in accordance with the ESA” in its decision not to list the tree under the act, while denying the service’s motion for a summary judgment.

I haven’t been back to Joshua Tree for a while. Something in me feels displaced, unstable,  knowing that when I look at the scene again, I’ll be feeling its invisible slide toward disappearance.

What is beauty, memory, solace, when it is so brutally gripped and shaken by our global misdeeds? That’s the reflection that can’t be avoided. Though I do try, often, to avoid it.

* * *

Same thing elsewhere. Everywhere. Reader, what are you about to lose? Are you doing any better than I am at processing these losses?

Last summer featured headlines about California wildfires threatening the huge ancient sequoias in the central section of the Sierra Nevada range. It’s another blow to my sense of security on this planet.

I mean, come on. Some of these trees are three thousand years old! Sequoiadendron giganteum: if any part of nature represents stability and the comforting depths of the long view, these trees do. In fact I’ve depended on them for this feeling/thought for most of my life. My blessed father would take us up into those woods, would get us lodging nearby, would take us as little boys on the little paved walks for tourists to see the named groves. But there was nothing little about the impact. A child with a sense of the Big Trees is a child with a capacity for more. More than can be readily measured. Something dangerously large, endless, demanding, fulfilling.

Later I spent a whole summer amongst the sequoias – well, off to the side of them anyway, not far from the “Giant Forest” section of the national park, but in the adjacent Sequoia National Forest where certain kinds of logging were permitted. Thinning, really – this was no clearcut. We had concocted a scheme, pivoting on getting a salvage license that let us prowl around the slash piles and clutter of cut and not-cut forest left by the logging operation.

Our trick was to find lengths of incense cedar that had been cut but left behind. Sometimes big logs ten or fifteen feet long, and three feet in diameter – which we then set about splitting into seven-foot-long fence-posts to sell to ranchers and farmers in the Central Valley. Far below, in the hot depths.

We however were in the glorious heights, in our forest at seven thousand feet elevation. For the entire summer. We camped back from the dirt road, by a creek, in a stand left relatively untouched for unknown reasons.

We made a little money. I got a three-month break from graduate school. I would rise at first light, eat two pieces of peanut-butter-bread, then walk over to wherever we had left off. Carrying the chainsaw. Finding the rest of the equipment where we had left it – two mauls, an axe, two sixteen-pound sledgehammers, a stack of iron wedges, and a five-foot iron pry-bar made from an old axle. I’d work for three hours, then go back for breakfast. Work another three hours. Nap a bit after lunch, then wrap up with another three hours of afternoon sledge-swinging and wedge-placing and feeling the satisfying sproing of a huge cedar log’s clear, straight grain splitting clean in half. Then into quarters. Then into fenceposts.

Those sequoias never far off. Invisible from our worksite but not to our inner sight. We were always there. In the sequoias.

* * *

photo: CNN

In September and October of last year, huge hot wildfires impacted multiple sequoia groves, including the Giant Forest. Maybe you saw the news images that I did – huge sequoias wrapped part-way up in protective foil. The thought of it. The extra-hot fires, stoked by years of understory and deadfall unburnt by the regular smaller fast-moving fires that would have typified the fire regime in pre-modern eras. The visible possibility that the sequoias themselves would not survive long into the new reality of the Anthropocene – the human era of global warming and blast-furnace fire.

Those trees, wrapped like some demonic art project.

My mind spinning like someone whose home had just burned. That kind of orphan.

* * *

According to the National Park Service’s official assessment, the result of last summer’s fires was bad, but not catastrophic. Not catastrophic yet.

In total 27 sequoia groves are fully or partially within the fire perimeters of the KNP Complex Fire and the Windy Fire. . . . For both fires combined, 6,109 acres of giant sequoia groves were burned. This estimate is based on updated grove boundaries.

Note that the acreage is apparently for all forest within “grove” designations – not exclusively sequoia timber. However:

The combined impact of these two fires [KNP and Windy] is estimated to be 2,261-3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter that have already been killed or will die within the next three to five years. These losses make up an estimated 3-5% of the entire Sierra Nevada sequoia population over four feet in diameter. On top of the 10-14% of large sequoias lost in the 2020 Castle fire, these fire impacts represent a significant threat to large sequoia persistence.

Anyone who has visited the Big Trees has noticed how many of them bear tall black disfigurations near the base. These fire scars could be hundreds of years old! Sequoia fire-adaptation is famous. But the species is not adapted to modern super-hot fires.

So there is long-term concern about regeneration.

The least understood impacts of these wildfires are impacts to sequoia regeneration in high severity areas. Sequoias generally regenerate well after wildfire, though reports of inadequate regeneration in high severity areas are raising concerns. Regeneration failures could potentially occur if the cones and/or seeds were incinerated during crown fire, seeds did not survive the smoldering fire, or seeds washed away due to surface erosion. In these cases, regeneration would be dependent on proximity to live tree seed sources.

* * *

I think I’ll conclude by going back to the ocean (because everything goes back to the ocean, eventually?). At this time of year I’m likely to be walking on winter beaches, in interludes between storms, with northwest forest backing me up. Maybe my sturdy partner at my side, quietly absorbing the bigness of sky and weather and that tall headland just up ahead (which, in the well-deserved laziness of age, we won’t try crossing).

I know I could be easily dismissed as a “nature romantic.” I’ve read my Wordsworth and all that band, read and absorbed and lived. It’s a true path, I think, if you can ground it in the actual reality of humans on this planet. The cost of wilderness. And the cost of no-wilderness.

Wordsworth’s contemporary Byron is better known as a right snarky fellow who writes some of the best satiric narrative ever penned. But along the way he also creates the definitive romantic hero, a wanderer (with wounded heart, of course) who prefers natural solitude. Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage gave us these memorable verses:

photo: author
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society where none intrudes,

By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:

From these our interviews, in which I steal

From all I may be, or have been before,

To mingle with the Universe, and feel

What I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

Man marks the earth with ruin – his control

Stops with the shore; – upon the watery plain

The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain

A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,

When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,

He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,

Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d and unknown.

(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage CLXXVII – CLXXXIX)

But our control no longer stops at the shore. And thus humanity now truly “intrudes” into the formerly majestic moment. Not just in the floating trash or washed-up plastics, but in the heat-driven dynamics of shore and sea-level and storm themselves. All are taken into humanity’s sullying hands.

Headline literally in today’s paper, as I write this paragraph: A one-foot ocean level rise is now forecast by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as inevitable – “baked in” as climatologists like to say. And that’s just the beginning.

If I stand at the edge, ankle-deep in the swirl and retreat of the surf, what is my meditation now?

What part of nature is not intruded upon by civilization and its malfeasances?

These are not new feelings. They’re famous under the name of “the machine in the garden,” the aesthetically nullifying awareness that human control has intruded. We’ve been working on that feeling, trying to broaden it by the recognition that humans are nature too. Trying to get past the black and white valorization of nature (good) and civilization (bad).

But under the present global attack of civilization upon the systems of life itself, it’s hard not to take sides. Hard not to feel loss, brutal and heart-freezing. It’s the predicament made best known by Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature. A shocking title . . . that was modified by McKibben, a few chapters in, to a more accurate elegy: really what was ending was not nature but a certain feeling about nature. A certain way of codifying it in the mind as “pristine” and “not-human.” That old romantic feeling.

How to feel now? That’s the question of this essay. The answer is not clear yet. We are still new to this global predicament, and human feelings lag behind. Surely a “new structure of feeling” is called for – to use novelist Kim Stanley Robinson’s term. A way of recognizing the scope and beauty and power of nature, but also incorporating a kind of responsibility to do more than emote. Action is called for. Action in words, in deeds large and small. In combination with others. In ways of teaching, using language, making choices.

I keep waiting for our collective moment to swing towards really grappling with global warming. In American politics, we are lucky to get scraps from the table. I think (as I have expressed here before), that until a whole lot of people actually die, we might not be able to find our collective will.

In the meantime, how to feel? All I know is that I still need the renewal of ocean shore and quiet grove. I can’t let my political mind take that away from me. Until we arrive at our collective wisdom (and action), I’m going to continue as a lowly disciple of life, letting it speak to me whenever I can. My voice is a small one, my deeds are feeble. Which is, after all, the human condition: to be a smallness, in the presence of the ultimate. Listening.