Out on the West Coast, skies are orange with smoke from wildfires, even in cities hundreds of miles from the fires. My old stomping grounds in Washington state are in warning areas, with smoky air unfit for the elderly and infirm. In other places it’s far worse, with shelter-in-place advisories for everyone.
Here on the other side of the country, I’ve been enjoying the fresh morning air, sometimes foggy, sometimes autumn crisp, sometimes summer muggy. I’m sitting outside as much as I can, for as long as I can, reminiscing about the past and dreaming about the future.
When I moved to Seattle after college, it rained every day for the first week and the city was socked in with thick, gray clouds. Then on the first blue-sky morning, walking to the bus stop from the house I shared with a bunch of transplants of a similar age, I saw Mount Rainier, its glacier shining pink in the morning sun like a floating scoop of strawberry ice cream.
For the first time in my life I knew what that tired expression “it took her breath away” meant. The beauty shocked me, and I felt exactly as if the wind had been knocked out of me. It happened three or four times before I got used to seeing Rainier, and I kind of liked the feeling. After a break in the rain I’d round the corner, see the mountain, have an involuntary sharp intake of breath and say it to myself, “it took her breath away.”
There are expressions we’ve heard or read, over and over again, from childhood on. But where they come from and what they really mean isn’t necessarily clear. “No use crying over spilt milk,” for instance. As a kid, I thought it meant not to be too upset if you dropped your glass of milk or knocked over your cereal bowl.
Now that I am milking goats daily, I know where it really came from. Because if the animal you are milking decides to kick over the bucket and splash milk all over, it really does make you feel like bursting into tears.
Then there are those expressions that take on alternate meanings over the years, like “the silence was deafening.” I know, it really means something like when someone doesn’t say anything and what they really mean becomes so clear. But lately I’ve been using it to make fun of the squirrels.
This time of year, after the songbirds have flown away, mornings sound different. Instead of a glorious and riotous chorus of trills and melodic whistles, there is silence. Or, that’s what it seemed like mid-August when the birds left.
But once you get used to not hearing all that birdsong you hear something else, mostly the high-pitched background noise of crickets that gets louder the longer you concentrate on it. Then you hear a bunch of clanking and bashing about — the squirrels running through the treetops, knocking off dry twigs and dropping pine cones, acorns and what sound like boulders.
How can animals that small make so much noise? It sounds like packs of monkeys — or maybe elephants — running through the trees, crashing though the branches. I know they are foraging for winter supplies, but it sure sounds like they are dropping more stuff than they are collecting.
It’s not very silent. It makes me laugh, until I think again of all the forests I’ve hiked through in Washington state, of my nephew in Oregon, of the losses in California. Wildfires out west are nothing new, but drier and hotter conditions — even in the rainy Pacific Northwest — have made them much worse.
“We’re living in a new world,” Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, said.
Kind of takes your breath away.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Sept. 27. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.