Atmospheric CO2

Welcome to carbonstories.org. On this site you can learn about Michael Johnson-Chase and follow my blogs. With some exceptions, this site follows "theme based" cycling tours focusing on social and climate related issues. Slowed down observations of the world over days, weeks and months at 10 to 15 miles an hour can reveal a depth and quality of understanding about our environment often missed by faster modes of travel.

Love in the Time of Climate Change

Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan, New York City. 

Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan, New York City. 

Hello from New York City. It's been several months since I wrote my last blog post. I'm reminded of that often quoted aphorism, "life is what happens while you are making other plans."

You might recall that some months ago I intended to cycle a portion of the ACA Pacific Crest Route (an Adventure Cycling Association route that parallels the famous PCT through the Sierra Cascades and the Sierra Nevada from Canada to Mexico). My chosen section was Portland to San Francisco. I went back to Portland in early August, and managed to cycle as far as the lovely and alarmingly vulnerable-to-forest-fires town of Sisters, Oregon (about 140 miles north of Crater Lake).

State Forest land about a mile north of Sisters, Oregon. 

State Forest land about a mile north of Sisters, Oregon. 

While there, my Mom was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. After some conversations with my brother, I chose to abort the cycling trip to help my Mom transition out of the hospital. I spent most of the next month in Galesburg, Illinois (my hometown, btw). 

I returned to Oregon in early October with a mind toward completing the cycling trip to the Bay Area where I planned to visit my Dad in Palo Alto. Yet, as fate would have it, I was simultaneously balancing a newly amorous relationship in Portland. Historically, I have remained pretty true to my cycling ambitions, but not so this time. I got more acquainted with Portland while I tried to get a bead on what I wanted, all the while feeling a strong pull to get to the Bay Area. 

From my bike south of the Columbia River in Portland.  

From my bike south of the Columbia River in Portland.  

As someone in his late 60's, I am remarkably fortunate that both my parents are alive. At the same time, I live with the curse of American mobility (an odd comment coming from a long distance cyclist, no doubt). My family is scattered all over. My Dad and his wife live in Palo Alto, CA. My Mom lives in Galesburg, IL. I have a brother in DC, and another in Anaheim, CA. My kids and grandkids live in Milwaukee and Wausau, WI, about 4 hours apart. I live in New York City. Could my immediate family be any more spread out? This reality makes attending to elderly parents a complex and challenging process. And being a long distance cyclist both helps and hurts that responsibility.... it's great when I'm near, and worrisome when I'm not. At any given moment I'm both near and too far from someone I love, no matter where I am. But I have no right to complain. I have the good fortune to travel as I wish, as long as I am reasonably thoughtful about time and resources. My biggest problem is not being able to be in more than one place at a time, and I'm pretty sure there's no solution for that. 

Alas, the romance in Portland didn't work out, so after a few weeks in limbo, I eventually packed up my bike and panniers, and hopped a train from Portland down to San Jose. You might be thinking, why not cycle there as planned? Well, here's my excuse - by that time it was mid October, and the rains had started in Oregon. And I was worried the weather would be inclement to the east and south in the Cascades and the Sierra. 

It was, but not the way I imagined it. Although I would have preceded the fire, my route would have taken me along the Sierra crest above Paradise, CA. I had imagined snow. But given how the fall played out, I would more likely have encountered unseasonably dry and warm weather. If predicting weather is becoming increasingly complex for a long distance cyclist like me, what is it like for farmers, construction workers or so many others who make their living out of doors? Or homeowners in vulnerable areas, for that matter? 

The view from the train in central Oregon on the way to California.  

The view from the train in central Oregon on the way to California.  

Like the Empire Builder in the north, the Silver Meteor on the east coast, and the Coast Starlight on the west coast, I was able to roll my touring bike on board the train for a small extra fee. I arrived in sunny San Jose in morning on a weekday in the middle of October (only 2 months later than my original plan) and rode an easy 25 miles to my Dad's home in Palo Alto. 

I'm fond of Freud's idea that human life can be summarized in two words - love and work. I also suspect that both are essentially conflated into one essential motivation with two expressions - love of others, and love of work. You might remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera." For a few years I have imagined a working title for another great novel -  "Love in the Time of Climate Change." I imagine it as the name of a contemporary story in which most of us are protagonists and a powerful few are antagonists. Sound familiar? 

Marshland in San Francisco Bay.  

Marshland in San Francisco Bay.  

Few things motivate us more than love. It's about people, yes. And it's about work, especially the work of saving ourselves from ourselves. And for some of us it's also about the open road, a distant horizon, the exquisite sense of breathing hard while pedaling a bicycle, the coolness of air streaming through the nose, expanding the chest, tightening the calves and thighs. And the exquisite pleasure of noticing marsh grass and cattails stretching to the sea, or chickory and switchgrass bending toward a hazy blue mountainside in the far horizon.

Central Minnesota, summer, 2018. 

Central Minnesota, summer, 2018. 

Or the bittersweet pleasure of gazing at a swollen river encroaching nearby buildings, a tinder-dry forest at the edge of conflagration, a bone dry plateau losing topsoil in the wind, a rapidly melting glacier of blue ice at the waters edge; all visions made more palpable through our rapidly changing climate. Because we inevitably lose what we love, it hurts to love under the best of circumstances. And with so much uncertainty around us, it's heartbreaking. And imperative. 

A rapidly melting glacier in Wengall/St Elias National Park in Alaska. Picture taken in 2007. The foreground is now a lake. 

A rapidly melting glacier in Wengall/St Elias National Park in Alaska. Picture taken in 2007. The foreground is now a lake. 

We are all protagonists (or antagonists) now. We are all in a shared story of encroaching climate change, whether we know it or not, and whether we believe it or not. If you haven't read the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, or the National Climate Assessment, or the recent CO2 emission figures published by the Global Carbon Project, you probably should. A well informed protagonist might be able to direct the plot of his or her story a bit more to his or her liking. And an antagonist might realize that it's only a matter of time before his efforts turn him, and his loved ones, into unwitting protagonists in the most challenging story ever told. 

A burned hillside in California after the Carr Fire.  Photo uncredited*

A burned hillside in California after the Carr Fire. Photo uncredited*

There are things we all can do. You are probably already doing some of them, and if you are like me, wrestling with others. We all know what we should do, even when we fall short -- fly less, eat less meat, drive hybrids or electric, become more carbon literate.... I have great empathy for how hard it is to do those things, and I hold no individual responsible for failing, including myself. Fortunately, there are other forms of direct action. If you aren't following them yet, check out the promising young people's Sunrise Movement, and the bipartisan Citizens Climate Lobby inspired bill, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act H.R. 7073, that was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. Some actions are simple and direct, such as gently and repeatedly writing letters of support and asking your Congressional Representative to sign on as a sponsor to H.R. 7073. Other actions are more complex and less direct (but no less important), such as taking more time out of a busy life to savor the natural environments nearby. We all fight harder to preserve what we come to love, even as it slips through our fingers. So, in this holiday season, let's recommit to savoring each other more, and to savoring our Sacred Earth more. In this way, our love and our work will coincide.

More to come. 

 *All photos, unless credited or otherwise noted, are copyrighted property of the blog post author. 

Palo Alto to Tucson, Post 1

Glacier to Seattle, Post 7