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Walking with Gratitude and Grief

This August I backpacked 80 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, N to S from Trout Lake, WA to Cascade Locks, OR. This segment is part of an iconic trail, stretching 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Through hikers normally begin in mid April in Southern California and conclude by mid September, racing against the first snow in the Cascade Mountains of Washington.

At the trailhead, L to R: Kent, Russell, Bruce. Our third weeklong backpack trip together.

I was hiking with two friends, with whom I've shared several backpack trips in recent years. Ours was a far more leisurely trip, moving in the opposite direction, north to south. Our goal was to hike 80 miles over 8 days. While the terrain was rugged, with some steep climbs in elevation, we knew that 10 mile days (even for guys in our mid-60s) were well within our capability.

As the trip drew near, we carefully watched the weather forecast. Weather is always a character in the narrative of any backpack trip. As the effects of Climate Change escalate the weather becomes more unpredictable. The first indicator was a 'heat advisory' that preceded several days before we were to hit the trailhead and threatened to be with us for the first few days on trail.

So it was that our first day saw heat of over 100 degrees in the mountains. In addition, due to the summers high heat and low rainfall in the Pacific Northwest, a 'red flag warning' was issued for fire danger along our route. Also accompanying our trip, was a 'smoke advisory' based upon prevailing wind from Canada. For 2023 to date, 34 million acres of forest and prairie have burned, with 1053 fires raging in all 13 provinces and territories of Canada.

Climate scientists point directly to human causation as the primary contributor to global warming. As our planet heats, the extremes in weather patterns, on a global stage accelerates. For example, June was the warmest month ever recorded (according to NASA and United Nations). Scientist who have long warned of the catastrophic effects of global warming, are stunned by how quickly that which has been forecast is coming true.

Mount Hood, OR viewed from Pacific Crest Trail

As we hiked my companions and I were regularly inspired and awed by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Around each turn in the trail there were huckleberries to savor, vistas to soak in and old growth Douglas Firs to marvel at. Often I felt humbled and grateful for the opportunity to walk upon this sacred ground.

My other emotion was grief. Grief for what we as the humans have done to our planet. So often, since the the onset of the Industrial Revolution, humanity has treated the planet as a commodity to be plundered for our own benefit.

Grief rooted in the willful denial of politicians, corporate leaders and average citizens. Grief for our anthropocentric belief, that regards humans as separate and superior to nature. Such arrogance has caused humanity to forget that our very survival depends upon the well being of the natural world.

We've willfully messed our nest and now are reaping the whirlwind. What grieves me most deeply, is that the generations coming up and those not yet born, will pay the price for the selfishness of the present and recent past.

20 mile day through heat and smoke.

On day six of our backpack the winds shifted and the glorious vistas of Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount Saint Helens in Washington, became shrouded in smoke. Our eyes began to burn as we noticed through hikers, walking past with reddened eyes and masks to help them breathe.

This is what we've come to. In 80 short miles, the Climate Crisis was our constant companion. On day six of our planned eight day journey, we decide to get off trail. With smoke surrounding us, we forced ourselves to backpack the remaining 20 miles in one day.

What then if anything can we do? Can we move from despair to action? Can grief give way to hope?

God help us if we can't or won't.

Here are some ideas:

First, renounce the arrogance of anthropomorphic thinking. Remember that everything in the natural world has value and is worthy of our respect.

Second, don't give up on hope. While the effects of Climate Change cannot be reversed, there is still time to moderate the worst effects, by doing everything in our power to limit additional warming to 1.5 degrees over the next 10 years. There is a moral imperative to do so! If not for oneself, for the sake of our children, grandchildren and generations to come.

Gifford Pinchot Wilderness, WA

Third, get involved: a) Vote for national and local candidates who understand that stemming global warming must be their first priority. b) Make personal and communal changes wherever possible to limit use of fossil fuels. c) Join with kindred spirits such as Invest in local and global planting of trees that sequester carbon, cool the planet and put out oxygen , the list of worthy groups to partner with are all around you.

I'll close with wisdom from Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, poet, earth keeper:

'We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.'

With you on the journey ~ Kent Harrop

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