When challenges appear far larger than I am, I celebrate how malleable my sense of scale is. I celebrate how the restoration of my faith and perspective can come through the tiniest vision; how the smallest remembrance can create the largest shift.
That’s recently been essential. In this remote Oregon forest, we’re only now fully feeling the impact of the most destructive snowstorm here in the past fifty years, perhaps ever—one that hit without warning in late February. Six miles from the nearest small town, beyond reach of most emergency services, we’re constantly ready for common emergency. We have basic first aid supplies. We keep a week’s worth of food and water stored. We have battery powered lanterns, shared contingency plans with neighbors, good things to read. We have the beauty of the forest itself to draw upon. It reminds us why we risk living here, when living close to nature is also living close to the edge.
Still, we were unprepared for what was unprecedented and unpredicted. Even the trees were unprepared, when feet of heavy wet snow surprised us all. The gunshot sounds of their breaking wooden spines rang out in agony all night. It might be more than mere warning shots: we could be crushed at any moment by the next falling tree. That first night, we weren’t crushed. We celebrated that. Then another blizzard came a day later, and the splintering wooden crescendo again required surrender. Randomly, I was wearing the right t-shirt: STAY CALM. NOTHING IS UNDER CONTROL. We’d make it, or we wouldn’t. Again we made it and celebrated. But by the time it was safe to leave our houses, the fifteen of us living here discovered we were trapped beyond our capacity for escape. At least a hundred trees were down across our little gravel exit road, larger and more than we could cut. No idea what was down beyond that. We were without power, phones, in some cases heat, then running water. Days later, we’d also discover the electrocution hazard of high-voltage power lines down on the base of our road. It’s not a county road—so county crews wouldn’t come help clear it. Besides, as we’d learn later, the storm’s fierce center was ninety miles wide. People were trapped all over in forest towns, rural neighborhoods, upriver. Trouble did not make us special.
We had no idea how long we’d be trapped, or how we’d get out. It was many long days of precarious survival, as I cared for my 92-year-old mother next door. A single misstep and fall in her darkened home could be slowly, painfully fatal for her, given that we were beyond reach of ambulance or even helicopter. But she didn’t fall. I celebrated that. My living room windows froze over, inside. But the snowbanks on our porches effectively replaced our powerless refrigerators, and cooking on my mother’s wood stove worked fine. We still ate well. I celebrated that too. Then the well ran dry, its pump and generator failing, pipes freezing and breaking. I started to fill buckets with snow to melt by the fire, just in case. But we had enough stored water, for the moment. Life and its celebration became ever more basic.
Given our deepening peril, a few neighbors chose to don backpacks, and risk hiking out through deep snow and downed trees to seek help. I stayed behind with my mother, to await rescue. Leaving was not an option for her. Leaving her behind was not an option for me.
A week into our icy isolation, the sound of heavy forestry equipment became a sweet roar. Bureau of Land Management crews graciously came to cut us out, their mechanical cats making toothpicks of fallen tree trunks decades thick. We were able to evacuate, reach refuge, find a shower, electricity, warmer beds. Another week later, we could return home to face the next levels of challenge: the damaged water system; the massive task of storm cleanup; new collateral dangers, including increased risk of wildfire and bark beetle infestation; the blockage of our wildfire escape route by four miles of downed trees. It was necessary, vital and restorative, to continue to celebrate simple survival. It still is.
I’m well versed in the interconnection of all things, in theory. I’m in awe of the fierce and beautiful power of nature, even when—especially when—it has no regard for me. I celebrate the humility that induces. Yet as the weeks beyond the storm have ticked through, I’ve gained a new sense of wonder at how intertwined snow and fire can be. It never occurred to me that a snowstorm could cause an intense increase in wildfire risk, via the massive fuel load dropped on the forest floor. That we’re directly in wildfire’s likely path, possibly without escape route, is a familiar concern—but a worry I’d previously found pause from in winter, not cause.
These are our new realities. We can’t clean an entire forest floor. Maybe it’s not even our right, or nature’s need. We can’t build another road out, before wildfire season hits. We don’t have the resources or physical ability to clear the immense piles of brush that will soon crackle along the roadside, where any errant exhaust spark, cigarette butt, or focused sunlight through broken glass could ignite a conflagration. We can only do what we can to mitigate the most critical dangers, surrender once more, and celebrate the enormity of life that will go on beyond us, even in a worst case scenario. In crisis large enough, celebration becomes selfless. It transcends our own lives.
Still we work to preserve our lives, immediately, urgently, and of necessity optimistically. We’ve set out to restore fire perimeters around our homes; to get our well systems working; to create our best shared strategies. There’s no time for being less than our best with each other; and here as in many places, the storm was a beautiful reminder of priorities. That is why so many people treat each other with kindness in crisis, as people did in these forests again this time. That is worth ongoing celebration, when crisis is over.
By late March—a month after the storm’s arrival—I was finally able to pause from the urgent work of the aftermath. I went to Portland for a few days, emerging from emergency to see friends, immerse myself in the literary world, find a different scene to see. I left just to breathe in, out, deeply. Just to still exist was once more a delightful, basic celebration.
Urban normalcy made less sense to me than the storm, however. Priorities of kindness felt buried by the city. The homeless were still homeless. The societal rifts across race, gender, economics and politics still raged. Compassion seemed to cower in the corners. Surrounded by unforgiving plastic and cement, I lost my sense of scale again. I needed to see something very tiny, in order to more wisely celebrate the large.
I sought contemplative silence in the Portland Japanese Garden. Issues and challenges still washed over me. Yet as stillness settled in, I watched raindrops on a koi pond, and a tiny remembrance arrived within: There are still fish. And it’s still a miracle, just to watch the rain.
That remembrance wasn’t escape or distraction. It still isn’t. It doesn’t fix other issues, nor cause me to forget them. Still it gives me the energy to gather myself once more, and resume contributing to the larger world as best as I can. It gives me the strength to resume caregiving. It gives me the self-care I need, to once more reach to turn wounds into gifts; to turn my failings into efforts to help others. It helps me cut away the dangerous dead wood, literal and metaphorical. It refreshes my compassion, with which I can build shelter for others who are suffering. It keeps me from becoming paralyzed by worry or fear, as climate change, politics and strife bring more unpredicted storms. Back in our ravaged forest, I’m grateful to return to nature’s center and edge, where even danger feels like home. Again I celebrate the life within and beyond me: because there are still trees, and it’s still a miracle, just to watch the rain.