11.16.2016

I’ve Decided to Think about this year’s Presidential Election Outcome as a Forest Fire. Maybe You Should Too.


Yellowstone Fires. Summer 1988

In the very dry summer of 1988, about a million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned in a fire that lasted almost three months. Over a third of the park was affected. 


Week after week, nightly news broadcasts showed the desperate attempts of fire-fighters and volunteers to contain and extinguish the massive unruly fire, but their efforts were largely in vain.  The monster just kept burning. 


It was devastating to watch. Countless ecosystems and animal habitats destroyed. Homes destroyed. Not to mention lost tourist revenue and the decimation of so much natural beauty that had taken decades, if not centuries, to grow.


A 2008 story on National Public Radio provided a retrospective on the event.  


“In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area, leaving the impression that the world's first national park had been destroyed,” reported Liane Hansen and Laura Krantz. 

The fires were cataclysmic in size and scope, and efforts to subdue it were for naught. As reported by NPR, Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee considered the situation to be “unavoidable.” 


"No matter what we would have done, the conditions were such that there were going to be great fires in Yellowstone under any circumstances," he said. "They were started by lightning, by outfitters, by woodcutters — we were a perfect setup to burn."


Across the country, people wept for the lost forest. Romantic nostalgia and media hype combined to create a public outcry of grief over the devastation.



Report Hansen and Krantz, “The heightened media presence and the televised coverage of the fires horrified many people who believed that Yellowstone would be forever ruined. But the doom and gloom prophecies about the destruction of Yellowstone proved to be wrong.”
"Devastated" Yellowstone 1988


As Duke University fire ecologist Norm Christensen reported to NBC news in 2008, "… as big as these fires were and as important as they were in many ways, they were not historically unprecedented, and it was not unnatural” In the end, “The fires were not an ecological disaster.”


What became clear in the months and years following the forest fires was that they had not devastated the forest.  As stated by Superintendent Barbee, “…the forest recycled itself quickly. Now if you go to Yellowstone, you'll see a carpet of green, the forest is fully recovering. And so we don't characterize the fire as causing damage to the park."


If anything, the fires encouraged new growth, improved the long term health of the ecosystems and habitats, and provided an opportunity for scientists to thoroughly understand the nature of forest fires, how to protect and grow healthy ecosystems, and the process of ecosystem regeneration.  Since the fires, hundreds of research projects have been conducted to better understand the impact of fires on plants and wildlife. 

New Growth in Yellowstone. 2012

Writes Kelsey Dayton, “While it’s easy to first see the fires as destructive, they also created an incredible opportunity — a chance for long-term studies of everything from insects to wildlife to water to look at how a big fire like the 1988 blazes changes the landscape beyond the obvious charred tree skeletons.”




As we think about the election of November 8, many are anxious and fearful of the policies to come.  For scholars of political science, media, and journalism, we find ourselves in a moment of existential crisis: 
  • Only two of the 59 largest newspapers in the country endorsed Trump over Clinton.
  • Russia engaged in cyberattacks in an effort to deliberately swing the election towards Trump – and the public knew it.   
  • Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.   
  • Fifty Republican national security experts publicly voiced opposition to Trump.   
  • The 2012 GOP nominee publicly excoriated Trump.  
  • and the list goes on.

All of this happened and Trump was still elected President of the United States. 

It appears then, that information doesn't matter.  It appears then, that our field, and - more importantly - the functioning of American Democracy... is in crisis. 


Metaphorically, the forest is burning. The conditions were ideal for it, and so, here it is.
 

Do you know what causes large forest fires like the one in 1988? Just as with the 2016 election, experts say “the reasons are numerous,” according to NBC news. “They include an over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush resulting from drought, past policies of suppressing fires and insect infestations.”


An over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush. Past policies. Insect infestations.  


We have those, too:


Old trees and underbrush: 1) Citizens who feel apathetic and alienated from political life. The 43% of eligible voters who did not vote on November 8.  Content to engage in celebrity news and acts of consumption but to ignore news of oppression, corruption, or social injustice. Content to witness politics play out from afar – as though it is a spectator sport to be watched and not engaged in.  2) Liberal elites in DC, NY and LA who look with disdain upon the white working class, content to make them the butt of every joke, but not willing to hear their fears and concerns and put them at the center of their "to do" list. 3) Washington politicians whose sense of entitlement to "be next" because "that's how it should be" - which leaves many Americans feeling that the whole system really IS "rigged."


Past policies: 1) Media deregulation and consolidation of media ownership that have weakened our journalistic institutions. Underfunded and squeezed for profits that drain it of its purpose and will, our press struggles to exercise its obligation to the public good. 2) Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court which frees out money from outside groups to pour into elections in a way that is not accountable or traceable.


Insect infestations: Conspiracy theories and fake news that run rampant in an unchecked media environment. Eroding faith in institutions and in one another. Ideological echo-chambers in which we are always “right,” even if we never learn what is “true.”

These are our over-accumulation of old trees and underbrush. These are our insect infestations.  


And now we have our fire.  


The difference, of course, is that the “natural” regrowth that occurred in the aftermath of the 1988 fires isn’t imminent in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It’s up to us to seize this moment and improve the health of our democratic ecosystem. 




Let us take the steps to be certain that we do the same.


7.18.2016

Ten years.

Baxter with Mike's tree on July 18, 2016
Dear Mike,

10 years. It seems totally impossible that it's been a decade. It also seems like a lifetime ago.

Saturday night, I performed on stage at our newly painted beautiful theater with people that we've known forever. Our son was sitting in the front row along with PJ, Edie, and Crazy Susan. And I got four out of five things, smoosher - including playing jai alai while  wearing a snake and the scoop thing was a spatula.


Right now, I'm sitting in our backyard. It looks a little different
than it did when you were here. We had to take off that weird tiny back deck and we replaced it with a beautiful cathedral ceiling sunroom. 

Oh yeah, we also have a new white picket fence on the side of the yard to separate our dog run from the rest of the yard. A dog run you ask? That's right, I finally got my puppy!  Her name is Lucy and she's adorable and dumb as a bag of rocks.  And I love her.



It's interesting, Baxter always seems to process your death
differently as he ages. Friday was a moment of profound realization
for him. He and I attended a memorial service for the 43 year old
mother of his classmates who passed away after years fighting cancer.
She had been in remission, and then it returned, and for the last year
has been living her life to the fullest, knowing that her time was
about up.  She spent the last weeks on hospice at her home with her
husband and kids.


Friday night, Bax and I waited in line at the funeral home to pay our
respects and to show support for his friends and their family.

The line was so long - because she was so loved - that we found
ourselves waiting back in a room where they sell urns and memorial
jewelry.


Baxter had a thousand questions:


Can he have a pendant with your name on it (Sure.)

You were cremated right? (Yes.)

Do we have an urn? (No.)

So where are your ashes? (...In the blue and white box they came in,
sitting atop a shelf in my master bedroom closet).

Why don't we have an urn? (What would we do with an urn, baxter?)

Um... put Mike's ashes in it? (And put it where?)

I don't know... the living room? (He would hate that!  and he would
hate our spending money on a crazy expensive urn!)
Bax with Mike's tree in 2007 and (R) in 2013.

 

After we hugged the family and he hugged his friends, we knelt down at the edge of the open casket, said a prayer, and   returned to the car.

I've never seen Bax cry like that.  He was crying for his friends, for what they had gone through.  He was crying in anticipation of their days ahead without their mom. He was crying from the jarring
realization that a person is only a person when inhabited by their soul, and that a physical body can actually sit lifeless at the time
of death.


But he was also crying as a young man who was starting to understand
that the early years of his life must have been devastating and traumatic.

"I hate it.  I hate it so much.  All of it."  he sobbed.


and then, at home, with PJ and me on either side of him, he asked, in
reference to his friends, "What do they do NOW?"

"Well, they will grieve and be very sad.  They'll find ways to honor
their mom and remember her, and then... eventually, they'll find a new
normal."

"How?"

"People just do.  It takes time and tears.  But they do."

"Did we find a new normal?"


PJ rubbed his back.  "Yes.  His name is PJ and I'm right here."  We all laughed.


"How long did it take for you to get to the new normal?"  he asked me.


The thought of that time threw me a bit.  "Over a year."


He shook his head, "It must have been... awful.  Were you so so sad?"


"Yes.  But my friends took care of me... and you.  We had people at
our house all the time, staying over and visiting.  Michelle had us
for dinner 2 or 3 nights a week.  You sat in the highchair and made
everyone laugh.  The same will be true of your friends.  They have so
many family members and friends who  will help carry them through the
next weeks, months, and years."


What was fascinating about it, smoosher, was that Baxter was
experiencing the trauma of losing you for the first time as a young
man himself - as a young man worried about his widowed mother - as a
young man worried about how life would move forward for his mom and
his younger self. 
But, he already knew the story.  He knew that the
later chapters were pretty darned ok. But witnessing such a profound
loss and feeling that empathy for his friends and their dad gave him
an insight that he had never had.


On a broader topic, you should be at least slightly glad you're not
down here right now.


It's a political shitshow.  Hillary is the Dem nominee.  Yes, THAT Hillary.  *sigh*


And the Republican nominee is... Are you sitting down?    It's...Donald effing Trump.  I'm not joking, smoosher.


I told you.  it's a shitshow.


This insane farcical election aside, things around the nation and the
world are complicated right now.


Yes, that handsome inspiring senator from Illinois has been president
now for almost 8 years, but it's been a hard eight years. It's as
though having our nation's first black president has primed all kinds
of racial tensions across the country. That and digital technologies
that capture and disseminate evidence of injustices between law
enforcement and African Americans.  That and the continued disparities
in education, income, and opportunity between blacks and whites that
we just can't seem to remedy. Most people on both sides mean well and
are actively seeking solutions, but in the meantime, a rogue few are
acting out in ways that endanger lives of both cops and people of
color.  It's coming to a head and I don't know how it's all going to
play out.


On the world stage... Remember that war that we protested against in 2003 that we thought would only embolden Al Qaeda? Well yeah.  It
started an avalanche of problems in the  Middle East. War and tumult have devastated the entire region, leaving in their wake power vacuums and civil wars that have left a generation of young men feeling desperate, angry, and emboldened through radicalization. So, 9/11 was just the beginning.

Sometimes I wonder if it's all really that bad, or if, because of
digital technologies and this crazy thing called social media, it just feels that bad.

Often I wonder if it only feels dire because I'm older, more tied into
the world around me, and worried about the world that will be left for
our kids.

When you were here, things seemed so simple. Part of that is because I
had only just become a mother. Part of that's because my husband (you)
were an art director at a design studio, and not a homicide prosecutor
in Camden, NJ (peej).


Part of that is because when you were here, you did all the cooking, grocery shopping, bills, and financial planning.  I was just... along for the fun ride.  Now all those tasks are pretty much all me. (Although, I will say, for a vegetarian, Pj is pretty damn good on the
grill.)


Plus, I was a graduate student then. I started my work as a professor six weeks after you died.  I had to become a grown-up pretty fast.
Being a grown-up sucks balls.  You know what else sucks balls? Writing a letter to my best friend and remembering just as the letter is coming to an end that he's STILL not here and he'll never get to read it.

I love you, Mike Young.  I miss you. You would be proud of your son
and the young man he is becoming.  You would be proud of ComedySportz
and the amazing programming and education program that they have
created.  You would be proud of me and the fact that I cook
over-roasted veggies like a BOSS, got tenure, and am about to start
writing a book.  And, you'd be proud of all your friends.  Too many
fierce and inspiring stories to tell, but just know that your people
are doing good things.


smoooosh,
smoosher