Poems by Kelsey Sather

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Shale

by Kelsey Sather

From Canary Winter 2013-14

Kelsey was born and raised on the northern periphery of the Gallatin Mountains in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. She spent the last couple of years studying Environmental Humanities where the Salt Lake Valley rises into the Wasatch Range.

Why Shale tried to cross the interstate I do not know, as there are mysteries creating voids between one species and another. Leashes were for pets, not companions, and Shale was a loyal friend. If nothing else, I held my skills as a dog owner above any natural inclinations—including the allure of road kill. It was maybe our twelfth time rock climbing at the Bozeman Pass in southwest Montana. Shale knew the drill: sniff around then hunker down while we scaled the limestone wall. This day, this day was different. Driving there I felt heavy with dread but dismissed the apprehension to a sky threatening rain yet again.

It was a slow-coming summer defined by overflowing riverbanks. Freak thunderstorms rolled into the Gallatin Valley every afternoon, carrying softball sized hail that totaled cars and broke all west-facing windows in Bozeman. A tornado even touched ground that same month two hours away in Billings, tearing an indoor stadium right out of the arid Montana soil. It was the second recorded tornado in Billings’ history, with the first being exactly 52 years prior to Shale’s death.

I found her on the dotted white line, maybe a minute too late, and knew she lay there dead. I carried her carcass, still warm, still fully intact, yet limp and unmoving, off the pavement and into the tall grass. I ran around screaming, pulling my hair in fistfuls and rambling about taking her to the vet. Exhausted, I sprawled out in the grass next to her and allowed the absolute of death to silence me with grief foreign in its suffocating grasp.

*

A tornado is the violent intercourse of heaven and earth manifest in spinning, reckless columns of air. Landspout, multiple vortexes, waterspout, gustnado, dust devil, fire whirls, steam devil: tornadoes range in size, speed, and composition, from a monster prairie sucker to lambent dancers on a warm water lake. They are as ubiquitous as they are varied, observable on every continent except Antarctica.

Tornadoes absorb the color of the environment they emerge from. Blood red funnels rip up rust colored soil in the Great Plains, while waterspouts turn into white and blue vortexes like a vertical tidal wave. It is said tornadoes back-lit by sunsets turn the color of fire, spiraling red, pink, and orange. A tornado back-lit by sun appears pitch black, while the same tornado, viewed with the sun at the looker’s back, adopts a blinding white and grey. Tornadoes have a calm center similar to the eye of a hurricane: serenity in chaos, an axis of peace for turmoil to pivot off.

Due to the land’s unique topography, the United States experiences more tornadoes than any other country. Without a major mountain range running from east to west, air flows freely from the equatorial waters of the Gulf to the artic landscape of northern Canada. The Rocky Mountains disrupt the atmospheric flow, creating a dry and low-pressure pocket to the range’s east. Warm air coming up from the Caribbean Sea collides with cold wind flowing down from the tundra, joining forces in the dry line known as Tornado Alley – think Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska. Tornadoes are most common in spring, the season of renewal. Opposites merging, cold and warm, destruction and birth: they live as a five-minute paradox.

*

Jarred came, as he, Shale, and I were a small and interdependent family. He loved her as much as I did and we mourned over the lifeless dog held within the swaying grass. We returned home and dug a grave beneath her favorite tree, her lookout point. She was a guard dog, as Keeshonds were bred as watchers of Dutch barges. She fancied herself so, in the least, and in honor of her devout vigilance we fought through tree roots and small boulders to dig a grave four feet deep. Jarred closed her white-haloed eyes and in she went along with a fistful of mountain wildflowers. We threw the fecund earth on together, burying our beloved Shale after two years of life.

Of course I blamed myself. During the grieving process friends and family assured us she died for a reason, a purpose we must decipher. As if I could see through the debris of sorrow into a tranquil eye and know that it was not my fault she died; that there is a peaceful center life pivots off of, hiding behind the chaos and beyond our control. I imagined her carcass seeping into the soil through the fecal matter of larva and worms and the maceration of runoff. I imagined her ghost lying atop the mound of shoveled dirt, her ghost standing behind the horse fence, watching. I sought that eye, yet only found a void.

*

Climate change contributes to the creation of strong storms, such as hurricanes, which also spawn tornadoes and floods. Rising shorelines result in more tornadoes as oceanic temperatures gradually increase. At the turn of the century the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released a report compiled by the Institute of Environmental Studies in Amsterdam anticipating the rise of natural disaster frequency and intensity as a direct result of climate change. It was met with scientific scrutiny and public ambiguity.

The authors of the report hesitated to link weather irregularities to human induced climate change. Yet they could not deny the direct correlation between the rise of natural disasters and an exponential increase of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Head of the WWF Climate Change Program, Dr. Ute Collier, told BBC radio following the report release that “the world faces a stark choice – reduce emission or face the fury of nature.” Yet global carbon emissions continued to rise, increasing nearly thirty percent since the report’s debut.

*

I loved Shale like a child, a sentiment shared by many pet owners. The guilt and grief I harbored remained months after her death. I teetered between nostalgia and depression, spending a lot of solo time on hiking trails. She was just a dog, I tried to remind myself. Not a son or daughter. Not a human being – so why was I unable to rise from despair?

Weather remained volatile until mid-July. Then, beetle kill. We watched the mountainsides slowly expose red wounds as Lodgepole pines succumbed to an army of innumerable tiny incisors, gnawing the trees to death. Fall commenced the gorging of grizzlies with a dusting of frost atop mountains in early September. Their main source of protein and fat, cones of the Lodgepole Pines, proved hard to come by this year. Starved and panicked, the bears sought out survival with winter creeping down the peaks. This was the fall when a mother grizzly—desperate to obtain enough subsistence for her cubs to last the winter—assaulted tents in a campsite just outside of Yellowstone. Tents filled with sleeping people.

*

How to fathom the extent of nature’s wrath? There are vague premonitions of what is to come, studies indicating more hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes on the bleak horizon. Before the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century, natural disasters existed in the undiscerning, godly realm. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and forest fires were interpreted as the acts of an angry deity. Many ancient cultures, such as the Greeks and Incas, tried to appease the gods in an attempt to obviate deaths caused by the fickle elements of water, earth, fire, and air.

We view ourselves as masters of nature, puppeteers with strings attached to life’s vital necessities like food and water. If our actions are indirectly causing the climate to change, then we are in a deviant way the gods our ancestors feared and implored to take mercy. Our relationships to nature are simultaneously filial and tyrannical, being both dependent on and domineering towards our various ecosystems. Natural disasters bring us back to earth. We cannot fathom the extent of nature’s wrath, because we refuse to collectively acknowledge the extent of our own transgressions.

*

The 300-pound mother bear attacked at night alongside one of her three cubs. She dragged Kevin Krammer, a father of four from Michigan, out from his tent to his death. Paramedics rushed two other campers to the hospital. It was a highly unusual event, as most grizzly attacks occur when a bear is caught off guard or feels her offspring to be threatened. Wildlife officials managed to find the four family members, killing the mother and keeping the cubs captive—not to be returned to the wild after such a tarnished upbringing.

Man dies in the jaws of bear; bear dies in the hands of man. The obvious member to sympathize with is from our own species. Yet what about the mother, outraged with hunger? The tragedy unfolded during the season of hyperphagia (when bears eat mass amounts of calories to fatten up for hibernation). Diminishing numbers of Lodgepole Pine cones force grizzlies to seek other sustenance.

Entomologists attribute the overabundance of pine beetles to climate change. Cooler summers limited the populations to low elevations and a single two-week mating season. With rising temperatures, the beetles manage to move up mountains and breed more than once, consequently devastating entire Lodgepole Pine populations across the continent. Would you condemn me a misanthrope if I also sympathized with the grizzlies as victims of industry?

*

In spring, 2011, the American Midwest experienced nature’s wrath as tornadoes ripped across the Great Plains at record-breaking velocities. On the 22 nd of May a mile-wide, multiple-vortex tornado rampaged Joplin, Missouri. It killed 116 people and left a third of the city beyond recognition. It was the deadliest tornado in half a century, and resulted in nearly three billion dollars of damage. We resurrected buildings, roads, schools, and hospitals: yet the loved ones lost live on in voids surpassing discernable purpose. We seek the eye of the tornado, but are swept away by grief.

The government’s National Severe Storms Laboratory described the 2011 tornado season as “deadly, record-breaking, and heart-breaking.” The unpleasant truths of climate change can no longer be ignored as our nation deals with the unpredictable consequences of our fossil fuel addiction. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper in early August, 2012, declaring climate change as no longer impending. We now find ourselves in the thick of it: smoldering summers will soon be the norm, erratic and deadly weather patterns to be expected.

It is then hard to imagine why we continue to live the way we do, seeking extremes such as tar sands mining and fracking, despite the local and global catastrophes such practices leave in their wake. The tornado in Joplin is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

*

Human resilience is both an evolutionary adaptation and a gift. If we can keep breathing after the death of loved ones, after the decimation of entire towns, then certainly we can change our way of living. It may seem easier to continue manipulating nature instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But after the flooding in Vermont, the hurricane in New Orleans, the tornado in Joplin, will we carry on believing that the way we live is safe and sustainable? Comfort and security are not the same things.

The love I feel for Shale is part of a deeper craving for connection with other species. It is no coincidence that the World Wide Fund for Nature, an organization fighting the plague of extinction, is the same organization that published a report on the human vulnerability in an instable climate. Human deaths make headlines; yet the daily passing of entire species remains an elusive fact. Would we mourn the extinction of grizzlies, even when they may eat us? Given the current popularity of the polar bears’ struggle for existence, such an occurrence would not go unnoticed and without despair.

I am writing this as a modern woman – a woman who drives a car, types on a laptop, washes her clothes in machines. I see myself in the big picture, and I know I am right there in the thick of it, a product and producer of industry. I am caught up in the tornado of the everyday. I use the dishwasher to save time, and watch television to kill it. I, too, am often swept up away from the eye of the tornado, too blind to see that my consumer habits only contribute to the irreversible losses that pass unacknowledged every day. The car that I drive is the car that killed Shale.

To make purpose of her death I turned inward to a calm center while life continued to spin around me. I can only imagine that the survivors of Joplin and the loved ones of Kevin Krammer continue to seek peace as the world moves forward recklessly, without hesitation. What degree of tragedy will it take for us to acknowledge that the way we are living no longer makes sense? The day Shale died was the day I committed to reducing my dependency on fossil fuels. If there was purpose to be deciphered, I live on in full faith that this is it.




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