One day in July of last summer, a few friends and I drove into Yosemite, on our day off from working at a summer camp just outside the park. We headed to the May Lake trailhead, with the general plan of hiking up Mount Hoffman and finding the meadows and pristine lakes we’d heard about from a friend who’d been a few days prior. The only worry on our minds was smoke from the Ferguson fire; at that point in the summer, the smoke was rolling into the camp we worked at each morning, thick and gloomy, and we’d hoped the day trip would be a reprieve. (Just a few days later, the fire spread enough to shut down entrances to Yosemite.) We’d checked in with rangers on our way into the park, and hoped the smoke wouldn’t be bad enough stop us from hiking.
To our luck, the wildfire smoke kept its distance from us; we noticed it swirl across the sky as the day went on, and at the top of Mount Hoffman, we could see it settling across the park. When we weren’t looking at it, though, we appreciated the beauty of where we were, the joy of each others’ company.
That day ended up being one of the best of my summer. We traversed a granite mountainside and hiked over the crest of Mount Hoffman to find lush meadows and bright blue alpine lakes. We jumped off rocks into the icy lake, swam across it, bathed in the sun on the other side and came back around the green lakeshore to our backpacks before descending. It was a gorgeous day with people I loved in a beautiful place.
In many ways, the Ferguson fire put a damper on the summer. The smoke felt apocalyptic, and it was hard to overcome the feeling of dread and helplessness that it carried with it. The smoke carried reminders – California’s forests were burning! And it also carried threats – this can happen again, and again, and again. Climate scientists have observed that the devastating wildfires in California in recent years have been a product of human-caused climate change, and on top of that, fires contribute to rising carbon emissions (Cal’s very own forest ecologist, Patrick Gonzalez, pointed this out in an NYT feature on wildfires).
With all of this in mind, when smoke from the Camp Fire rolled into Berkeley this fall, I realized how easy it was to forget about the smoke as soon as I wasn’t physically in it. On campus before Thanksgiving, conversations about the direness of wildfires and climate change become commonplace – suddenly everyone was affected by it, so it became accessible and relatable to everyone. But for the most part, we went home for Thanksgiving, returned days later to a less smoky campus, put our heads down to study for finals, and moved on.
I wondered then, if the summer wildfires by Yosemite had not sent smoke into populated towns, had not gotten close enough to the park to shut it down, and so on… if it had just burned some devastating number of trees but did not directly affect any person, would we care as much?
The other day, I watched as a plastic box lid blew across Sproul. I, and a few other students, glanced at it. I noticed how we all seemed to think about picking it up, but looked away and briskly walked off to the classes we were probably late for. The trash left our line of sight and we didn’t given it a second thought (except for right now I guess).
As the saying goes, if something is out of sight, it’s out of mind, and this holds true especially for environmental issues. It is so easy to forget how pressing, urgent, and dire a situation is if we’re not seeing it with our own eyes. Environmental activism as a whole challenges this idea, and can hopefully push for ways going forward to point out how every individual has a stake in the earth and in climate change.