What we need to live well in the West

Some notes on a pandemic-tainted reality.

 

The moon has circled the Earth six times since I arrived at High Country News. This is the sixth issue that I’ve helped to produce. But the days, months, hours have all been tainted with COVID-19, having the quality of seeming longer than usual, somewhat dreamlike, and suffused by an almost atmospheric presence of both fear and hope, as we persist with our mask wearing and hand sanitizing, nervously holding our breath in elevators, hoping someone won’t unwittingly give us COVID or vice-versa. When I’m out in my community, life unfolds like a mirage, a drive-in movie playing on a giant screen — and there’s one of the fun upsides to all of this: Defunct and nearly defunct drive-in theaters have reclaimed their utility.

Tyrus Brockie, a member of the Aaniiih Tribe, collects seeds on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana as part of a grasslands restoration partnership between the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Bureau of Land Management.
Tailyr Irvine/High Country News

There have been other benefits. In the early days of the pandemic, a lot of us drove less, avoided air travel, and explored places closer to home. We gathered outdoors with friends and family, in backyards and driveways, on trails and in campgrounds, to which we flocked in droves. All in all, we saw more sunsets, starry skies and moonrises. Back then, as our orbits shrank and we reconsidered what we thought we needed to live well, at least some of us said: Let’s remember, when all this is over, that it’s possible to live more lightly on the Earth.

We discovered that there were positive aspects to slowing down and staying put. More of us switched to outdoor forms of exercise. More of us started growing food and baking bread — skills that may become more essential in the rugged world to come. Will these habits endure? What will we carry forward from the days when we traveled less and baked more? Will it be enough?

While COVID-19 continues to thwart our best-laid plans, climate change is drying up glaciers, rivers, wetlands and streams. It is fueling more destructive fires, hurricanes, heat waves and floods. It is disrupting agricultural and hydrological systems, settlement and migration patterns.  It’s happening quickly — and yet the warning signs have been here for decades. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature was published in 1989. Our failure to act in a way that is meaningful is a long-standing one.

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief

There is little doubt that humanity — especially our youth — will emerge from this pandemic changed. But in what ways? And what will it mean for the West? Will housing in places that have moderate climates and enough water become inaccessible to all but the highest earners? Where will the rest of us live, and what kinds of hardships will we face? In the West, we are experiencing a public health crisis and a climate crisis and a housing crisis and a water crisis all at once. There’s no easy fix for what we are living through. The West of the future has yet to be imagined, and that is part of what we aim to do in this magazine. Thank you for imagining with us.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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