H. A. Byrd

I Can’t Breathe 

As I write this, my home in the Pacific Northwest is under an increasing air quality index rating due to wildfires. It is threatening to go from Unhealthy to the Very Unhealthy which has surrounded Seattle and is reaching northward. Some areas of my state are in the next level up, Hazardous status. There is no rating beyond Hazardous. Oregon and northern California are disasters and many people have been evacuated.

The words, “I Can’t Breathe” are recognized as a slogan associated with Black Lives Matter protesters. Eric Garner, George Floyd, and others—mostly people of color—are known to have repeatedly uttered this plea as they were suffocated by police officers. I respect that this statement is connected to the movement against systemic racism. At this time in history, the words belong primarily to this movement.

Keeping this in mind, I have something to say. I came down with the COVID-19 virus on March 1st, the day my novel Aru’s Realm was released. Like many other victims, my lungs were affected. I was only sick for two weeks, thankfully, but my lungs are healing agonizingly slowly. The smoky air has set me back. I can only imagine how the smoke is affecting those with worse damage. So many have suffered because of the virus. In addition, COVID-19, has affected us all through the need to wear masks. Wearing masks saves lives. It’s that simple. But wearing a mask can make a person feel smothered. COVID-19 has taken our breath away.

The planet is screaming, repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!” We talk about nature as if we are not a part of it. In reality, we are animals. We’ve evolved into amazing creatures and are capable of astounding things. Yet every genius development we make is merely nature exploring itself. When people cry in the street from oppression, this is an element of nature’s voice. COVID-19 is said to be just the beginning of an era of pandemics, the environment’s response to mistreatment. Climate change is key in the increase and extent of wildfire activity.

My family had planned to spend the day today somewhere the air was still clear. We looked forward to walking on the beach. But yesterday the forecast changed and we knew we’d be spending my husband’s birthday celebration sequestered indoors, not able to take the dog for a walk. We’ve been watching the air quality map, trying to make plans to get out and away somewhere. What’s upsetting isn’t the alteration of our plans. It’s that there’s no place to go.

I took a shower. The water cleaned off my body and eased my mind. A few minutes of comfortable breathing, it felt wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I forgot not to inhale while I was washing my face. Some water went down into my lung. I gasped for air. My throat swelled, closing the airway more and more as I watched my body apparently snuff out my life. I could not breathe. I could not breathe at all. This only lasted a matter of seconds, but it made a strong impression on me. I never want to experience that feeling again.

Our mother earth is struggling for breath. There’s no place to go. We’ll make it through this fire season, most of us. This covid pandemic, most of us. This presidency, hopefully. I’m optimistic that things will get better again. This is what the stories tell us, to take heart. History has had many times of bleakness which seemed insurmountable. There are amazing people out there, working to help. We have heroes. There are people like Greta Thunberg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Heather Cox Ruichardson, who are not afraid to stand up. With their efforts, and with luck and blessings, we’ll pull through.

But we can no longer sit back and wait for the heroes to fix things. Most of us have had plenty of time, here, with the COVID-19 restrictions, to take a look at ourselves and our situation. Also, many of us have learned much over these past few years that we simply were not aware of before. We’ve achieved a new perspective. It has not been long, historically speaking, since the Civil War. I, for one, am painfully aware of that now.

We have all known for some time that the environment needs us to change our behavior. The planet requires our help in order for the world as we know it to survive. Nature, certainly, will exist no matter what we do. There will always be rocks. If we want to continue on with apples and greenery and the human species, though, we need to pay attention.

Our lifestyles create gasses which are destroying the balance of life on the planet and threaten to kill us all. We can change these lifestyles and our methods of using the earth’s resources.

There is so much change needed that it is absolutely overwhelming. Like any other overwhelming thing, it is important to break it down into pieces, take things in steps. There are close to eight billion of us. Okay, yes, that’s one of our problems. But that is a lot of people who can work on solutions. None of us have to fix everything.

If you haven’t already, pick something. We all need to get to work.

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Copyright © 2020 Harriet Arden Byrd