Dried Out


The West’s historic drought in 3 maps (cnn.com)

One of the local news stories from this past spring that didn’t register on my radar as strongly as it should have was a prolonged fire advisory here due to lack of rain. There was actually flooding going on around here when I first came to Wisconsin nearly three years ago — so much so that the route I should have taken here from Madison was cut off, and I was forced to take a detour far to the north — but we had enough days in a row with strongly-worded fire advisories a couple of months ago that it was impossible to avoid being concerned about what might happen. We haven’t had any fire advisories since then, but we’re about to go through a couple of weeks with temperatures significantly above the local average, and with a substantial chance of rain on only one of those days. Since we haven’t had much precipitation since those last warnings, I find it hard to believe that I won’t be getting more notifications about fire weather on my phone here before too long.

Since many of my students in my summer class this year were from southeastern Wisconsin, which has had more long-term drought problems than this corner of the state, I got a real education in that class about how the weather has been affecting the fortunes of rural Wisconsinites since I first arrived here. While the conditions here aren’t as dire as those in the American West right now, and certainly nowhere near as visually compelling as the scenes from there that have been taking up more and more of my social media feeds in recent days, there’s definitely a lot of trouble here, and trouble that doesn’t look like it’s going to go away any time soon.

Like a lot of people who spent their formative years in the interregnum between the end of the Cold War and 2001, when there wasn’t a significant “big enemy” narrative weighing down the national discourse, I paid a lot of attention to environmental issues back then and developed a lot of concerns about how human activity was affecting the climate, concerns that I still have to this day. If I’d had the skills or desire to pursue a career in the sciences, that would have been very fulfilling for me, but the best I can do now is simply to use the small means at my disposal to amplify the voices calling attention to the danger that we are all under as a result of human-created climate change. Sometimes it feels like shares and retweets of other people’s posts on those issues make up the plurality, if not majority, of my activity on social media these past few years.

As worried as I am for the planet as a whole, though, I can’t deny my own personal stake in these matters. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, it’s impossible to avoid seeing news of its economic consequences every day. I have no doubt that the pandemic will continue to strongly affect my teaching responsibilities even as I return to in-person teaching in a few weeks, and it’s already taken its toll on campus. That toll continues to persist, and if the drought in this part of Wisconsin stays as bad as it is right now — or, as I fear, it gets even worse — that could have serious consequences for everyone who lives around these parts. Especially at a campus as small as the one I work at, small drops in enrollment can have massive consequences for the health of the entire town, and it would be irresponsible of me to not be cognizant of those considerations.

I don’t know enough about the science of droughts and forest fires to be able to quantify how concerned I should be about the conditions here right now, but it’s obvious that I have good reasons to be concerned now. I’ll try my best to go on with my own work here as an educator and a writer, but focusing on that work is getting more and more difficult as the huge problems around me just keep accumulating and deepening. I’m still more than a little overwhelmed at the scope of these problems, and I continue to struggle as I try to deal with those feelings. I’ll keep trying my best on that, but it’s almost a given that things will get a whole lot worse here before they start to get better, and it’s difficult to avoid thinking about just how much worse they might get.

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