Editor’s note: This commentary is by Walt Amses, a writer who lives in North Calais.
Swimming over the windswept surface of the pond on a bleak, showery afternoon, the first couple of bright, red leaves appear, the trailer of a film inevitably opening next month at a stand of sugar maples near you. Although it’s relatively chilly, especially compared to the summer thus far, the water, which cools much more slowly, envelops me in what still feels like a warm, loving embrace, as it has since early June. This is the 78th of what I’ve envisioned as 100 consecutive days of swimming, maybe even 125 if conditions remain this side of hypothermia into early October.
The water, as usual, provides a daily hiatus from the rest of the world, which feels more urgent on this day, during this summer, with the country gripped by turmoil: confronting institutionalized racism; rage over the mishandled and still unchecked pandemic; and all this during what for much of the country has been unprecedented heat and intolerable humidity. California is on fire, with over a million acres already incinerated.
The Southwest might as well be burning too, with Death Valley registering the highest temperature on earth over the last century at 130 degrees. Population centers like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Palm Springs have routinely sweltered between 110 and 115 for weeks on end. If that’s not bad enough, Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana with 150 mph winds Thursday morning claiming six lives. Two named Atlantic tropical storms have already brought destructive winds, flooding and widespread power outages to the New York metro area, the earliest in recorded weather history.
In New England, withering humidity descended like an illness in June, so all encompassing its grip on nearly every aspect of life that we inadvertently associate it with Covid-19, as though one more symptom of the plague itself. Even here in north-central Vermont some nights have remained unusually muggy and warm into the wee hours, fueling nightmares, infusing the following day with vague recollections of mysteries dwelling in the chasm between wakefulness and sleep. Mind-numbing Neflix scrolling is rendered obsolete when a couple of drops of CBD and a warm, sticky night find you starring in your own Fellini movie.
Each of these seemingly unrelated phenomena, including the pandemic, catastrophic enough on their own, impacting tens of millions, are nevertheless, undeniably connected through climate change and the political tendency to pit science and prosperity as diametrically opposed. In 2015, Individual #1, not yet the protagonist in the Republican Party’s alternate reality, referred to President Barack Obama’s voicing concerns over global warming as “one of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard in politics — in the history of politics as I know it, which is pretty good” (sic). He has gone on to call climate change a “Chinese hoax,” rolling back regulations to cut fossil fuel emissions and heat retaining carbon dioxide while pushing for more coal use, precisely the opposite of what most Americans want.
Speaking of which, earlier this week GOP loyalists assembled in various locations for a four-day virtual coronation of Individual #1, pledging fealty, tossing aside any notions of a new party platform and trading any unique ideas or pragmatic initiatives for an executive branch version of “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola gets.” What Lola couldn’t bear was any mention of climate change or its progeny of tropical storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts and most certainly pandemics, unless contextualized by a heroic, yet completely fabricated response that “saved millions of lives.”
What is unlikely to emerge from this dark assemblage, is a plan to address the impending climate catastrophe since, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, many attendees barely acknowledge its existence. Since 2016 the environment has not only been threatened by purposeful ignorance, and a dismal failure to address the obvious, but vigorous efforts have been undertaken to monetize natural resources, selling off mining and drilling rights on public lands and national monuments to the highest bidder, greenhouse gases be damned.
As the traditionally conservative Republican Party putrefies into a doomsday cult, the country and the rest of the planet struggle to cut through the toxic fog of narcissistic dissembling and heed the warnings of epidemiologists and the scientific community: Covid-19 is the tip of the iceberg, a pandemic with training wheels as one researcher put it, a harbinger of far worse to most assuredly come.
The journal Nature outlines how global disease incidents such as coronavirus have been gamed out for decades, with the United States routinely topping the field in the Global Health Security Index — how prepared the country was to fight outbreaks. What they had not anticipated was the malevolent narcissism of Individual #1 and “the colossal missteps taken in the world’s wealthiest nation.” By contrast, Vietnam with 95 million people, executed swift, cohesive responses and their death toll has been 27. The leaders there took their responsibility seriously.
Early the next morning, (swim day 79), the air temperature has dipped to 45, but as I step into the placid water again, the pond is easily 25 degrees warmer, like a spa treatment. Days like this will be commonplace as autumn takes hold and summer fades into memory. But my anticipation of vibrant colors these next weeks is tempered by the foreboding prospect of the darkening to follow, as evening invades the afternoon and daylight dwindles into the midday hours. And as much as I try to avoid it, the pandemic and seasonal flu creep into my consciousness. I wonder about winter dreams, and how deep the coming darkness will be.