The Last Phoenix

Indonesia burns. Deliberately set fires rage out of control, igniting the soggy layers of peat on the forest floor and adding poison to the already dangerous ash and debris. It burns every year, and now it’s having the worst fires in nearly twenty years.

It’s not a new problem, and I’m not the one to go into detail about the multi-decade growth of it. Humans have been building it for decades. Other humans–outnumbered, outfunded–have been fighting it along with other environmental crises around the world. Look up Indonesia fires 2015 if you want to know just how bad things are, how many species are threatened with extinction in the short term, and how humans are suffering.

I have never thought of myself as an environmentalist. I’m old enough to have grown up in a culture with environmentalism not yet admitted to the mainstream–to my shame, I gave it little thought as I tried to navigate college and career. It was one of the many causes I cared about but avoided out of laziness, self-absorption, paralysis or fear of controversy. About a decade ago, when I was getting my counseling degree, I met a man who was studying ecology. Very few people had the emotional fortitude to be around him for long, because he had a conversational habit difficult to take. He’d get into a conversation about classes, or someone’s relationship, or daily minutiae of some kind…then, at some point, he’d pin you with a fierce stare and demand, “Are you aware that the planet is dying?”

No matter what you were talking about, suddenly you’d be left feeling like the worst person in the world. He also ran meditation session about sinking into the planet’s pain; feeling and integrating the death of species and land and sea. I don’t think I could ever do what he does, but I understand him a little better now. I’m still a selfish person, and a sick one, but part of me has become a little more present; enough to want to bear witness.

The rest of me still doesn’t want to. Maybe, if I were a better person, I could maintain the daily and hourly knowledge of our planet’s irreversible transformations. Knowing me, I’d then try to maintain the same level of constant awareness about the agonies of poverty and racism and mental illness and every other horrible thing going on. I’d have trouble picking one cause and sticking with it.

None of that is an excuse. I own my sins; my inadequacies. I own, and have written about, the shame I feel when my best efforts are only good enough to keep me clean and out of the psych ward.

At any rate, Indonesia burns in my mind–off and on, the glow of it strobing slowly as if from a lighthouse. I drink a cup of coffee–then randomly think of fire. I worry about money for a while, then picture haze-filled skies. I worry about my daughter’s health, then imagine the coughing of children across the Pacific.

Does it help to bear witness more than I used to do, when there’s little action I can take? I believe consciousness matters, so I suppose it does. Maybe I can contribute, in an infinitesimal way, to a larger level of awareness. I am, sometimes, the voice of the weak…but even the voice of the weak might influence the strong, or influence enough weak to band together.

So I will tell you the only truth of mine I have to offer today. I will tell you that I woke early this morning from a dream of fire. And in the fire, soaring above the fleeing and dying tigers and orangutans and other last representatives of their kind, I saw the last phoenix. It was not afraid, for it had burned many times and been reborn. Brighter red and gold against the flames, it flew fearlessly into the destruction, and only when its wings were half burned away did its usual death-and-rebirth shriek turn into one of fear and true annihilation. The phoenix did not understand about tipping points; it only knew that something was terribly wrong. I watched it vanish into the blaze. Then I awoke, and drank my coffee, and wrote some words to the tune of the last phoenix’s last song.

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