By Megan E. O'Laughlin
Not long ago, the seal tumbled in the slate gray sea while miles away, an ember landed on a log, dry as a bone in the late summer drought. I don’t know how that seal later died, though we are all familiar with the fate of a parched forest when visited by sparks. On this morning’s walk, my breath released in short spurts. I held my hand to my chest on the hill climb. I coughed and checked the heart rate on my watch.
The seal carcass washed up on the beach about a month ago. It looked almost alive: shiny-beautiful except for blank eyes the color of smoke. Once you see a seal on that rocky beach, you can’t unsee them—each barnacle-covered rock is another seal until it’s not. This one is real, though, and I wondered how he died, why his mates didn’t, and how long this toxic curtain will hang above our heads. The seal body eventually softened with bloat, and today it’s even worse: slime and blood ooze over a stark white ribcage. The skin’s been devoured by crows and gulls; the smell pulls tears from my eyes. When I call out to the crows, “Caaa!” I swear they look at me with annoyance before flying away.
This morning, the air quality index (AQI) was in the 60s-moderate. I burst from the house in sneakers, dog leash in hand—my first walk in days. Much like the dog, I don’t do well without daily exercise, so we immediately headed for the water, where two seals tumbled in their cycle of fins and splashes. I couldn’t see them, but I heard their bursts of breath at the end of the dock. The seals may breathe harder these days, too. When something putrid assaulted my nostrils, I realized the dog rolled in the seal carcass slime as I watched the still-alive sea dogs roll in the waves.
By afternoon, I’d washed the dog, and the AQI reached 180—dangerously high, the highest in the world on that day. Anne from the barn texted: there is too much smoke, and we can’t ride the horses tonight. We stayed home and ate potatoes from the reservation garden where my husband works. Despite growing in this smoky climate, the tubers are sweet with thin skin, perhaps protected by the soil. I must remember to plant more root vegetables next year.
Two days ago, I saw my doctor for an annual physical and complained of pain in my chest, a thin breath I can’t quite seize. My heart was healthy; the doctor supposed my symptoms were left over from my nasty fight with our new virus, exacerbated now by the smoky air. She prescribed two inhalers. It seems I have asthma now. The best remedy is a walk in the sea air, and I will easily breathe for the entire day after those steps up and down the hill. But as the forests burn, I cannot walk. Each second outside brings the burn inside.
When we breathe in the embers and oils, we must ingest the death of the forest, but nature knows better: fire gives just as it receives. A carbon gift to the soil, the nutrient life for the forest, now increased to an air poisoning frequency—too many offerings at once. I read an old paper from a wildlife fire researcher, who is also my father, and he wrote, “We cannot do much about the weather, but we can reduce fuels in areas that pose high risks to the things people value.” I wonder if he believes we are helpless, that our possible actions are limited. Looking around, I only see things I value: leaves, rocks, and screaming birds. Irreplaceable things.
The forecast calls for rain by Friday, and I will burst from the house with my sneakers and leash. Perhaps after a puff from the inhaler, as directed by the doctor. At the beach, I’ll search for seal heads, and the dog will stay leashed until we are out of sight of the dead fin foot as it sinks deeper into its state of decay.
Megan E. O’Laughlin (she/they) is a psychotherapist, managing editor of The Black Fork Review, and co-host of the I’M TRIGGERED! podcast. Her essays have appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Defunkt Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, and others. She is currently working on an essay collection about therapist burnout. Megan lives by the sea in Washington state. You can find her at meganolaughlin.com