Living in smog or smoke shortens the horizon, inside and out, and drains the color from familiar places. This hiking season I’m sitting inside by an air filter, the same kind I once used in China.
Is this the new normal? For a second week in August, air quality across Western Washington has rivaled the murky skies of Beijing, known for some of the world’s worst smog. Weak orange light and a red sun like a coal ember are familiar sights to me. Eighteen years ago this month, I made an unlikely move from Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road to Port Townsend.
I remember my first August in the Pacific Northwest vividly, hiking under cerulean skies, drinking in the beauty of the Northwest landscape. I fell in love with the Olympic Mountains, the Salish Sea and a coastal town perched between the two. After living and working in urban China, it felt like I’d stumbled into Middle-earth, a Technicolor world of blue and green.
Watching summer clouds form and dissipate along an Olympic ridge, I made a promise to myself. I would never take the sky for granted again, whether it offered the crisp edge of a cumulus cloud against deep blue, or a summer night encircled by the Milky Way. I grew up on the coast of Maine under a sky with many moods, but living in the heavy haze of urban China slowly erased those details, from familiar constellations to the memory of clouds.
The health effects of living in hazardous air are well-documented and worrisome as a smoke blanket settles over Puget Sound. I remember the racking cough that drove me away from China, the waiting rooms filled with people who shared it and the privilege of choice: I knew I could leave. I don’t remember air-quality warnings, but I had my own air-rating system in Beijing, based on the number of city blocks visible from my fifth-story apartment. Usually the number was in the single digits, although just once I could see the hills of the Summer Palace.
As I watch health warnings flash red and purple across the Northwest, and track the spiraling Air Quality Index by the hour, I am reminded of the toll that murky skies take on the spirit — as well as the body. I recall the spaciousness I found in Northwest skies that first August and many summers that followed. Living in smog or smoke shortens the horizon, inside and out, and drains the color from familiar places. This hiking season I’m sitting inside by an air filter, the same kind I once used in China.
In our second August of spectral haze, we wonder uneasily if this is the future for the Northwest. The fire season expands, sometimes even claiming the rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula. Despite the unsettling sense that Beijing skies have followed me here, this is home, and I have no plans to leave. With climate change as the likely driver of smoky skies, where would we go? Every part of the planet is changing, and much of the year the Pacific Northwest is among its most resilient corners. Smoke is a signal, however transient, and this summer it feels like a warning light flashing red.