I asked a man to marry me once. Until I met him, I had never known the way that love could provide the magnetic pull of a bearing. Like a pulse through the air, I felt the idea of him everywhere.
For three years, we had been living in the eastern Sierra Nevada. I was as enchanted by our mountain home as I was by him — but it was a demanding affair.
Each summer, there were little losses. A camper left without realizing his fire’s embers remained warm, and what was started for s’mores spread, igniting nearby brush. An acre burned. A mountain biker leaned too far right into a tight turn; their pedal struck rock and sparked. One hundred acres burned. My favorite trail was buried in a landslide. I set out to climb a glacier, only to find that it had melted and was gone.
To love that landscape was to maintain a desperate intimacy with its disappearance. I couldn’t bear it. I wanted us to run away.
From atop the high ridge we walked one evening, I stretched out my finger and traced along the horizon the part of the valley most likely to be destroyed when the inevitable wildfire came. “Don’t you think there are better places to live through this?” I asked him, touching my nose to his nose. It would be hard for him to leave our tiny town. He was an immigrant; his status was tied to his work. “We could get married,” I offered, kicking up snow. Little crystals sprayed around his knees. At home later, we finished two bottles of Grüner Veltliner, maps unfolded around us, pointing out new places we could go.
By the next morning, he had changed his mind. He asked me to leave without him — to leave him.
I fled for the coast. Better to see the sea rise on a land I hadn’t learned to love yet, I figured.
All breakups are hard, but they’re worse if you’re stupid. My mistake was that instead of indulging in a series of sloppy rebounds to recalibrate my aching heart, I threw myself headlong into a new career writing about global warming. I joined a research collective; I became a journalist.
By now, I have heard so many well-articulated visions of what the landscape might soon look like, I can nearly see their flickering edges hover just above the world that remains, like a holograph on the brink of being realized. I run through the pines, knowing that some forest scientists expect California’s mountains will soon be deforested from the joint forces of fire, drought and invasive pests. I hear the threatened sparrows’ chorus in the yard and wonder how long their song will last, knowing that, if all the currently endangered mammals were to go extinct, it would take 23 million years for evolution to replenish them.
An increasing body of research affirms the worry that human-caused global warming may rob us of a future — or one that is pleasant and survivable for most species, anyway. Depending on who you ask, we have somewhere between six and 10 years left until the planet’s atmosphere will cross an atmospheric tipping point beyond which there is no return. Some argue it’s a line we’ve already crossed.
It does not spark joy.
The climate crisis takes so much from us: cool summer nights and the ability to chit-chat with Trader Joe’s cashiers about the weather without wanting to suddenly weep, yes — but there’s also the bigger, harder-to-name thing. What do we do if our love cannot withstand these ever-worsening storms that disrupt our dreams and uproot our lives?
Today, three-quarters of Americans experience some degree of anxiety about climate change. For people under 25, it’s markedly worse. I wonder how many of them will get to revel in youth’s capaciousness like I did. For a few good years in my 20s, I knew climate change was coming, but I had not yet come to believe it would change everything about my life. The hopes I held then now feel like a 20th century relic: angular light pouring through the narrow alleyways of European cities; market baskets heavy with exotic, imported fruits, their juices staining my chin; endless travel, but unencumbered by guilt over airline emissions or fear about how to build emergency plans into a holiday.
I no longer expect a future full of ease, whimsy or fruit plucked from the branch. A threshold has been crossed. I’m not sure when — was it when my last love ended, or at some moment in the intervening years when I have failed to find another? When in some parts of the state as many as one in three Californians are projected to become climate migrants, joining 1.7 million people in the Americas already displaced by disasters each year, it feels silly to sow roots.
Nevertheless, I am dating again. I am stubbornly looking for something worth wishing for.
A crush is a craving, an aspiration, a will to live. It is an empty calendar, mine for the filling. At least, that used to feel true. The more I see the swiftness of the climate crisis, the less sure I am of what’s reasonable to ask of the future.
Plus there’s a chance that my proximity to this sense of impending disaster has made me undatable.
Recently I fell into bed with a stranger. In the moments after, tangled up in each other, we pecked away at the awkward small talk of people who still didn’t know each other’s names. When he asked me what I was thinking about, I monologued for 10 uninterrupted minutes about the agronomic insecurities that will mean, one day soon, we will have no ripe tomatoes lining shelves midwinter, and how I therefore always bulk-buy heirlooms I can’t afford. I left soon after, and never saw him again.
Like everyone else, I’m just searching for somewhere stable to leap, and then land. In this, I am no different than my most conventional, climate-naïve friends. Love has always stood in contrast to life’s existential threats.
Connection is a tiny revolt against everything we are up against. This is true even of trysts and other temporary flirtations. “A love affair,” Kathryn Davis wrote in her memoir, “Aurelia, Aurélia,” “confers motion, ferrying you through time.” Within the high of a good one, I can feel the gasping propulsion toward something sweet in each of my cells.
In my work, I have spoken to many people in the midst of an emergency’s fulcrum, fighting to survive unprecedented heat waves, ice storms or floods. Not one of them has made it through on the might of a single relationship. Neighbors install sprinkler systems to point to each other’s roofs in case of fire; community networks deliver life-saving medical equipment days before emergency managers could have. I recognize a bone-deep yearning in these orchestrations. My understanding of what a bond can accomplish is stretched. Such relationships might make here good and elsewhere possible.
On one of the final egg-yolk afternoons of last fall, I asked my new crush if they thought climate change was impacting their dating. I asked it as coyly as I imagine another person might casually mention the name of the child they one day hoped to have — which is to say, with no subtlety whatsoever. They paused, rustling maple leaves that had crisped brown from drought rather than turning yellow. “No, not more than it’s changed every other one of my relationships.”
My solar plexus warmed in the familiar way then — as though here, too, might be an opening for me to see my way through to a life populated with more desire than dread. There are other people, lots of them, still trying to find portals that will carry us to futures in which we survive. Like them, I am still looking. I still want to take that leap.