Wet, singed air. A heavy blanket of heat interrupted by eddies of cool. That sizzling sound that comes from the earth. Blessed, blessed rain. After long drought, rain at last!
There is nothing quite like the smell and the sound of rain on a parched landscape. The Summer Solstice brought the rain here--unexpected, unpredicted by the weather services. The storm winds lashed the land and broke our prime plum tree like a match stick. Still it was a gift at that.
We'd had three months of drought and the impact on agriculture and the municipal water is dramatic. Our small town is trucking in drinking water daily. and what is usually a lush verdant landscape in June is parched yellow and brown like the semi-desert where I grew up.
This isn't the semi-desert though. It's soft, green Central Europe.
Yet climate change has brought the drought, pushing the arid climate of the Balkans north over the past ten years. Both winters and summers are drier and warmer. For several years there have been water shortages but this year is the worst anyone can remember.
And with the drought comes another kind of desperation up from the south. Trails of refugees,, clinging to tiny boats to cross the salt water and then walking in lines so long you don't see the end.
The media doesn't report their stories much. You see a mother with a small child alone, no men. They two are huddled against a fence, sleeping on pavement for three days while they wait for authorities to say whether they will be deported back to a place with no food and certain death in the war. We know little more of their stories.
And most people don't care to know. It isn't about opening up to a ragged and persecuted few anymore. Now we are seeing the first lapping waves of what will be a roaring flood. Climate refugees.
In Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Egypt they once fed themselves. It was dry but they had methods of conserving water. Now, there simply is no water to conserve. Nothing will grow without water. And there are millions upon millions of people who cannot under any circumstances be fed in those lands of much greater drought. And we are well aware of the chaos even our little drought has caused.
I sat in a cafe with my husband on the eve of the Solstice. It was our first time out together in months. The kids are on their annual overnight school trip It was a rare treat and we sat eating grown-up cuisine and little goblets of iced coffee and tiramisu.
Gods, we needed it.
We had been at each other like irritated cats for weeks. Every criticism bites and there is plenty to criticize. We're exhausted and neither of us gets done what we're supposed to most days.
He talked loud about despair: "The politics in Europe and America are just spiraling into hate and I can't even blame them. Left or right, it doesn't even matter. Someone is always there to take advantage of the frustration and hype fear."
I try to get him to speak more softly in the restaurant, but he doesn't care anymore. "Yeah, people hate immigrants. But these aren't the kind of immigrants we used to get. Those were the small business people who wanted to seek a better life, political dissidents and intellectuals. Now we get everyone, whole countries, because they are starving. Climate change, you know. The deserts are taking over. People fight over land. Wars and hunger push people out and they come here. But we're too small and if we really took them in, we could end up a minority in our own country."
Before you sneer at that final line, ask a Native American if it is possible for migrants to take over and make you a minority in your own country. Climate change is that kind of phenomenon--so massive that it will likely move whole populations within our lifetime.
I tell him about the children in cages along the southern border in the US. We know more than most about the trauma of separation that will follow those children for a lifetime. Our own children started their lives in orphanages. They were materially comfortable, but one screamed almost non-stop for the first two years he was home, a high-pitched terrified scream that both drove you away and broke your heart at the same time. The other kid still totters around speaking in baby gurgles most days nine years later, even though she tests average for IQ.
This is not an "Oh well, they had to go to mandatory summer camp," kind of thing, Separation from family in childhood, being housed in impersonal environments and the terror of not knowing when or if familiar people will return cause lifelong trauma.
My husband shook his head. "What are we supposed to do?" He gestured helplessly toward the main road of town. Cars were backed up miles, not even crawling. We got to the cafe on bikes.
It's a single lane road. In places two large modern cars cannot meet and pass each other safely unless one stops. Our once rural area is over-crowded and parched. The local school is bursting at the seams. That's what he means.
In America, there is lots of open space and the refugees are more like a trickle than a flood. Here in Central Europe--without large oceans to both sides--the decisions about compassion are getting harder.
"What we do is be the kind of people we want to be. I don't know if we'll survive, but I won't send innocent people back to die at the hands of terrorists and I won't support putting children in cages." That's my answer. Not a great one. Principled but light on solutions.
My husband has always espoused humanist values and I realized that this past year he has not wanted to talk politics and social issues the way he used to. He hasn't just been prickly at me. He's frustrated, even hopeless. He turned his face away, but he still had lots of words--loud and angry words and none of them constructive.
When he quieted, I gave him what little scrap of hope I still have. "When I was a kid in the 1980s, the intellectuals and activists--the people like we are today--were convinced there would be a nuclear war. A lot of people really believed my generation wouldn't grow up."
He nodded and let me speak for once. He had been on the other side of that possible war in the old East Bloc and doing mandatory military service for a totalitarian Communist regime for part of that decade.
"But it didn't happen. Then there were parts of the ocean that were technically dead. Environmentalists believed they would take centuries to recover. But they recovered faster than expected. Now if you look at climate change and migration, the bare facts are grim. It looks like we're headed for massive disaster in a few short years. And it is a very serious situation. We have to do what we can. But the earth regenerates better than the bare facts indicate. It's about resilience. I don't know what will happen, but it is likely to be something no one is predicting right now."
For once he didn't argue or criticize. I can't say I gave him hope exactly, but for a few days afterward things have been more peaceful at home. The rain helped. We walk around each other on egg shells, trying to be polite and considerate in the hectic schedule and amid the needs of the troubled children we've made our family with.
Each day we choose our own qualities, our soul, our values.
If we choose to put children in cages today or put up razor wire to keep out starving refugees, we become that. If we choose to struggle for what we can, to fight climate change with our garden beds and bicycles and hand-lettered signs, to fight drought with rain barrels, drip lines and solar panels, to fight hunger with lentil soup and tortillas and to fight despair with stories and songs, then that is what we become.
Are we choosing to live our values and thus make our own survival harder? I don't know for sure. I only know that survival without meaning is the road to depression.