I woke up this morning with a gnawing sense of depression, the wildfire smoke blurring the mountains into gray shapes and biting at my nose. Wildfire season in May. This is so messed up, I kept thinking. The cottonwoods have fresh green leaves and the birds are returning. The streams in the Helena Valley are bank full with raging, muddy snowmelt; the landscape is bursting with spring flowers. But north of us, in Alberta and British Columbia, spring has come hot and dry. The forests are burning up, and strong southbound winds are carrying the smoke to central Montana.
By mid-morning, the smoke was still a creeping gray blanket over Helena. But for some reason, after hours of feeling claustrophobic and sick at heart, after wondering how the hell the millions of spring migrant birds on the move are faring in this storm of smoke, for some reason my depression transformed. I think it was the dandelions.
I love dandelions. I love seeing them in the middle of Helena, growing among the sidewalks and pavement. I love remembering the American goldfinches and chipping sparrows that I used to see on my dad’s lawn in Idaho, feeding on their seeds. Dandelions remind me that as tragic and destructive and out of control as life can be, we, the living creatures of the earth, are persistent.
Destruction and healing
We humans have gotten ourselves into this mess—climate chaos, mass extinction, AI systems so smart that they’re replacing our jobs and might just kill us—because we’ve innovative and adaptable. Like beavers, ants, and prairie dogs, we’re ecosystem engineers: in ways great and small, we change the world around us.
I think that we, as a society, have gotten ourselves into this current mess by treating the creatures around us as our enemies or as inconveniences and by focusing too much on competition, on gaining wealth and success at someone else’s expense. And by turning our ingenuity towards destruction, exploitation, and war, we can and sometimes do create hell on earth.
But we’re also healers, capable of incredible kindness and great beauty. And although right now we’re threatening our own survival and that of so many other species on this earth, we can just as powerfully find ways to heal.
Dandelions and black-backed woodpeckers
When I remember that dandelions can grow out of cracks in the sidewalk, somehow it helps me make it through the smoke. Wildfires in May still make me very uneasy. But we’re still part of a world full of life that wants to thrive.
Black-backed woodpeckers raise their young in burned forests, and flooding brings new stands of cottonwoods and willows to our streams. Life is messy, sometimes tragic—and also unexpectedly beautiful.
As I leave Helena this morning, driving towards several weeks in Missoula, I can hear evening grosbeaks whistling along Tenmile Creek. When I stop at McDonald Pass to write, I can see flies and bees pollinating the pasqueflowers, splashes of springtime purple blooming in spite of a sea of smoke.
As long as there are still plants, insects, and birds around us, as long as we’re still living, it’s not too late to heal. Thank you, dandelions.
A note to my readers
Thanks for reading! For almost a year now, I’ve been publishing one story a week here, making them freely available to everyone. It takes a lot of time to research, write, and produce these stories—not to mention recording and editing the audio versions and translating them to Spanish. After a year of mostly working for free, I’m in the process of making adjustments so that it’s sustainable for me to continue writing. That means reducing how much I’m writing to match my funding level.
Currently, thanks to the generous community of individuals who support my work through Patreon, my time is mostly covered for producing one article a month. Many thanks to those folks for believing in my work and making this possible! Check out my thank you page for a complete list of acknowledgements.
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