By Brent Dey
Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida on October 7. Boats were upturned and tossed aside. Houses were splintered into the sand. Muck rose from the sea to clog pipes, roads, and freeways. People had to paddle canoes to scavenge what they could from what remained of waterlogged beachfront property. I watched the destruction in almost real time, on the Facebook feeds of friends who lived in the storm’s path.
That same week, the United Nations issued a climate change report which — from what I could gather by scanning headlines — paints an apocalyptic picture. The world has warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The report warned the world has only 12 years to take action that could limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. Beyond that, the risk factors explode for flooding, drought, and extreme weather. The world is getting hotter faster than we had thought, giving us little time to turn things around. We can do it, but if recent history is any guide, we won’t. This is a doom we are already experiencing in hurricanes like Michael. It is a legacy that can — and will — rob so much of what we love about the world from the lives of our sons and daughters.
The report threw me into helpless depression — the existential flailing I knew so well from being young during the Cold War. But nuclear destruction was a threat vivid enough for people to understand and work to prevent. Climate change is a slow burn. It’s hard for people to grapple with. And there is a powerful profit motive in keeping people from understanding it, as evidenced by the shrugs I got all week when I fretted about our fate to friends.
“It's a long time from now. Why worry?”
Because so much of the world is at stake. And the 12 years we have is a geological blink of the eye.
My way of dealing with this — especially in the face of overwhelming apathy — has been to be present for the small wonders that may soon be gone or altered. Cool evenings. Rich chocolate. A bee in flight.
On the Friday after Michael slammed into Mexico Beach, Florida, I took solace from a graveyard … and also from the cool weather Hurricane Michael threw across the Southeast. Atlanta was a balmy 84 degrees the day the U.N. issued its report, but temperatures dropped to the mid-60s in the days after the hurricane made landfall.
The graveyard wasn’t consciously chosen as a place of solitude. Our girls were out of school for fall break, and even though my depression was crippling and I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere, we wanted to use our time off together wisely. So we got out our collection of Clue Town books. These are brilliant little puzzle and map books made here in Atlanta. Each book focuses on a walkable area of the city and uses clues from landmarks to solve puzzles. They’re ideal for kids. You maze around town and make a great afternoon of it.
On this gorgeous day, our Clue Town book took us to Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery, which once sat on a remote country hillside, but is now nestled among skyscrapers and MARTA tracks. Its hillside, once used as a vantage for Confederate generals to monitor the battle of Atlanta, is a world suspended. It’s easy to imagine yourself in the times etched on the headstones.
“This one died in 1879. He would have been 24 years old during the Civil War.”
“This one lived during the Great Depression.”
“Here’s one who died in 1953. She survived the Second World War but missed rock and roll.”
Realizing these people lived through apocalyptic events in their own time did nothing to soothe the sense of despair I was feeling at our coming climate catastrophe, but feeling the warmth of my 4-year-old’s palm as she took my hand did. Seeing the furrowed brow of my 7-year-old as she struggled to figure out a clue with her mother did. I wasn’t living in some distant fear; I was living in the here and now. With my wife. With our children. Full of life among crumbling headstones. And we still had time, however scant, to do what we could to affect the future.
We walked among the names of people who had done with their lives what they could to affect the times they were living in — Atlanta’s first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson. Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. Business leaders, golf legends, and military generals.
We visited graves of children who lived only a few months, but whose names were carved in stone. We felt a tingle of rage when we read about the slave graveyard, which was dug up and moved when the plots it covered became desirable burial grounds for whites. We marveled at the rows of headstones for nameless Union and Confederate soldiers — a physical scar, a timeless rift of national division.
As the sun cast long shadows, the girls now and then got freaked out. I couldn’t resist making an eerie groan as my 7-year-old peeked into the Richards Mausoleum, looking for a clue. She didn’t like that. My 4-year-old tried to wrap her little mind around the concept of death. She would inspect the grassy point where stone touched the earth and ask, “Is this where they are?”
After our graveyard adventure, we each had a bowl of noodles at nearby Grant Market. The setting sun turned the world dark while we were eating. When we finished, my wife paid the bill. As I walked the girls out to the car, my 4-year-old looked up to the expansive sky overhead and caught herself in marvel. She tugged my hand to make me stop, so I could appreciate the sky with her.
“That’s my favorite color,” she said in a hushed, revelatory tone, pointing to the regal blue overhead. She gazed at the sky in wonder. “I’ve only seen that color two times,” she said. “Tonight ... and one time when we were leaving Target.” I liked that vision: the shimmering beauty of eternity framed by the neon Target logo on Edgewood Avenue.
In our sky, on this night, the bright light of Venus hung like a streetlamp on an otherwise starless night. And she was right. It was beautiful.
I tugged her hand to move forward, but she knew not to proceed. Whatever floods lie ahead of us, she wanted this moment now. We were alive and together in this parking lot. She wanted us to hold on to that for as long as we could.