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Reply To: The Air We Breathe


Hello Mary Ann,

Picking up on this thought of yours:

. . . after all, the “I Can’t Breathe” archetype surfaced first with corona virus and then with the death of George Floyd after years of warning about air pollution/global warming and all the raging wildfires in the western U.S. and Australia


Timely that you mention the raging wildfires in relation to the “I can’t breathe” motif. I live in Modesto, in California’s large Central Valley. The second week of August we endured ten days of a heat wave with highs ranging from 105º to 111º, and overnight lows never reaching the point where it was cool enough to open the windows and let in fresh air. It wears on a soul having to keep the air conditioning running 24 hours a day 10 days in a row.

Then, the day before the heat wave broke, what has now become the second largest fire in state history erupted in the southeast corner of our county (Stanislaus), some 20 miles from my home as the crow flies. It’s an isolated area – grasslands, scrub oak, and the low hills of our coastal range separating our valley from the Bay Area – but that corner of the county butts up against Contra Costa and Alameda counties, which include large cities (San Jose, Fremont, Oakland, Berkeley, etc.) with millions of inhabitants the other side of those hills.

So just as temps were falling and we we were looking forward to breathing fresh air once more, smoke poured into our skies – and not just from that fire. What has become the third largest fire in state history ignited to the northwest, close to wine country – a bit further from us, but also funneling smoke in our direction. And a day or two later, up in the spectacular Sierra Nevada range, which forms the eastern wall of our valley, lightning sparked a huge forest fire outside Yosemite, and more smoke from that conflagration also filled the air.

We had to keep our windows closed and not spend any time outside at all – not because of summertime temperatures, but because we could not breathe the air! ( . . . and so the theme of the year continues . . . )

Here is a graphic on my phone registering the air quality those first few days:

Air Quality Modesto, CA

I’ve never seen it in the purple zone before! (You’ll notice at the bottom of the image that the day’s original prediction was in the yellow zone, and the following day was supposed to be green; alas, the fires proved too fickle for forecasters.)

I wish I could describe the atmosphere – at best, the air outside the door was thick and visible, brassy in color – looked as if we were on the surface of another planet, or perhaps residing in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Pictures weren’t able to capture the reality; during the day light shining through our windows glowed a cherry red. Here is an image taken outside my home several days later, after the air had improved dramatically (“improved” is a relative term – let’s just say it was somewhat less toxic):

orange skies in modesto

By the end of the first week the skies turned gray in a perpetual overcast (though absent any legitimate clouds), the air still heavy with the scent of smoke and chemicals.

When I did go outside to take out the garbage or change the kitty litter I was masked, but still had problems breathing once I returned inside.

Naturally my mind turned to the topic of breath and spirit touched on in my MythBlast essay, and the resultant discussion here. Our triple-digit summertime heatwaves, along with the extended annual fire season, have increased in frequency and intensity the past several years, in large part a result of human-induced climate change. It’s “as if” – those two words that Campbell relates to ritual and myth: “as if” – Gaia were underscoring the effect of our action on the planet, and reminding us that what we do to the Earth we ultimately do to ourselves.

On a personal level, I’ve spent much time focused on not just the mythology of Breath, but the very act of breathing – in and out (Richard’s observations could not be more timely or relevant on this topic!). Breath is a bedrock archetype, for in its absence, nothing else is possible – there is no progress, no comfort, no prosperity, no self-actualization if we are not able to perform this simple act common to all humans, all animals (even those with gills in place of lungs), and even plants (which take in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen).

The best way for me to process this most recent crisis followed the same prescription as with Covid and the widespread protests in June: just sit and follow my breath: in and out, deep and slow, riding it into a meditative state. We could call that a spiritual prescription.

That also suggests what is missing on the collective level: whether the polluting and profaning of the planet, the racial divide, and even the failure, at least in the United States, to mount a cohesive national response to the pandemic, all strike me as symptoms of a widespread spiritual crisis.

Mother Nature is doing her best to get our attention. As you point out, Mary Ann, we have ignored her warnings for so long – so she’s turned to harsher methods. If we continue to ignore the obvious, I can’t begin to imagine what comes next . . .