My mantra when we were building was, “It’s just a mountain cabin.” So, pretty much, it’s just a mountain cabin, but a beautiful welcoming home and I truly love it. The housing appraiser called it a “friendly little place” and my sister Phyllis says it reminds her of a dollhouse.
It’s a tiny charmer, built with love and by my family—the siblings and nieces and nephews who still live in Colorado all had a hand in it. My brother Ed and his son Matt built the main part: the exterior, a simple double-garage sized rectangle, 480-square-feet, with a green metal roof. The rest of us finished the interior and built the decks.
Our kitchen cabinets are antique cupboards from Pella, Iowa. The coffee table is a wooden icebox my dad made sometime in the 1950s. The heavy wood toolbox he used to lug tools all over Pueblo when he built his house sits along one wall. The bed is a walnut four-poster that Joe and I got from Goodwill when we were first married in 1970. If I did it again, I would have more windows, but those we do have bring in the Colorado sun and light up the place like a welcoming lantern.
We’re all off the grid, with solar power, propane gas, a composting toilet, a small wood heating stove, and well water. Our only utility is the phone line and that is erratic. Cell coverage is minimal because we’re in a mountain valley.
Our deck faces the meadow and the mountain, with the back of the cabin to the road. There’s little human activity on the road, although we often see signs of bear and deer and, once, a mountain lion, on it. The only people who ever use it are family, friends, or people who are lost, usually looking for the scout camp. We have to tell campers they can’t get there from here, that our road is a dead end and they have to turn around and drive another 45 minutes back and around, even though it’s only a mile away.
The climate emergency is exploding in various parts of the world this week, but climate silence inexcusably continues to rein in much of the United States media.
Hurricane Ida has left more than a million people in Louisiana without running water, electricity or air conditioning amid a heat index topping 100F. The Caldor fire destroyed hundreds of houses and forced mass evacuations around Lake Tahoe in California. Abroad, vast swaths of Siberia were ablaze while drought-parched Madagascar suffered what a United Nations official called the first famine caused entirely by climate change.
Painstaking scientific research has established that the climate crisis escalates these kinds of extreme weather. In other words, people can now watch the emergency unfold in real time on their TV and cellphone screens.
The problem is that most viewers won’t make that connection, because most stories don’t contain the words “climate change”. Six of the biggest commercial TV networks in the US – ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and MSNBC – ran 774 stories about Ida from 27 to 30 August, an analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters found. Only 34 of those stories, barely 4%, mentioned climate change.
My own survey of the coverage confirmed the trend. Viewers were shown powerful images – roofs torn off, block after block of houses submerged in floodwaters, first responders pulling weeping victims to safety. They heard plenty of numbers: Ida was a category 4 hurricane with wind speeds of 172 miles an hour and storm surges of 7ft to 11ft. But almost never were they told what was behind all this destruction.
It’s not as if making the climate connection is scientifically controversial or journalistically difficult, as a handful of exemplary stories demonstrated.
On NPR, the reporter Rebecca Hersher said that “climate change is basically super-charging this storm … As the Earth gets hotter because of climate change, the water on the surface of the ocean – it also gets hotter. So there’s more energy for storms like Ida to get really big and really powerful.”
On CBS This Morning, atop a graphic reading “Massive, fast-growing storms like Ida highlight climate crisis”, the meteorologist Jeff Berardelli pointed out that a hotter planet also means “you evaporate more moisture, the ground gets drier – we’re having the worst drought in 1,200 years in the west.”
In the Washington Post, the reporter Sarah Kaplan called Ida a “poster child for a climate change-driven disaster” and quoted the hurricane specialist Kerry Emmanuel of MIT saying: “This is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to get used to as the planet warms.”
This amounts to nothing less than media malpractice. Scientifically accurate reporting would not only link this extreme weather to the climate crisis, it would note that climate change is caused primarily by burning oil, gas and coal. ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies have been lying for 40 years about their products causing dangerous climate change. Responsible journalism should tell the truth about what’s driving these terrible storms, fires and famine.
Broadcast television’s failure is especially egregious in that it’s still the leading news source for most people. (About 45% of Americans get most of their news from television, while 18% rely primarily on social media, according to the Pew Research Center.) And it repeats the mistake TV news made while covering the extreme weather events of 2020. In the face of unprecedented fires in Australia and California (remember the orange skies over San Francisco?) and kindred calamities, only 0.4% of commercial TV stories mentioned the climate crisis, Media Matters found.
This kind of journalism leaves the public not just uninformed but misinformed. It gives the impression that these storms and fires are not only terrible (which, of course, is true) but also – to use a phrase that climate breakdown has made obsolete – they’re simply “natural” disasters.
They are not. Of course, hurricanes and wildfires were happening long before human-caused climate change emerged. The climate crisis, however, makes them significantly worse. As a Weather Channel segment on Ida explained, it’s not that “climate change caused the storm, but … that a warming world made Hurricane Ida more powerful”.
What’s odd is that plenty of journalists at big US news outlets know the climate crisis is an important story. And climate coverage had been improving. During the heatwave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in July, 38% of broadcast and cable news segments made the climate connection, Media Matters reported, as did about 30% of this summer’s wildfires coverage. So newsrooms have the ability to make the point when they choose to.
In two months, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for one of the most important diplomatic meetings in history. The Cop26 summit will go a long way toward deciding whether humanity preserves a livable climate on this planet. From now to the summit and beyond, journalism has got to do better.
This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story.
While memoirs are written from one person’s perspective, the lives of families and friends naturally become part of the telling. All those affected by the East Peak Fire share the story I tell in Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss. I am heartened, energized and, yes, relieved, that those whose lives I put into the book have responded with pleasure, thanks, and encouragement. Many readers have asked to see the family and friends who shared my story. So this is for you.
First, there’s Ed. The shot of him below is from 2012, when we hiked the West Spanish Peak, “our” mountain’s twin sister, the westernmost breast of the earth. (The prologue to the book explains that.)
The group shot of Gwyn, Ed, me, and Joe is from 2006.It shows the forest before it burned. I had just finished chemo for breast cancer, so the funky hat hides my bald head.
Dave, who warned us of the fire and gave us time to get out just before the flames came swooping down our ridge, took this wonderful selfie in front of the pond by his house. The East Peak and the top of the West Peak are in the background. Dave grew up in the house where he now lives, which his dad built. His mom, Ruth, lived there until her death in 2010.
Harlan and Pat stand in front of their berm house, with the peak in the background. They both grew up in Colorado, ran a successful business in Kansas, then moved here. Harlan is the man in charge of most things. First, he is the one who told firefighters our little settlement was up the road and, therefore, helped save it. He also arranged for us to have garbage pickup in normal, no-fire years, and has done seriously important work on our road.
The shot of Joe and I and our kids is one of my favorites. It was taken just after we had the boulder moved to the front of the cabin and before the three adorables entered our lives—Ellen’s husband Steve and their two sons.
The year after the fire, our grandsons visited and fished for tuna in our creek. Sadly, they were unsuccessful. Cute as the dickens, but no tuna.
And, finally, Ross, who was a regular companion on our walks, but who died before the book came out. Here’s he’s napping next to Ed and Gwyn’s guest cottage.
To order your copy of Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss, go to Amazon, Bookshop, or your local bookseller. Or get an autographed copy here.
I can see the pirate on the mountain from the window in front of my desk in the cabin. It’s a formation of trees and rocks that create a Johnny Depp sort of swashbuckler, with features defined by 50-foot ponderosa pines poking out of granite skin. He has a pert nose, neat beard, and a large, graceful hat; one eye squints and the other one is covered with a patch. —Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss.(Photo from 2012)
Now, most of the pirate’s eye and nose are gone, his beard a pale shadow, barely visible against the rock of the mountain. His eye patch, plume, and part of his hat have some life to them, the rest is burned away. We hadn’t been up to check on it, but we heard the miner’s shack was also gone.
We and other neighbors once used the pirate as a beacon—if we left the mountain, we could still see him, guiding us back. We now have a vague reminder of our swashbuckler on the mountain, but it’s a sad one, a sign of all the forest we have lost. And since 2013, the United States alone has lost more than 40 million acres to wildfires. While the West has always had forest fires, these new ones are beasts—increasingly larger and hotter, fueled by dry timber and insect-infested trees that are the result of the climate crisis. Now, as I write this, California, Oregon and Washington are burning with a historically destructive force, sending ash-polluted air across the country. What will be left after that conflagration? And will we get serious soon about slowing this devastation down?
If, like me, you see this land as God’s creation and recognize that we have a responsibility to protect it, check out Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based group that shows us how to be better stewards of the land God entrusted to our care.
Get Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss from your local bookstore, or on Amazon.
An honest and vulnerable meditation on the trauma of life in contemporary Colorado, put to the page with uncommon grace and insight. Prijatel is a compassionate guide in exploring that chaotic time. Most important, she offers hope for recovery and resilience.
Laura Pritchett, Author, Sky Bridge, winner of the WILLA Award
A tiny cabin in a remote Colorado mountain valley. Off the grid, built by hand by the family who lives there, in a land that’s silent, wild, and beautiful—until June 2013 and the East Peak Fire. The cabin survived, but the woodlands became a burn-scarred landscape of splintered trunks and blackened branches. This is the story of how author Patricia Prijatel and her family and neighbors escaped the fire. More important, it’s about what came after, as the ruin of the land and its people grew: flash floods on eroded land, invasive weeds crowding out grass and seedlings, hurricane-level winds breaking healthy trees, dangerous orphaned animals, toxic air, and stress leading to life-threatening diseases.
Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss (Clementine Press) is about a love of the land, of hope challenging despair, of grief, and resilience. With searing honesty, Prijatel chronicles life on her 35 acres of paradise and ties it to an unprecedented transition for America’s natural forests, the life they nurture, and the people witnessing their tragic loss. Her story serves as a love song, a warning, and a glimpse of the future as wildfires remake the places we’ve loved.
“An elegy and a wake-up call. Prijatel writes a deeply personal and wrenching story of loss that touches us all. Like fire, her memoir is a reckoning that urges us to examine our priorities and recognize our first allegiance is to the earth, our one true home.” Karen Auvinen, Author, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living
“A moving meditation on our connection to the land, and a potent wake up call to the devastating effects of climate change.” Tanja Pajevic, Author, The Secret Life of Grief, winner of Nautilus Silver Award
“An important story. Prijatel chronicles her personal journey of loss and climate grief that touches our collective experience. But it is also a story of healing, for as we face this crisis, we are challenged to discover a resilience within ourselves and in the generative power of nature.” Leslie Davenport, Author, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change
Patricia Prijatel is a journalism educator and writer whose goal is to help people make sense of things with hope and humor. Her last name is the Slovene word for friend. She’s the author of three books: Burn Scars, a Memoir of the Land and Its Loss (Clementine Press),Surviving Triple-Negative Breast Cancer (Oxford University Press), and The Magazine from Cover to Cover (Oxford University Press). She has written nearly a thousand articles for publications including Psychology Today, Better Homes and Gardens, Diabetic Living, Cure, and Print.
WE HAVE A WINNER! CHECK OUT THE PUBLISHED BOOK ON AMAZON.
Can you help me choose the best title and subtitle for my upcoming memoir on the aftermath of a wildfire? The titles are all illustrated below, but I am not married to any design or photograph at this point. To vote, just leave the number of your preference in the comments. I’d love to hear your rationale, if you care to share, but that’s not essential. I’m not asking about design yet, but that will come in the next step. If something especially trips your trigger here, though, let me know. Here’s background on the book; it also explains the meaning of “burn scars.”
Burn Scars. An Insider’s View of Climate Grief: After the wildfire came the floods, devastating winds, invasive plants, extreme heat, stressed animals, and anxious humans.
Burn Scars: After the Wildfire. Then came the floods, winds, weeds, cancer, loss of wildlife, fear stress, grief. And the bear.
Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and its Loss
Burn Scars: A Memoir of Land, Loss, and Grief
After the Forest Burns: The Wildfire Was Just the Beginning
To Heal Our Wounded Mountain. After the Fire Burns, (With review blurb on cover.)
Burn Scars: A Insider Look at Climate Grief. After the wildfire came the floods, winds, weeds, stressed animals, and anxious humans.
Burn Scars: An Insider’s View of Climate Grief. After the wildfire came the floods, winds, weeds, cancer, loss of wildlife, fear stress, grief. And the bear.
After the Forest Burns. An Insider’s View of Climate Grief
When you live in a mountain valley, you sometimes lose cell service in your cabin. What to do? Put your computer in a backpack and climb up to the top of a foothill to do your work by the outbuildings.
President Franklin Roosevelt called forests the “lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” Forests absorb potentially dangerous carbon dioxide while producing healthy oxygen. They trap dust, ash, pollen, and smoke, keeping them out of the air and our lungs. According to American Forests, a single tree can produce enough oxygen in one year to support two people, while absorbing 48 pounds of carbon dioxide and trapping ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other greenhouse gases.
On June 27, 2018, the Spring Fire in southern Colorado was started by a man grilling meat in an outdoor pit. Within two weeks, it had become the state’s second largest fire in history, burning more than 108,000 acres.
The fire was both a natural and an unnatural disaster. Wildfires have always been a fixture of the Colorado mountain landscape and, in many cases, have been important in cleaning and pruning a forest and improving its health.
But this is not a normal pattern. In the 25 years from 1950 to 1985, the United States had only nine historically significant wildfires—those that have destroyed large swaths of land or property. By contrast, we have had nine in just the past seven years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. We’ve gone from one every three years to an average of 1.2 a year—more than triple the incidence.
In 2017 alone, wildfires burned more than 9 million acres of America’s forests, and scientists are unequivocal about the connection between this unprecedented level of burning and climate change. “Human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984,” wrote John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho and Park Williams of Columbia University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)in 2016. Note that word: caused. He is not saying this is just a connection. Climate change causedby humans has doubled the area that has burned since 1984. Humans > climate change > forest fires.
In the face of all this, it’s human to feel powerless. But if we care about our planet, we’ll use what power we have—often. Here’s how.
Make your elected officials accountable. The biggest decision on land-use policies, adoption of alternative energies, and dependence on fossil fuels are made by city councils, state legislators, and the U.S. Congress and Senate. Contact your local, regional, and national representatives and let them know you see climate change as an essential issue that affects your family and community’s health and livelihood. Contact them regularly. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and engage them in conversation on this issue. Share related articles with them. Get this on their agenda.
One fact to keep in mind: 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that climate change is happening, and it is caused by humans.
I also belong to the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, the National Parks Foundation, and I support the Natural Resources Defense Council. There are hundreds of local and national nature and environmental organizations that will keep you connected and informed. Just Google it and find what fits.
Talk about it to friends.Climate change is a fact, not a theory, and we need not be hesitant to bring it up socially. According to a report by the Yale Program on Climate Change, 69 percent of respondents in the United States believe global warming is real, and 56 percent are worried about it. Butfewer than a third of those ever talk about it to family or friends. Why not? Often because nobody else is talking about it and we’re too polite to bring up the subject.
Here’s a troubling statistic that proves this point: climate change was virtually ignored in the presidential debates of 2016, with only five minutes and 27 seconds, or 2 percent of the total time, given to the topic, according to Media Matters. Not one climate-related question was asked by the moderators.
Change your consumption habits. Much of the stress on the planet comes from fossil fuels burned while producing and delivering foods and consumer goods.
Buy local, especially food. It will be fresher, healthier, and will taste better, plus it won’t have to take a train, airplane, semi, and delivery truck to get to you. And you’ll be supporting small producers who generally are more energy-conscious than larger conglomerates.
Challenge your need for every purchase.
Buy gently used. I have a fabulous resale shop in town where a woman my size sends her “old” clothes. I get to wear fabulous name brands I would not buy otherwise and they are in great shape.
Avoid disposables. Basically, stay away from any single-use product, especially water bottles.
Shop with reusable bags, use refillable drink cups, eliminate straws unless you are disabled or otherwise need them, avoid paper plates and, if you must have plastic for a picnic or camping, buy washable products. I bought a stainless-steel thermal drink cup with a stainless-steel straw and I have been using it for more than a year. It makes drinks taste better and keeps them cool forever, plus I get discounts when I refill it at the local convenience store.
Buy the largest container you can handle for shampoo, juice, milk, or other packaged products. If possible, find a store that offers refills.
Use soap rather than packaged bath gel. Consider soap shampoo—it’s actually pretty effective. Use a vinegar rinse in a reusable spray bottle for a conditioner. I do this, and I get many compliments on my hair.
Eat a plant-based diet. Plants use significantly less fossil fuels than meats. Especially try to cut down on beef, which not only requires as much as ten times the fuel as plant foods, but also comes from cows that give off methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to man-made climate change.
Beans, seeds, nuts, and cheese are excellent sources of protein. And, according to Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who did the math, “Giving up beef once a week in favor of beans, over the course of a year, is the equivalent of not burning 38 gallons of gas, or of trading in 12 incandescent bulbs for LED.”
Walk, bike, or use public transportation when you can. Limit your air travel. Buy fuel efficient cars, ideally hybrids. I admit to failing at this. I live in Iowa, have a cabin in Colorado, a daughter in Vermont and a son in Turkey, so I spend more time on the road and in airplanes than is environmentally healthy. I try to make up the difference elsewhere.
Support alternative energy.
Buy into an alternative energy plan with your utility company, if available.
If you’re replacing your stove, electric models are generally more environmentally sound than gas, especially if your local utility uses alternative energy.
Install solar panels for at least some of your energy needs; they are decreasing in price and becoming more easily available.
Recycle. If your community offers a regular pick-up service, as mine in Des Moines does, this is easy. If not, search out a recycling center. We have to do our own makeshift recycling at our remote Colorado cabin, which requires some serious organization because different nearby towns take different products and have different requirement.
Buy products that can be recycled or are made from recycled materials.
Compost. This is a natural way to recycle food products. You can buy handy bins online that do the work for you. My son Josh has one on his terrace in Istanbul.
Vote. Support candidates whose policies promote a healthy environment.
Hawks and other raptors eventually returned after the fire. This guy settled on a large scrub oak, with the grey and burned face of the East Spanish Peak in the background. The photo was taken in 2016, three years after the fire.