Heading out to Alberta a few weeks ago, I worried about being downwind from smoke from their wildfires. Several years ago I’d been in Yellowknife during their fire season–the stage where aroma-of-campfire had morphed into stink-of-cold-ashtray–and I didn’t need to do that again. As it turned out, Alberta was not what I should have worried about.

Ottawa started this week with an Air Quality Health Index of 10+, which translates to Very High Risk.

As a side note, if called upon to name a scale where “higher” means “worse”, I would not give it a misleadingly cheery name. Perhaps we could rename this scale to something more intuitively obvious: something like Air Awfulness Index.

A CBC Radio report at 6AM on Monday said we had a reading of 126 (on that self-same scale of 1 to 10, go figure), which gave us air as bad as in Beijing.

From worse to better, through the day

Later that day, New York City did us one better: Choking on what was, effectively, the same smoke from fires in Northern Quebec, they reported the worst air quality of all major cities.

Blame Canada

That was one headline, and the tone of a fair amount of commentary.

As a side note, I propose a trade. We’ll take back our smoke, if you take back your guns smuggled into Canada.

And you know, I get it. One of life’s more-distressing realizations is that I am downwind of something unpleasant over which I have no control: When I realize that someone else’s bad action or inaction is causing me trouble. Blaming that someone else is an understandable human reaction.

And yet, this is life, isn’t it? Like everyone, I am downwind of the grand events of history. I live in a country whose geography, weather, and defensibility are driven by the current placement of the planet’s tectonic plates. I am marked by migration events that happened long before there even were countries.

I am downwind of the comparatively small actions of my own forebears. Of multiple decisions that re-positioned the various members of my line from the Old World to the New and from there to the frontier. Of a single decision not to enlist to fight in WWI, but to seek an exemption to farm. Heck, I am downstream of all of their genes, which nobody chose and yet which strongly affect my capabilities and my health every day.

I am downwind of my own past actions related to education and work. If my younger self had a choice at the time, I am not so fortunate: I must now play the hand I dealt myself.

Finally, I am downwind of the seemingly inconsequential events in other people’s lives that send them out into their day–and mine!–primed to be helpful and cheery, or not.

As bad as all that is, it’s more distressing to realize that I am upwind of someone having trouble, and that I contributed to it by bad action or inaction. And this, too, is life.

I am buffeted by, and contribute to, a continuous flow of everything from grand winds to gentle breezes. When I’m tempted to feel aggrieved about the literal or metaphorical stink-of-cold-ashtray that is delivered to me by those air currents, maybe I’d do better to focus my energy on what I’m passing on.


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18 Responses to Downwind

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Great thoughts, Isabel.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I don’t like the smoke, but I really like your analogy of being downwind or upwind from events. I recall getting a tour of Sudbury, where we were shown the field where Inco used to smelt nickel ore in open-air fires. The management’s homes were all upwind of the fumes; the workers’ homes were downwind.

    But as you say, we are all downwind of our own pasts. We made decisions; now we live with the fallout.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – That Sudbury story is telling, isn’t it? Some of us are more downwind than others. Being upwind is, often, a type of privilege. I remember someone suggesting that cities be required to take-in their own water downstream of where they discharged their effluent. That would get things cleaned up in a hurry…

  3. Lorna says:

    Well done Isabel! Beautifully put.

  4. Barbara Carlson says:

    A beautifully thought-out essay. One of your very best. Often, on so little does our actual existence and so much else depend. Our fathers survived a war to begin with. Our generation has ridden the wave… So lucky.

    John and I were just talking about this today: so many inventions came along exactly when we needed them — Chargex (now VISA), Microhydrin, a brilliant surgical advancement, computers, water-soluble oil paints, ability to buy the adjacent condo… on and on. We often count our blessings which dove-tailed just in the nick of time.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Many thanks. Even though we ourselves and our lives aren’t perfect, we *are* lucky in countless ways. Being aware of that is a good place to start and end every day.

  5. Judith Umbach says:

    I do like your extended metaphor of being downwind and upwind of so many events in our lives and indeed our lives themselves. Something good to think about as we make decisions.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – 🙂 Yes – what do we want to pass on to the next iteration of ourselves? I’m still waiting to receive a better level of fitness from the me of 5 years ago!

  6. Ralph Gibson says:

    Yes, I too think this essay is wonderful in content & presentation, and an important reminder. Well done.

  7. The bar graph of Ottawa air quality sports a different colour code from what the Weather Network was feeding us all week. We remained for almost six days in the triangle of “hot pink” at the centre of the congregate smoke plume, apex at Bancroft and base running between Cobourg and Kingston. The sun was not visible for three of those days. At length, I bought five furnace filters and followed the online directions for constructing an air filter, which helped. Even with windows and doors closed and staying indoors with only occasional trips to the village, I had to drastically reduce my perpetual activity. The younger people around were less affected than we seniors, of course. I was unhappy to discover that my breathing exercises were not designed for times such as these. Then, our woes were put into perspective by the account of a woman from India who has spent years at a time in that sort of air pollution. Everything you write about being upwind or downwind historically and presently rings true. We have been newly warned.

  8. Isabel Gibson says:

    Laurna – That sounds awful – I’m glad it’s cleared up, at least for now. I can’t imagine having that be the normal state of affairs for years at a time. I always figured that smog was driven by industrial pollution and of course that’s true. The realization that it can be as much a function of forest fires and wildfires–and the whims of the prevailing winds–is profoundly disturbing.

  9. Alison says:

    Great essay – and thoughts to ponder. Your timing was good in Alberta – we once again have smoke, and still no rain. As a advocate for air quality regarding the aerosol transmission of COVID I have to admit I see it as ironic that folks accept the need for air purifiers for smoke – but not as much to mitigate the spread of COVID. Perhaps if you could smell viruses?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – LOL – yes, we should try that: stinky viruses. I fear that we’re not good at dealing with things we can’t see, or hear, or smell.

  10. Mary Gibson says:

    Can’t really improve on Ralph’s comments, so I’ll just say…very good!

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