A rainy day seems as good a time as any to finish off this blog post that I started a couple of weeks ago after visiting Fort McMurray for the first time since the devastating wildfire of May 2016.
I grew up in the boreal forest, and past trips to Fort McMurray often reminded me of the place I used to call home. In “my” boreal forest, however, I never had cause to learn that trees don’t all burn to the ground in a fire. In Fort McMurray, I was shocked out of my ignorance to realize that whole sections of forest can remain standing…but dead. Trunks that took decades to grow can remain – with no branches, no greenery.
And yet, I ended up talking about greenery quite a lot with my colleagues. On our drive into town from the airport, there was a comment about how much greener the undergrowth is this summer than it was last year. Later that same day, we participated in a consultation session where the greenery became a metaphor for parts of Fort McMurray’s civic and social wellness that are (or aren’t) coming back to life, as people strive to address their trauma.
In between meetings, we heard so many stories about how the region continues to work at recovery. So many of these stories were full of sadness, struggle, and systemic challenges (on the latter, this visit did nothing to improve my faith in insurance companies). We also heard so much honesty, and were told – for example – about peoples’ increased willingness to talk about mental health challenges.
There are obvious issues with an increased number of deaths by suicide, increased domestic violence, and ongoing economic struggles. But a less obvious worry, for me, is whether the people working in the social sector can continue to focus on solutions as they grow increasingly tired from their day-in-day-out attempts to carry the region past tragedy.
I wondered aloud at one point if it would be a nice distraction to hold a different kind of job – maybe one where you can talk about valves, trucks, or gadgets all day long. If you spend your work and personal life, 24/7, talking about the dead trees (literally or metaphorically), is it harder to see the green undergrowth that’s emerging? Maybe on some days. But based on the continued work of the people I met, they mostly appear to continue looking for possibilities – and they take time to share the bright spots with their colleagues and community members.
Around the same time as my visit to Fort McMurray, I heard a TED Talk by a cancer survivor, and her speech seems relevant here. At one point, she shares, “You can be held hostage by the worst thing that’s ever happened to you and allow it to hijack your remaining days, or you can find a way forward. I knew I needed to make some kind of change. I wanted to be in motion again – to figure out how to unstuck myself and figure out how to get back out into the world.”
I would never wish cancer or a fire on anyone. I would also never presume to say there is some kind of “silver lining” for people in Fort McMurray – that’s insensitive, and also wrong.
But I am taken by the evidence I saw there (and am now using the TED speaker’s words to describe) of the “incredible tenacity of the human spirit and our ability to adapt.”
As a new friend reminded me over coffee earlier this week, “there’s always something.” Sometimes, it’s a really big something, and sometimes it’s the smaller things. But as I heard in the TED talk and regularly see around me, every single one of us will have their life interrupted – repeatedly.
Perhaps it really is what we do with the interruptions, who we lean on, and how we keep going that matters. I’m not saying we need to successfully battle a terminal illness and then talk to a million people about it via the internet. Maybe it just means sharing a smile with someone on a gloomy day.
Maybe it just means taking a moment to imagine the green undergrowth that could, perhaps, follow a difficult situation.
Photo credit: usually, I use my own photos for the banners on this site. But this time, I copied a photo from a CBC news story on forest regrowth.