That's not a cloud. It's smoke from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness near Glenwood, N.M., May 2012. Wildfires, once rare, have become annual events in much of the West.

It is early December, in the year of the Winter Heat Wave 2012. There have been day after day of temperatures into the 60s. The sun-filled, passive solar house is heating to the mid-70s every day, and the adobe walls radiate back their heat into the evening. We make small fires at night, not because we need the extra heat but to light up the nights that are dark and long.

The mountains are bare – bare as in snowless all the way to the tops. Down here in the valley at 7,500 hundred feet, the ground is still not frozen. Confused plants aren’t sure if they are supposed to send out new leaves or die.

I don’t recognize my very familiar gardens despite our having lived and grown together for 36 years. It is so warm I still need to water the arugula and fall planted crops, at least those within reach of the well. These plants should have begun their winter rest in damp, frozen ground months ago. In the best of winters they would already to have lain under snow for at least a month, the snow providing insulation as well as wetness.

The pasture was reseeded in early fall. We felt so lucky to have planted in time to catch a great rainstorm, one that lasted for several days. These rains gave us hope. We even let ourselves start to imagine the acres of tall mixed grasses and flowers waving in next summer’s sun, the elk and horses relishing this lovely food.

But then this turned into the year of the Winter Heat Wave. It is so dry as to be frightening. Walking out on that newly planted pasture, the grasses brought on by the rains have shrunk. When I walk across the established fields the grasses are so crisp they snap loudly underfoot.

Stepping off my place into the neighborhood, things aren’t much better. The thousands of people employed in or benefitting from the ski economy here in El Norte are all nervous. What if some of the ski areas don’t even open this year? Many families will be hurt without winter employment. 

It seems so strange that government is far removed from us, the people living away from cities but close to the land. Whether caused by human machinery or something else, my little patch of mother earth is in a world of hurt. No snow will also mean fires a few months from now, when the spring winds start to blow. Looking out across the mountains, I see a new landscape in every direction: huge naked burns and recovering burns on all sides. Once rare events, fires have become a yearly threat. 

They should close Congress for a while and make the elected so-called “representatives” practice a little deep ecology. The real cliff the country is about to fall over is not a fiscal one, of accounting and media talking points, it’s the social and ecological cliff the country is clinging to, barely holding on.

Pass a continuing resolution and go outside. Go to your assigned learning site: there are so many waiting for the notice of our “leaders.” Help with Hurricane Sandy clean-up in a way that gets you dirty, wade through the toxic fumes in the shale oil fields, walk through both the flooded and drought-stricken fields of America. Look at the land and the people up-close. Sleep a night in a super-max prison. Attend an inner city school for a week. Eat only the food you can buy on a food stamp budget, live on social security for a month. Spend time one-on-one listening to vets so you hear what is leading them towards suicide is such large numbers, the terrible things they saw and did. Never sleep at home. Reap what you have sowed.

And then get back to work, all the work there is to do, to a rebuild a collapsing nation.

Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy: the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.

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