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Ian Hunt

Crying On the Merced



I cried on the banks of the Merced River, and the water kept on flowing.


I didn’t know if I wanted something from the water or not. Maybe I wanted it to mask the sounds of my sobbing. Yosemite Valley was pretty full that day, and, while I knew hikers were staring at the 24-year-old bearded guy crying just a few steps off trail, maybe they didn’t have to hear. That wasn’t it, though. I thought, knowing me, I wanted a more poetic comfort. Maybe the water could wash it away, remind me of impermanence, remind me that a big rock dropping in a river did make a violent splash, but the water would wash over it anyway. I wasn’t getting that poetic resolution yet, so I kept crying.


I wasn’t fired, necessarily, but I was told I couldn’t work. An atmospheric river had hit California, and it had been raining for so long. All our work sites were flooded. I worked in a company that focused on water conservation: we installed rain tanks, greywater systems, planted native + drought tolerant landscapes, dug swales, that sort of thing. Essentially, any kind of holistic land management you could do in the drought-ridden Sierras counted as conserving water. Ironic, now that all our worksites were now so inundated with water that we had to halt our operations.


The company had to prioritize those who had mortgages and children. Fair. I was essentially told that I could sit for two months and resume work (hopefully) by then, while the little work we had now went to employees with more dependents, or I could figure out my own path. I couldn’t pay rent or feed myself with no income for two months. I knew I would have to quit, but I didn’t want to know it yet.


My butt was getting cold, the torn Carhartts I was wearing finally got soaked with the snow I was perched on, but I didn’t move. I needed the water flowing over rocks in front of me, the ponderosa pines around me. I needed them to be here while I processed this. I loved my job. Every day after work, I went go to bed that night thinking the world was a little bit better off. The saplings I planted were sequestering a little more carbon, and providing a bit of habitat for critters. I was working to help the climate, but the very thing I was trying to help was pushing me out of work. Variable weather is known to be a result of high amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.(On a note of accuracy, while there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Atmospheric Rivers are exacerbated and even caused by climate change, science has not yet officially proven a direct relationship between climate change and atmospheric rivers.)


I got the call that morning, and my first thought was to drive the two hours it took to get to Yosemite. Hunkered in the Valley, surrounded by glorious rock formations and Bay Area tourists, I felt completely ungrounded. Why had I come there? It wasn’t a great day to be in the park. Ice covered the trails, making hiking a slow and arduous process. It was cold and overcast. The park wasn’t welcoming.


Why had I come there? I don’t think things out, I talk things out. I needed to call my friends and get sounding boards so I could talk out my options. Sitting and sobbing wasn’t my usual M.O.


So why had I come there? I wiped tears off my face before they could get too cold and start to hurt. Some of my tears fell into the snow, leaving indents. There was a twig sticking out from the snow between my feet, and it was resting on my boot like a little hand patting me. There there. 


I had come here because I needed a mom.


Not in a direct-relationship-to-mother-nature sense. And not in a personal sense: my actual mom was just a phone call and a few time zones away. I needed to be held. Not by arms or blankets, but by cold tree roots. I wanted the rush of the river to enter my head through my ears and surround my brain, hold it, soothe it, let it scream out. I wanted the woods to let me throw a tantrum and feel small. That’s why I was there. I got to throw a tantrum. I felt small.


Climate change is affecting jobs in all sorts of ways. Jobs that take place outdoors, like mine, are impacted first: agriculture, land management, construction, tourism; disruptions from the negative effects of climate change, like unstable temperatures and weather extremes, are only going to become more common. Those jobs being disturbed affects the jobs that they supply goods for, or build things for – jobs that rely on resource input are going to have a harder time getting them. And the strain is going to work its way up the supply chain. I got lucky this time, I moved back home, got a job doing habitat restoration in Kentucky, and moved on. But what about next time? As negative impacts affect our daily lives more and more, when is my next job going to falter? Will I be lucky enough to get to move on? What about others? If those who are boots-on-the-ground working to right what’s wrong are tossed aside when disaster strikes, how will we solve anything then?


Next time, will the ponderosas that comforted me still be standing? Will the river still be flowing?


I don’t know what the future of labor in the face of the climate crisis looks like. But right then, I felt lucky to sit on the snow, next to the river, under the trees, beneath the clouds. I felt lucky they were there for me. After three hours on the riverbank, I finally picked up my phone and called the people I needed to call. But I needed that time with the other-than-human first. And I want to work to make sure that others will get that time, too.




















Photo of the Merced River taken by the author, after he was too dehydrated to keep crying. 2023


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