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THE CLIMATE PARABLES  | FICTION

Solastalgia Meets the Alps

My job takes me to faraway places. My daughter calls it witnessing the death of the Earth. She is wrong. I’m recording a fight to maintain hope, to forge a good future despite the choices our mothers and fathers made. If only I can find a way to share the hope I find with her.

By Brenda Cooper

The Climate Parables series engages the powerful imaginative forces of science fiction to explore what it’s like to live in a future in which humans have discovered creative ways to mitigate climate change—and live well. Learn more here >

July 26, 2053, 10am Seattle. “Good morning, Mom.” Lia mumbles this, sprawled across the kitchen bench in a boneless pose. She gazes at her feet. “Where are you going this time?”

I keep my voice light. “To where the air is thin and clear, and water runs uphill.”

Her face turns to me, sadness making her look older than her 22 years. “Are you reading science fiction again?” She shuts her eyes, thinking. “Uphill? No pollution? Underground?” Then she’s certain. “You’re going underground.” Her eyes open, wide and blue. The dregs of yesterday’s mascara stain her cheeks. “To look at empty aquifers?”

“There are as many aquifers with too much water in them as there are without enough,” I respond, automatically countering her overstatement. “Switzerland.”

Lia stands up, taller than me by almost a foot and yet thinner, her height a gift of her long-dead dad. “You love your safe geography.” Her tone makes the words sharp little darts meant to shred hope. She hates hope. Before I can reply, she stumbles toward our shared bathroom, clutching her tea to her chest like a lifeline.

“Remember to feed the cat,” I say, then, “I’ll call.” I call often when I travel. We have each other, and Buster, the orange tabby. I have my job. There’s not much else, not yet. We moved from Cleveland three months ago, and I’ve been gone two of the three months. Neither Lia nor I know anyone in Seattle. Not well, anyway.

She leaves the door open and calls down the narrow hallway. “What time zone?”

“Central European. I’ll be nine hours before you.”

“So, call in your morning.”

“Yes, your highness.” I am laughing. That’s how we get through our days. She laughs to hide fear and bitterness. I laugh to conceal how much I fret about her, and for her. I hate leaving. But I am a climate reporter and a futurist, and my job keeps me sane. It helps me give people hope, feel like I’m adding more than I’m taking from the world. The young and depressed, like Lia, are hard to reach. If only I had help with her. If wishes were stars.

I drain my coffee cup—tea doesn’t do it for me—strap on a face filter, pick up my suitcase and backpack, and step out into the toxic air of Seattle’s wildfire season. A month of skies the hue of sockeye salmon has me second-guessing our decision to move here.

Eighteen hours later, I land in Geneva and suck in a lungful of clear air. Here I am, ready to witness to the world. The client (I have many; this one a power company) will use what I see to plan investments and tell big stories—or small fictions.

My hotel room is hot, the thermostat locked by the front desk. Opening the window doesn’t help. The rich, Swiss coffee has barely hit my blood as I brace myself and tap my phone. Lia answers my call with a flat “Hello, Mom.” She’s outside; I hear wind and the buzz of a crowd. Lia’s camera points away from her, streetlights illuminating the sienna fog of wildfire haze.

“Hi, Sweetie. Here’s Geneva.” I turn my head so that the camera in my glasses takes in the busy street five stories below, the sharp-angled red-roofed buildings, a sliver of blue Lake Geneva. “I’m only here for a day, so this is our chance to see it.” Then I switch to the phone camera and show my sleepy face, hoping she’ll do the same.

She doesn’t.

“Are you okay?”

“Sure.”

So, no. I swallow guilt. She’s a young adult. She’ll starve if I stay home and do nothing. Besides, who knows whether my staying home would help her broken soul? She has been depressed since puberty. So have many of her friends. Her generation seems to split between angry activists and children who can’t hold up the weight of the world they inherited. “Geneva is one of the cleanest cities in Europe.”

Lia pans her phone over to a trash can overflowing with food wrappers and compostable cups.

I wince but keep my voice cheerful. “I’m going to see a giant water battery and a restored glacier.”

“Will you also tour the damage from the floods last summer?”

She’s been doing her research. I wonder if 22-year-old women in Geneva are as depressed as my daughter. They call it solastalgia. Grief over the state of the world, the climate, the loss of species, the plastic pollution. All the hard problems. She hates it when I offer her hope, looks at me as if I were lying to her. I’m running out of ideas.

As if my unvoiced thought has sparked some curiosity, she asks, “What’s a water battery?”

“You know how hydropower works, right? Flowing water spins turbines, which then generate electricity, like the brakes in our EV.”

“Mmmmmm….” She says, her camera still focused on the trash. A symbol of the hell she thinks the world has gone to?

I ignore the view she’s given me. “OK, well during windy, sunny weeks the grid gets too much power, but during dark, still months there’s often too little, right?”

“I did graduate high school.”

I smile, hoping Lia can see my face even if I can’t see hers. “ At Nant de Drance, they’ve hollowed out the heart of one of the Alps and dug tunnels that connect the cavern to a high Alpine reservoir and to a big lake down in the valley. When there’s excess energy, pumps inside the mountain lift water from the lake up to the reservoir. Then the next time the grid is short of energy, they release water from the Alpine dam, and it falls back down to the lake, spinning turbines and making power along the way.”

She’s quiet. I take a breath and ask, “See? Like a battery—but as powerful as a big nuclear plant. And it doesn’t need anything precious dug out of the ground. No strip mining. No exploitation.”

 

 We direct water’s path. Where it goes, she gestures toward the steep, grassy slope just above us. We are able to maintain some of what we had. Not everything.

Top: Huge white tarpaulins help protect the Presena glacier from melting during summer in the Italian Alps ©AFP; Bottom: Ice stupas, a form of artificial water storage in the Himalayas. © The Ice Stupa Project

“Okay, you win.” I hear a faint smile in her voice. Her camera flips back to the smoke hanging over Puget Sound. “Got any ideas to clean up the air?”

“From wildfire smoke? Quit starting fires.” I know my response is flippant, but she laughs, finally. Not a single comment on the Swiss scheme to help stabilize their grid.

Then again, it’s not exactly news. My client is looking into building a water battery in and on Mount Rainier. With snowpack dwindling, they can charge farmers and cities premium prices for summer water releases. Seasonal water arbitrage, as industry analysts call it, is now the fastest growing profit center for utilities that serve mountain states.

“Look, Mom,” Lia mutters, the laugh gone. “I’ve got to go. There’s a show at the Neptune starting in a few minutes.”

She loves live music. I need to meet my minder for the day, anyway. Here in Geneva, it will be all business and putting a good face on everything. Tomorrow, the Mont-Blanc express to Canton Valais and the Alps. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Her screen is already dark.

Worry weakens my knees, and I sink into the soft, gray chair by the window. Our children have been infected with our fears.  My mother worked for a plastics company. I may have inherited her guilt, and then passed it on. I take a deep breath and stand, reminding myself that I can bear this, and even if hope isn’t inherited, it can grow and spread. Even to Lia. Most importantly, to Lia.

My driver calls up the hallway. “Doctor Bear? Dr. Pauline Bear?”

“Coming.” I call out. 

Lia’s call four days later is so early it startles me. I’m out of bed, coffee brewing, running warm wash water. My heart beats a worry-tone. “Are you okay?”

“There’s a storm coming.” Her voice sounds tight, strained.

I turn the water off and sit down. Her camera displays a screen with a red warning ribbon and white words I can’t read. “What kind?”

“A windstorm. In fire season. I don’t how I’ll breathe.”

I make sure my camera points at me, shows me smiling reassurance. “We have air filters.”

Her voice quavers. “I can’t stand breathing dead trees.”

I feel a stab of guilt for being in the still-beautiful Alps while she is there. Seattle is doing well compared to places like India and Mexico. But July through October keep getting hotter and drier and browner. Dying trees are tinder. There is nothing good to say about the trees. “I saw the Nant de Drance plant yesterday. It’s impressive.”

“I got your pictures. Didn’t the tram frighten you?”

“No. It was steep, but there were ibex, standing on a sheer cliff. Exotic and magnificent. I missed getting them with my camera, sorry.”  I take a breath, seeing the ibex again.

“And the scale of the plant… really amazing. The two tunnels span 17 kilometers and are wide enough to hold a highway. The cavern for the turbines is as long as a football stadium—”

“Mom!” Lia cuts me off. “Good for the Swiss.  But there arean’t enough mountains to water the whole world, and it’s hot and miserable here.”

“We have mountains. Rainier and Baker, Adams. I’m going up into the Alps with an ice engineer who restores glaciers. Floka Lagman. We’re starting on her farm. I may not be able to call. We’ll see.”

“I can’t breathe, Mom.”

Damn it. “You can, sweetheart. Just don’t panic. Go find someone to help. Take some air filters to the homeless shelter.”

Her camera turns off. I can hear her breathe, in and out. In and out. A little fast but not panting. She isn’t having a panic attack—not yet. I close my eyes and repeat myself. “Go help someone.”

If I were her, I would detest me. But what else can I do? I can’t join her despair, or even feed it. “I’ll call you when I can. Tell you about Floka then. I hear she has dogs.” Lia loves dogs. “I’ll send you a video of her border collies. And the mountains. I hear everything is in bloom.”

“Okay. I’m going back to breathing dead trees.”

“Pray for them.”

Laughter, finally. “I will.”

I laugh with her, bitter and sweet and just a little desperate. But we laugh. 

Outside my tent, cross-legged on a flat boulder, the air smells of water, grass, and damp rocks. I can’t remember the last time I shivered. It’s cold in August.

Lia answers on the first ring, maybe the first half-ring. “Hello.”

Just hearing her voice makes me smile. “Hi. How’s your air?”

“Better. The windstorm. Remember? Yours?”

“So clear I can see peaks in France.” I angle my camera toward the black-faced sheep in the high meadow near me, and the collie, which is nothing more than a still, dark head with one white ear peeking up above the grass.

“Oh! That’s so pretty.“

“It is.” I have to admit this pasture in front of me—alpage, Floka calls it—so steeply sloped and utterly green, punctuated with yellow buttercups and pink Himalayan balsam, is even prettier than the Olympic mountains near Seattle. I want to hold on to this place, this moment, carry it with me like a shield. If only Lia were here, could see and feel and smell this…

“Tell me about your day?” Lia asks.

I heave a deep sigh, trying to think of how to start. “Right now, we’re on a common grazing area that’s way up at 6,200 feet, but early this morning, we took a helicopter up to 9,000 feet, where they make temporary glaciers.”

“Doesn’t it take millennia to make glaciers? Or at least decades?”

“Yes.” I stand up, stretch, pan the camera across the wild hay fields sloping above us. “We landed near a crevasse about a third of the way up. Floka introduced me to the Minister of Climate, a Dr. Rutger, who has been working on saving and growing glaciers for years. He’s famous. Ancient, too. He was here in the twenties when the Himalayan monks came to show them their techniques for building ice stupasartificial ice hills they make in India.

In front of me, the dog, Tess, circles and stops 10 meters closer to me, tucking two sheep back into the fold.

“Himalayan Monks?” Her voice is almost drowned out by the sheep.

“They helped Dr. Rutger learn what parts of the glaciers to cover. You can’t cover the whole thing, you know.”

“I thought Floka makes glaciers.”

“More like conserves them? They spread tarps that reflect the sun away. They kind of look like emergency blankets—remember the ones we used last winter? When the windstorm blew the power out?”

“I used them day before yesterday.”

“Oh.” I should have asked about the windstorm. “Well, it’s very cold up there and we have to wear special gloves and shoes with spikes that stick to ice. There are places you can walk under the cover and see the new ice and the old ice.”

“How do you tell which is which?”

“The new ice is clean. The artificial sleet builds up the ice in cold pockets—ravines and remnant glaciers and shaded spots below bluffs. Then the covers help them stay colder so that ice doesn’t start melting until most of the snowpack is gone.”

“What happens downstream? To the plants and animals that don’t get the water?”

I sigh. Lia, always looking for the sour apple. “Look around here. It’s green because they’ve done this right above us. Some of the ice I walked on yesterday is only a year old. Meltwater streams last until late summer, like they did before the mountains got so warm. Without the extra months of water, these meadows would die.”

“So, who suffers?”

I try not to sound offended. “Who says anyone suffers?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the great searcher after truth?”

“Maybe the truth is that something works.” I don’t like my tone of voice. She is getting to me, the way only kids can get to parents.

“Prove it.”

I’m tempted to just hang up on her. But even when she’s hard to love, I love her. So instead of hanging up or saying the wrong thing, I make my voice deliberately light. “I’ll call you back.”

It takes me half an hour to find Floka on the alpage. A few hundred feet of elevation above the tents, she is walking through summer-dry grass still green-gold at the bottom, tangled with flowers. Black-necked and red goats surround her, grazing, hemmed in by three guard dogs. One of her granddaughters, a girl of maybe seven, is with Floka’s six-foot tall grandson. They glance at me as I approach but quickly return their focus to the goats.

I’m a little in awe of Floka, who looks like a blonde supermodel in braids. She is strong enough to climb mountains all day, sweet enough to be loved by goats and grandchildren, and a successful scientist. I come up behind her and clear my throat, “Will you help me?”

Maybe she hears the desperation I’m trying to hide. She cocks her head, as if listening to the soft, cool wind. Then she and the grandson exchange glances. She shrugs. “Sure. I was going to come down to you at lunch anyway.”

She sounds philosophical rather than frustrated, and I start to tell her about Lia. “My daughter is angry. She’s trying to find the parts that don’t work, the reasons we can’t possibly win.”

Floka smiles. “We will all die.”

This answer shocks me into a stumble. I scramble down the steep slope and slide 15 feet, and almost a lot more. Floka puts a hand up and laughs, loud and sweet. “I wasn’t suggesting you die today.”

“No!” I laugh, too, as I struggle up. We go more slowly the rest of the way, Floka herding me as if I were one of her sheep, and we talk of cutting the highest, steepest hay. She ends on a positive note. “Winter is sometimes worse now. Storms and floods. But it’s shorter. So, we don’t need to store as much hay.”

Floka steps inside a warming hut on the slope. “Let’s stop here and talk to your daughter. It’s out of the wind.”

“Thank you.” Relief that she will help makes my knees weak.

“I have a son who refused to have any children because he thinks we are killing the planet.”

I feel a sudden kinship with her, relief that I am not alone, and the sadness for her, for me, for our children.  I breathe the feeling away.

Inside, the weathered wood hut, we rest on a stone bench next to a shelf of dust-covered jars. It’s almost 11:30 p.m. in Seattle. Nevertheless, Lia picks up right away and shows her face. She has combed her hair. The cat is snuggled on her lap.

We do introductions. When I ask Floka to tell her story, she has an elevator version ready. “My mother left a business career to farm, and I left the farm to become a scientist. I took a month off every year to help with the herding.” She smiles. “And to escape stress. Now two of my children run the farm, and I oversee the glacier work from here. I visit each project once a month, whenever weather allows flight.” She pauses a second, waiting for Lia to ask a question, and then continues when she doesn’t. “We make snow starting in late October, or as soon as it gets cold enough. Our robots pack it down through the early winter. I feed the goats during the worst months. In spring, robots help us blanket the lowest parts of the snow fields. When there is too much rain, we pump excess water up to the reservoir and high lakes during the day. Then at night, we spray very cold water from those stores onto the ice, and it freezes. So now the high places we graze in summer get watered.”

Lia’s brows are drawn together. “So, you do all this to water your farm?”

“No.” Floka shakes her head and takes a deep breath. “The alpage is commons. We chose glaciers based on how easy they are to make snow for, or to cover.” Her smile shows fine wrinkles I hadn’t noticed from a distance. “Even the Swiss cannot climb every mountain with machines. We also chose places near people who need water. In two cases, we moved people to the right places.”

To my secret relief, Lia is polite as she asks, “What does all that engineering do to the environment?” 

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Floka smiles. It is a question she has heard before. “We direct water’s path. Where it goes,” she gestures toward the steep, grassy slope just above us. I make sure Lia can see it well. “We are able to maintain some of what we had. Not everything. There is heat and fire to contend with. But trees and people and animals can all drink, and that is necessary for life. But we also cost some places below the glaciers some water. They would have lost it anyway, but maybe not for decades. Those are drier now, and some are dying.” She glances down, frowns briefly, and returns a calm gaze to the screen. “We are being good engineers, Lia, but even when the only engineer was nature, there was death. Water is life and death more than anything else.”

Lia. “Death by lack of?”

Floka purses her lips, takes another deep breath. “Last year, overhanging ice on two glaciers broke off and fell into snow fields, triggering avalanches. One of the avalanches destroyed a farm. Another one killed a group of schoolchildren hiking on the French side of this mountain range.”

Lia does not look as shocked as I feel, but she has an edge in her voice. “Were you engineering those glaciers?”

Ouch. I watch Floka’s face. Her jaw has tightened, but her expression remains pleasant, her voice even. “One of them. Not my project, but it could have been. I oversaw the investigation. There were small mistakes made.”

Lia scratches the cat, who stretches languidly in response. “So, why do you do it? Pretend to be a god?”

“We had the power to create this, even if it was being accidental gods. Bad gods.” She glances down at the sheep and dog below us. “We did this, and my sheep cannot undo it.”

We all fall silent for a moment. Above us, a vulture circles high over something. It makes me shiver, although it is also beautiful. I watch it to avoid looking at the screen or staring too hard at Floka’s face. Will this help?

Lia asks, “How do you know you aren’t making it worse?”

“Because people I serve can drink water. And we had twenty-seven lambs this year.” Floka turns to face me, a question in her gaze.

I hesitate, then nod. I can’t speak right now. I’m sure I’d say the wrong thing. I make a go-on gesture with my fingers, and Floka asks Lia, “What is your purpose? What higher objective do you serve?”

There is a long silence, and I think maybe something damp glistens on my daughter’s round cheeks. She keeps her gaze on Floka. “My mom serves truth. Maybe I should start with that.”

“What would that mean?”

More silence. “Maybe it’s not all bad.”

“Maybe not,” Floka says.

I close my eyes to hide sudden tears, let my breath out in a long, silent sigh. And then the conversation moves on to smoke in Seattle, and I learn that Lia can see stars for the first time in a week.

_______________

Brenda Cooper writes science fiction, fantasy, and the occasional poem. She also works in technology and writes and talks about the future. She has won multiple regional writing awards and her stories have often appeared in Year’s Best anthologies. Brenda lives and works in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and multiple border collies, and can sometimes be found biking around Seattle.

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