Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, October 9, 2017. 

One of the simplest and profound joys of every day is stepping outside in early morning to hike with my dog. I will call it overwhelming gratefulness because that is the best way to describe how perfect a dusty trail that separates meadows of dry, yellow grasses, climbs into a sky so blue it defies the very definition of the colour blue itself. It makes gratefulness for the smallest things even more of a daily concept I should heed before I do anything else.

During the times the park and all city parks for that matter were closed due to the increased fire danger, I missed heading out on the trails more than I expected I will. More than not being able to take the dog out to the closest-to-us off-leash area, was the loss of blue skies and clean air and the reality of having to wake up to another day of inhaling deleterious particles small enough to wreak havoc in the body, short- and long-term.

I remember the first day of smoky air when all I could think of was ‘this is a lot of campfire smoke’. It felt silly that my brain would attempt to reduce the gravity of the situation by bringing up an association to what is, for the most part, a fun and sweetly sentimental detail of life.

After a few days though, and then many weeks of milky-white air, my brain made the appropriate switch to match the reality of what was actually happening. Bad air meant a lot of health trouble and that was something that made me even more grateful for every day in between that came with clear skies. Like they say, you don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone. It was like that, and not just for me. I met and chatted with many people who had a whole lot of appreciation for clean air and were missing it a lot.

Then, though the fires were still not fully extinguished, smoke went away and summer came back with warmth and lovely sky, and everyone felt alive and happy again. The wildfire smoke of 2017 was quickly becoming a bad memory at best. The air turned chilly and crisp a couple of weeks later, and though summer had been shortened, I found myself looking forward to fall and its beautiful colours, and to winter with all its magic.

On a particularly lovely though crisp night while wrapped in a warm wool blanket and sipping a cup of tea on the porch with my husband, there came a smell that made me cringe. Smoke! Someone in the neighbourhood had lit a fire in their fireplace, and the fresh air became tainted with the smell and the particles wood smoke brings about. I was surprised to realize how much I disliked it after the summer we had.  The same smell returned the nights after. A fixture of the cold season, though unnecessary and unhealthy.

During our Thursday morning hike, I noticed a column of thick grey smoke rising fast from somewhere in the downtown area. An eastward-draping cloud was slowly forming while firetruck sirens blared loudly, piercing the sunny morning. A few minutes later, they were replaced by the usual buzz and the column of smoke disappeared; so did the smell. The only thing persisting long after the commotion ended, was the cloud of smoke that had formed earlier. It was there still when I headed back home, reinforcing, quietly, yet in a most powerful way, that smoky air is not quickly moved out of the way where we live. My thoughts went back to the nights of fireplace smoke, which though not visible, is equally bad, and the thick summer smoke, which gave a new meaning to air pollution. My only conclusion was that it is too easy to forget how painful the lack of clean air was during those long smoky weeks.

I was reminded that we cannot afford to take clean air for granted. We have come to acquire enough knowledge of what pollution brings about, health-wise, and most of us agree that nothing comes close to the simple yet amazing gift of taking a breath of fresh air on any given day. Much of the particulate matter that wood smoke contains is small enough to penetrate cells and create a whole range of health problems, from greatly increasing cancer and stroke risk, to aggravating asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions, to affecting unborn babies and the developing brains of growing children.

There is so much at risk when the air we breathe is polluted. Granted, sometimes there is not much we can do to protect ourselves other than stay inside and run air purifiers during the times when wildfires are raging. But once the air gets clean, we must find better ways when we have a choice such as lighting a woodfire when cleaner ways to find cozy comfort are available. That applies to the other cold weather pesky thing, which is making its way back with the season: idling our cars for a long time before driving away, or to keep warm in the parking lot.

We have much to show our thankfulness for, more so when throwing even a furtive gaze over the many sad news stories from around the world. From the simplest things to the big ones, from the most obvious ones to the ones not immediately visible or easily forgettable, to have a say in the quality of the air we breathe, or the water we drink and or the food we eat, that is a big reason to be grateful for when we have it.

For now we do, and for that I am grateful. As I am for today’s blue sky and its dollopy clouds, for the rain last night and the fresh air it brought about, and for all the things I realize I have as soon as I open my eyes, starting with the wonderful world we live in, my family, the many wonderful people I have met along the journey, the freedom to express my thoughts and you, the readers.

Happy Thanksgiving!