At first, it looked like a sunset. It was just after five o’clock in June. I was running in Toronto beside Lake Ontario when I stopped to glance at my watch and noticed that the sky was no longer blue but a rusted orange. It took only a few breaths to realize the bonfire smell in the air was the drifting product of faraway wildfires.
It’s quite possible you had a similar experience this summer: The plumes of gases and soot from Quebec and northern Ontario that plagued Canada also blanketed the American Midwest and East Coast. But as I watched the sun burn a hole in the horizon, I had an additional realization: Thirty years ago, I did something that probably helped fill the sky with smoke.
In the early 1990s, I worked as a tree planter in northern Ontario. This was a common — if notoriously grueling — rite of passage for Canadian university students, since it allowed you to make good money while spending a few months outdoors with other like-minded young people. I was driven in part by the idealistic view that planting a tree was always going to be better than not planting one.
In retrospect, this wasn’t true. Forestry experts understand that a monoculture of trees — like the black spruce saplings we were planting, six feet apart in neat rows — has made wildfires more likely and much worse when they occur. [Continue reading…]