Last Earth Day, Wynn Bruce Set Himself on Fire Outside the Supreme Court. I Tried to Understand Why

Most journalism teachers would be thrilled to see their student’s name in the New York Times, but I shouted a curse and pushed my laptop away. The sobs didn’t come until later, and they returned often over the past year.

Three days earlier, on April 22, 2022—Earth Day—a Buddhist environmental activist sat down on the steps leading to the U.S. Supreme Court, stretched his legs out in front of him, folded his hands at his chest and, without saying a word, lit himself on fire. He was a photojournalist from Boulder, Colorado, the Times reported, and had died the following day. His father and friends believed he was protesting the U.S. government’s failure to confront climate change. His name was Wynn Bruce.

Eleven years before that, Wynn sat at the front of my classroom in a Colorado Community College on the first day of that semester’s photojournalism class. While the other students chatted and played with their phones and computers, he sat stock straight with his hands folded in his lap and his gaze focused on me as I plugged in my laptop. He was older than my other students—pushing 40—but was slender and looked fit, with horn-rimmed glasses between his dark, thinning hair and goatee. He had already done some homework—he knew that I focused my work on environmental issues and was excited to learn how to do that kind of photography. But he also wanted us to know about him.

“I have a brain injury,” he told the small class during our introductions.

Wynn Bruce in his first photojournalism class at Front Range Community college in Longmont, Colorado in January, 2011. Credit: Michael Kodas
Wynn Bruce in his first photojournalism class at Front Range Community College in Longmont, Colorado in January, 2011. Credit: Michael Kodas

On his way to a Friday night date in Florida when he was 18, the car he was riding in veered into a tree, killing his best friend, who was driving, and leaving Wynn in a coma for 10 days. Doctors drilled holes in his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. He had been preparing to enter the Air Force, where he had signed up to train as a firefighter, but instead spent nearly six months after regaining consciousness learning how to walk and talk again.

Wynn didn’t dwell on his injury after telling us why he was different, but talked about his passion for making portraits, particularly of children. He spoke deliberately, briefly gathering his thoughts before each statement, but I saw little evidence of his disability in our first meeting. Still, he explained, his brain injury challenged his ability to organize his life and keep his thinking on track. He’d already started his own business—Bright and True Photography—shooting portraits and parties, but couldn’t manage his work and routines to make a living with the craft he loved.

“Sometimes I need a little extra help,” he told us.

Wynn had given up driving due to his disability and rode a bus about 30 minutes to the college. Our class was at night, its first meeting in January, and the dark, Colorado bus stop could be brutally cold and windy. After the first class, I started giving Wynn rides home and to class events. We rode together on a field trip to photograph the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland. The event celebrated the memory of a deceased Norwegian outdoorsman brought to Colorado as part of a cryogenics experiment, but it seemed strangely symbolic to me after Wynn passed.

During the hours he sat in my passenger seat, I learned Wynn practiced Buddhism in the Shambhala tradition, hiked in the mountains whenever he could, attended yoga classes and loved dancing and music. He rode his bike year round to his insight meditation sangha, therapeutic dance gatherings, work at a local natural food store and just about every other corner of Boulder, where we both lived. Employees at the local REI, the outdoor gear store, knew him by name.

“You’re about as Boulder as someone can get,” I joked during one of our drives, kidding him about how well he fit with the city’s reputation as a home for adventurers, spiritual seekers and bicycle commuters. He told me he felt privileged to live in a community where so much environmental work was done. 

Wynn Bruce balances on a rock during a swim. Credit: Courtesy Candice Ford
Wynn Bruce balances on a rock during a swim. Credit: Courtesy Candice Ford

With the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the largest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in the country, the National Renewable Energy Lab, a top-tier science university and a plethora of other environmental labs and nonprofits, the Boulder area likely has the greatest density of climate scientists, policymakers and activists in the country. Some of them would be a part of his life, too.

But we also talked about the community’s environmental shortcomings. I spoke to Wynn’s class about photographing the reported 10,000 people who came to the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus for a “smoke out” commemorating 420—a date and time celebrating the consumption of cannabis—but only encountering a tiny fraction of that for Earth Day events on the campus two days later. Wynn complained to me about the thousands of vehicles that gridlocked the highway to Colorado ski resorts, and I admitted that the car he was riding in was often among them.

Wynn required tutoring to help him with some of his school work and to complete some basic tasks like personal finance. But some of his accomplishments seemed superhuman given his disability. He had managed to get the townhouse where he lived added to the city’s affordable housing stock and purchase it. He’d taken trips alone to explore Hawaii, Central America and New Zealand, where, in one of his writings I unearthed after he died, he described spontaneously stripping to dive into one of the country’s frigid alpine lakes on Christmas Day. In the years after we met, I encouraged my students and colleagues to find ways to be “happy warriors” to keep grim news about climate and the environment from overwhelming them, and more than once cited Wynn as an example of someone who seemed to have done that.

During the hours we rode together in my car, we talked a lot about wildfire and climate. I had started writing a book about the wildfire crisis and the Fourmile Canyon Fire. It was the first of four fires in four years that would break Colorado’s “most destructive” wildfire record and had burned just outside Boulder a few months before we met. 

Wynn was curious about the fire that had threatened the city where we lived, but he would have learned about it even if he wasn’t. It was impossible for anyone to spend time with me and not hear more than they cared to about the impacts of climate and fire on our world. In a town filled with the abstractions of climate science, it was one of the first concrete impacts. There would be many more before Wynn himself became one of them. 

As I tried to understand his desperate act, remnants of his life haunted my own.

A deer in the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Credit: Wynn Bruce

His computer would sit on my desk, its screen staring me in the face every day when I started work. Larger-than-life people he had photographed gazed at me from gallery prints I stored in my guest room. His tripods and camera bags, sitting on a shelf in my garage, were the first things I saw when I parked my Prius.

Wynn also showed up in my dreams, although, when I woke, I couldn’t remember what he did or said, just his face staring at me. And then a box of his ashes arrived in my mailbox.

The remains his father asked that I take to the top of a Colorado mountain; the books, photos and hard drives his former girlfriend left with me; and the computer passed on to me by his neighbor were windows into a story I felt both fearful to explore and obligated to tell. Perhaps they could help me step beyond the stigma surrounding the way he had chosen to end his life, and the disability that he had struggled with through most of it, to find what he was trying to say.

After His Death: Recriminations, Facebook Clues, Little Else

Immediately after Wynn’s death, his name spread through Boulder and around the internet. A couple I’m friends with who are both in climate jobs taped his name into the front window of their house. Another texted me a photo of a pair of hearts and “Wynn Bruce RIP” scrawled in the dirt on a truck at a local Whole Foods.

#WynnBruce trended on Twitter.

He had rarely posted on his Facebook page, but in the days after his death it filled up with hundreds of comments. Saddened friends, climate activists and Buddhists wrote to his digital ghost. More than a dozen people friended him on Facebook after he was dead. But soon other comments came from people angered by his action and the attention he was receiving. Then climate change deniers chimed in, questioning his purpose. Finally, trolls mocked him and picked fights with anyone who responded. Some suggested other climate activists, Swedish founder of the Fridays for Future climate movement Greta Thunberg in particular, should take the same action he did. Others pointed out that by using fire and an accelerant, he had actually harmed the climate.

Eventually, the arguments and insults on social media between people who had never met Wynn had little to do with his death. The vitriol seemed wildly inconsistent with the man I knew.

I found myself feeling implicated in Wynn’s action not only as a teacher who encouraged his passion for the environment, but as one of the journalists that some blamed for pushing him to his death with global warming “propaganda.” 

“Pre-meditated suicide by an unfortunate poor soul who’d been warped by years of climate doom and gloom foisted by media,” one wrote on Wynn’s Facebook page.

Others lambasted news outlets for ignoring the message he was trying to send.

“Why is no one talking about #WynnBruce,” one tweeted. “he was a climate activist who lit himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court on earth day!!! But of course corp media isn’t gonna tell y’all that”

“A climate activist from Boulder named Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court and the world barely shrugged out a few tweets and a couple new stories,” a friend of mine tweeted. “What does this tell us about the challenge of taking action on the climate?”

Kritee Kanko was hit much harder than I was.

“This guy was my friend. He meditated with our sangha,” tweeted the Boulder-based climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who is also a Zen priest teaching Buddhist responses to the planetary crisis. Among Kritee’s classes that Wynn joined was one on coping with climate grief. “This act is not suicide. This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis. We are piecing together info but he had been planning it for at least one year. #wynnbruce I am so moved.”

The staggering heartache of Wynn’s self-immolation wasn’t the only pain Kritee was enduring. A vicious backlash found her everywhere—on social media and in phone calls, even to her employer. Some of her critics believed she was complicit in his act and blamed her for his death. Others objected to her work as a climate scientist and saw her student’s killing himself as an opportunity to discredit her.

Kritee Kanko, one of Wynn Bruce's Buddhist teachers, holds a dish carrying some of his ashes during a ceremony commemorating him at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas
Kritee Kanko, one of Wynn Bruce’s Buddhist teachers, holds a dish carrying some of his ashes during a ceremony commemorating him at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas

In subsequent posts she explained that none of Wynn’s Buddhist teachers were aware of his plans and they would have tried to stop him had they known. His action was contrary to Buddhist philosophy and teachings, she explained.

Still, she was one of many people who saw Wynn’s death as something more than suicide. In the social media storm that followed his death, a few people shared part of famed Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s 1965 letter to Martin Luther King Jr., in which he discussed the self-immolation of monks in his homeland during the Vietnam War. 

“The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest,” the monk wrote. “… To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity.” 

Yet, despite the power of his statement, it was hard to know what Wynn was saying. He had communicated almost nothing about why he took the action he did.

But there was this: 

On Oct. 31, 2020, on his Facebook page, he posted a link to an online class—Climate Change, the Science and Global Impact—taught by renowned climate scientist Michael Mann. It was only the eighth post he’d made to his page in the dozen years he’d had an account.

Then, nearly six months later, on April 21, 2021, the day before Earth Day, he commented on that post with the numerals “4-1-1,” a code for “information” to come. Six months later he edited that comment to add a fire emoji. Then, on April 3, 2022, he updated it again, this time with the date of Earth Day, when he would burn himself in front of the Supreme Court 19 days later.

4-1-1Fire on Facebook


Ten numerals and an emoji were the extent of Wynn’s comments, at least publicly, about his action.

I was sure there had to be more.

On the day I read Wynn’s obituary, I emailed it to Mark Saunders, who had run the community college journalism program where I met him. Mark had heard nothing about Wynn’s death and was unaware of his climate activism. When we got together to remember Wynn over coffee, he mentioned he often saw him around town and had just run into him.

“It had to be just a day or two before he went to D.C., and he was his usual happy, goofy self,” Mark told me when we got together. “Nothing to indicate he was down or in any kind of grave state of mind. He called me the wrong name, but that happened all the time.”

G. Michael Moore, an area resident, had shared the floor with Wynn in a Sunday morning contact, improvisational dance group for more than a decade, but had only known him for his herky-jerky moves and eccentric outfits, which included durags and cutoff shorts, until the Sunday before Earth Day. After that morning’s dance, Wynn asked Michael if he would like to look at some of his photographs. He showed him images he’d made of an elderly man in hospice care and of children gazing into the camera with such presence that Michael found it unnerving. They chatted for nearly two hours about Wynn’s brain injury, his struggles with his guardian and conservator and different philosophies about religion.

“He was not down, he was not depressed,” Michael said. “In many ways he was on top of his game. It was like he’d broken into the clear.”

Visitors to the opening of a show of Wynn Bruce’s photography. Credit: Wynn Bruce

“As we finished our conversation, in passing, all casual, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m about to take the train to Washington and I’ll be in these environmental protests,’” Michael told me. 

At the condominium where I had dropped Wynn off a decade earlier, I met Chris King, his next-door neighbor for nearly 20 years.

Chris was on the board of the condominiums’ homeowners association and worked from home, but he never got to know his neighbor outside of his eccentricities—the exercise trampoline Wynn left outside his garage for years; his collecting of bicycles; Wynn’s long sits with his eyes closed outside his condominium.

“I guess he was meditating,” Chris said. “He wasn’t very communicative.”

Wynn occasionally asked Chris for help fixing things around his condominium, or for a ride.

“I didn’t have any sense that he had any environmental interest,” he told me, much less a passion that would lead him to take such a drastic action for the climate. “He never expressed anything at all about that kind of self-sacrifice.”

Two days before Wynn arrived at the Supreme Court, Chris gave him a ride to the bus station.

“He told me he was going to one of his meditation groups,” Chris said, recalling Wynn was carrying only a small pack that couldn’t carry more than a day’s worth of supplies. Later, while helping to clean out Wynn’s condominium and computers, he found an emailed ticket for a train that departed from Denver’s Union Station soon after the bus Chris dropped him off at arrived there. Wynn walked up to the Supreme Court five hours after that train reached Washington, D.C.

The Father Remembers His Son: ‘Very Much A Caregiver

Wynn’s father, Doug Bruce, wasn’t surprised that some people Wynn dealt with regularly weren’t aware of his concerns about the climate and environment.

“He could be laser-like in terms of his focus and attention, but he could also be secretive,” he told me from his home in Minnesota, “very private.”

Although his son rarely spoke with him about his environmental passions, Doug was certain that Wynn was trying to make a statement at the Supreme Court about the existential threat of the climate crisis.

“I think that when you have an accident that brings you to the brink of death, then you see life as valuable and fragile,” he said. “I think he saw climate change as a threat to life … particularly to kids.”

Doug and Wynn Bruce. Photo Courtesy Doug Bruce
Doug and Wynn Bruce. Photo Courtesy Doug Bruce

Wynn spent much of his childhood with his parents visiting North Shore Camp on Lake Superior.

“It was a communal environment with 10 families that are FDR liberals. He was there for much of his youth, with liberals who are concerned about each other, who are concerned about the public good,” Doug told me. “On that stage, a role that Wynn played, he was very much a caregiver.”

Even as a child, Wynn’s quirks stood out. When he ran cross country, his stepmother, Holly, found him in bed one night with the covers pulled up to his chin. Underneath them, she found him already dressed in the clothes for his morning run, including his shoes. Others would laugh about Wynn’s eccentric devotion, but Doug also saw his son’s tendency to sometimes hide his passions; to keep his obsessions to himself.

When Wynn’s parents divorced, he initially lived with his father in Minnesota, but, after visiting his mother in Florida, he called his father to say he was staying there. He was there until the car crash that changed everything in his life.

When Doug saw a video of emergency workers responding to the accident that nearly killed his son, it reminded him of a photo he’d seen of the Vietnam War, and of Pablo Picasso’s famed painting of the bombing of Guernica in Spain.

“The helicopter coming in and the lights shining on the landing spot and the arms reaching up,” he recalled.

Wynn wrote about watching that video with one of his therapists, and he included photos of the wreckage in journals.

After his rehabilitation, Wynn moved around the country, from Florida to Minnesota, Denver and Oregon, discovering Landmark Education, a personal growth program, along the way.

“In Portland, he surprised us all with both his long-term recovery and his personal and professional successes,” his father wrote the year Wynn studied with me. “Much of that progress, I have to admit, came from Wynn’s own tenacity. He never gave up on either himself o[r] his life.”

But Wynn also seemed to be following the kind of erratic, searching path that has left thousands of disabled people living on the street. He moved to Boulder, where his father was shocked to see where he was living.

“It was basically a shack,” Doug Bruce told me. “I don’t think it had running water. He was just two steps from homeless.”

Doug told his son that they had to find him a place where he would be safe and sheltered from the noise and bustle that could exacerbate his cognitive disability. 

“He found his place,” Doug said, “and brought it into the Boulder affordable housing program.” With help from his father and others, Wynn went from nearly homeless, to owning a condominium. “That gave him some stability he didn’t have before. It gave him a base to do things in the community.”

The homeless, prominent all over Boulder, would be one of the communities Wynn continued to engage with—some of his photos in my class were of people living on the street whom he had befriended. But they only made up one of his tribes.

From a portfolio from one of Wynn Bruce’s photography classes. Credit: Wynn Bruce

‘A Spiritual Sibling’

A memorial at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder was one of the first of dozens held both by the communities around Boulder that knew Wynn well and at climate protests around the world where no one had ever met him. Wynn had been involved with the church, a tradition he grew up with, since he moved to the city. Some mourners danced loosely in the pews. Others sat silently with their eyes closed. A number had ridden their bicycles to the service. A representative from Extinction Rebellion—the environmental group that promotes nonviolent civil disobedience to confront the climate crisis—came from the East Coast.

Kritee Kanko, Wynn’s Buddhist teacher, helped run the event, but seemed so deeply shaken I thought I could see her tremble from across the room. She maintained a kind smile throughout, but kept moving as if it was the only way to keep her balance.

Between the slideshow of Wynn’s photography and life; the songs, guitar and drum; the dancing, meditation and potluck meal, Wynn’s friends stepped to a lectern, many carrying items to remember him.

Left: Mourners for Wynn Bruce hike across the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado on their way to a memorial ceremony for Wynn Bruce in October 2022. Top Right: Mourners take flowers during the ceremony. Bottom Right: Mourners raise their hands at the ceremony. Credit: Michael Kodas

Stephen Bross carried a bicycle helmet. He was shopping at the Vitamin Cottage, a natural food store, when he met Wynn, who was working there. Wynn was soon showing up on his bicycle unannounced at the communal house where Stephen, a devout Christian, lived, and was a regular at the contemplative gatherings held there.

“He’d bring us little food treats,” Stephen told the room.

On the Thursday before Easter, just eight days before Wynn’s death, the household held a foot washing ceremony.

“May I wash your feet?” Wynn asked Stephen in an email. “Serious request—in all humility.”

“I was so moved by that, and even much more moved by that after what happened,” Stephen told the mourners. “And the parallels to Christ’s life, that it was the last thing he did for his disciples also really shocked me.”

Wynn and Stephen spoke often of the environmental calamities befalling the planet—wildfires, extinctions and the poisoning of air and water.

“I’m grateful to be able to share this sacred moment with all of you to be in the complexity of my feelings of deep grief and heartbreak—heartbreak for the state of our world, and for the loss of Wynn, and confusion and anger that he left that way,” Stephen said. “But I also respect his choice. That I know he would have wanted me to receive that choice as a desperate cry for us to take action; for me to take action and to express my love in the world in concrete ways.”

Erica Hamilton met Wynn nearly 20 years earlier at the church where the service was held.

“I feel like he was a spiritual sibling,” Erica told the audience.

A mourner for Wynn Bruce takes a pinch of his ashes during a memorial ceremony for him at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas
The Indigenous leader of the memorial service for Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado brings items to bless attendees. Credit: Michael Kodas

They became close in a youth group that connected tightly over its members’ various struggles.

“We were both dancers and meditators and we also both were disabled and neurodivergent,” she recalled. “We knew that we were wired differently. And so there was just an incredible sense of trust and understanding between us.”

Erica told Wynn about her seven hospitalizations with Crohn’s disease not long before they met. Wynn showed her photos of the accident that damaged his brain.

“We connected very deeply about how we had confronted death at a young age.”

They were both fans of the Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh—Brother Thay—who had defended the self-immolation of monks in Vietnam.

“I was in my early 30s and I didn’t know that many people who were younger and also into Thay,” she said.

Erica was studying for her masters degree in divinity at Naropa, Boulder’s Buddhist University, when she met Wynn, and now works as a research psychologist focused on things like the way the body responds to mental and emotional stress, and how the brain regulates arousal. Even though Wynn told her nothing about his plans to visit the Supreme Court, she was certain of his message.

“As a neurodivergent person myself, we communicate in ways that don’t always involve writing or speaking,” she told me. “To me, he sent a message that was clear as day. The place where he did it and the way he did it and the time he did it.”

In February 2022, two months before Wynn sat down atop the court’s steps, the justices had heard arguments in a case that would curb the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to limit carbon pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act. It would be a major setback to the nation’s efforts to slow the emissions driving climate change. Although Wynn never mentioned that case, Erica said he paid attention to the news, particularly about environmental issues.

“He had such angst about the court’s power,” she said, “not just over climate, but over him.”

Erica Hamilton, right, and Melissa Bailey, second from the right, join other mourners at a service for Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas
Erica Hamilton, right, and Melissa Bailey, second from the right, join other mourners at a service for Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas

But she found Wynn’s action also spoke to what formed the foundation of their relationship—disabilities.

“Like racial justice is climate justice, disability justice is also climate justice,” she said. “People in the Global South are going to be affected. People of color are going to be affected. People with disabilities are also going to be affected. People with disabilities in California died because PG&E had to turn off the power because of the heat and the threat of wildfires.”

People with disabilities who recognize the threats of climate change to their own lives are often hindered confronting it with actions like marches, letter-writing campaigns or comments at government meetings.

“‘Do you have an ADA accessible building that you’re meeting at?’” she asked. “‘Someone with hearing and speech disabilities, is that person going to be welcome? Are there ways to include people who have cognitive impairments?’”

“I’ve been to protests and it was really hard for me,” she told me.

She carries silicone earplugs and tinted glasses to make her time outside in large crowds less overwhelming, but in the end, climate protests were too taxing for her. So she found other ways to engage with the issue like working on administrative tasks for an environmental nonprofit from home.

“It’s is easy to see how Wynn would wonder: ‘What is my place in all this?’” she said. “‘What is my place in this movement?’”

A Romantic Connection

Candice Ford, Wynn’s romantic partner for the two years just before he took my class, had struggled with those same questions before coming to Boulder from Canada to attend Naropa University. She attended the memorial through a laptop from which she read some of the poetry Wynn wrote her, but came to Boulder a few weeks later to help his father and stepmother clean out his apartment. She stayed for a time in a house by Wonderland Lake, across the street from my home, and we took a walk there.

Candice grew up playing in the wilderness around her home in northern British Columbia.

“As I got older and saw the destructiveness of our natural resource practices, especially in the north, where it’s pretty aggressive, I became a young environmentalist and started organizing environmental clubs and protests and writing politicians,” she told me.

While studying conservation biology at the University of Victoria, she got involved in political activities around climate change and endangered species. After graduating, she worked as an assistant to the Canadian environment minister and was asked to lead the team guiding Canada’s Species at Risk Act through the Senate. The rest of her colleagues were focused on combating climate change in Canada and guiding the nation into the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.’s first climate treaty.

“I was naive,” she told me. “I had a lot of energy and passion, but didn’t realize the toll that the vicious political life would take on me.”

Industry pushed back hard against the Canadian government’s environmental initiatives, Candice recalled, and many citizens failed to see the relevance of climate change and biodiversity loss to their lives. She watched peers and mentors “fall one by one to the seduction of power,” she said, “and lose touch with the ethics and the morals that I thought had originally brought them to that type of work.”

The Species at Risk Act, which had been in the works for 10 years, became law, but as Canada pivoted to a more conservative government, it set back much of the progress Candice and her colleagues had made on climate and biodiversity. She burned out.

“I just didn’t know how to take care of myself in that intensity of work and the shadow side of power,” she said. “I was starting to get jaded and that scared me. I didn’t want to be that way so young. I was in my mid 20s.”

Candice Ford during a hike in Colorado. Credit: Wynn Bruce

She gave up her government job, but continued to hurt. As a child, she suffered from a genetic disorder and spinal issues that surgery had corrected to allow her an athletic youth, but an accident after she left policymaking crushed several of her vertebrae, leading to more surgeries, a difficult recovery and ongoing health struggles. She wore a back brace for two years.

She came to Boulder to study wilderness therapy at Naropa.

“Showing up in Boulder was incredible,” she said. “It felt like a homecoming of sorts, like my soul or spirit already had been here and my body was just catching up.”

Dance was one of the things that helped her feel at home.

“I was waltzing before I walked,” she recalled her grandmother, who carried her as a baby while dancing around her living room, telling her. As an adult, training and competing as a dancer helped her fend off the grinding stress of policymaking and move on from her career in government.

In Boulder, she found the “Movement Mass”—a therapeutic, improvisational dance gathering on Sunday mornings led by Melissa Michaels, who uses dance as a tool for personal growth and healing in programs around the world. After several Sundays, she made friends with another dancer who shared her interests in the environment, Buddhism and movement—Wynn Bruce.

“He was living on his own at his condo,” Candice recalled. “He had two cats, and a very active lifestyle. I think he already had five bikes at that point.”

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They started dating, then lived together. Candice’s studies at Naropa and Wynn’s dedicated meditation practice, devotion to Buddhism and zeal for hiking meshed well.

“We would bike to Movement Mass together, and then bike back to yoga classes, meditation classes. It was a very active, nature-connected, movement-oriented and meditation-oriented connection.”

Wynn’s ability to use mindfulness to moderate the waves of depression, frustration and anger brought on by his disability impressed Candice.

“He had, at that point, found the teachings of the Shambala tradition,… insight meditation group and some other teachers, extremely helpful for navigating the raw edges of his brain injury,” Candice said.

Another of Wynn’s methods of coping with his trauma was the opposite of silent meditation—screaming.

Early in their relationship, Candice was stunned to hear Wynn wail out in the middle of one of the Movement Masses.

“The first time I heard him make one of these primal screams, it just echoed through the entire room and rippled through my body,” she said.

Candice was initially alarmed but most of the other dancers just continued their movements. Some, though, responded to his cries.

“There would often be a few people [who] dropped down onto their knees and maybe be crying, or maybe go into sort of a bow or like a prayer or something like they were really resonating somehow with that frequency,” she said. “Other times, it could be people almost striking more of a warrior-type pose, or working through some anger or some intensity in their own dance.”

Candice Ford's favorite picture of her with Wynn, when they were getting ready to go dancing in 2009. Credit: Courtesy Candice Ford
Candice Ford’s favorite picture of her with Wynn, when they were getting ready to go dancing in 2009. Credit: Courtesy Candice Ford

When Candice choreographed a dance performance for her program at Naropa that expressed the struggles in her own life, Wynn found the section describing the pain and shock of her health challenges, surgeries and confinement to a back brace didn’t come through.

“I think you need a scream,” he told her. “I think you just really need to get into that deep pain and transmit it to your audience through sound.”

When she tried, he laughed.

“I think I can coach you how to really get that to come out,” he told her. “Probably we’re not wise to do it here at the condo, or really anywhere where there’s a lot of people around, because they’re gonna freak out.”

He led Candice to nearby railroad tracks where, as the train roared by, Wynn and Candice practiced screaming.

“Finally, I had some epic primal screams emerge from me. He laughed again a little bit, because I think the expression on my face was one of shock,” she said, “but also, you know, feeling proud of myself in a certain way that I actually was able to get it out.”

Wynn and Candice’s environmentalism manifested itself in things like picking up trash along trails, rather than attending demonstrations or joining campaigns.

“One of the big things important to Wynn was honoring animals or birds that had passed,” Candice said. When they were riding, if he saw roadkill or an animal that had died nearby, Wynn insisted they stop and remove it from the path, pray for it and then lay it to rest.

“That really didn’t feel optional with him. It didn’t matter if we were heading to an engagement of some kind,” Candice told me, “Whatever it was, that could wait. This being that had passed needed to be honored and tended to and that was a priority for him.”

“There would be a lot of tears,” she said.

They spoke a lot about the climate and extinction crises, and the industrial and development projects they bicycled past. Wynn was curious about Candice’s work in environmental politics and protests.

“We were really wanting to heal some of the pieces of us that still felt like kind of raw and broken and so that became the focus,” she said.

Wynn and Candice volunteered together in a hospice program, where they worked with patients dying of terminal diseases, and at Camp Erin, a program for children grieving the death of significant people in their lives. As a photographer for the programs, Wynn documented people coming to terms with the end of their lives and children figuring out how to get on with their own—and seemed to be figuring out how to do both of those things himself. One of his photographs for my class would be of a hospice patient in the final days of his life.

Wynn’s environmental outrage grew while visiting Candice’s family in British Columbia, where he saw resource extraction on a scale he’d never imagined.

“Some of the big, big mining operations and the huge, clearcut patches in our forests, and particularly old growth forests. That blew him away,” Candice said. “He found it extremely upsetting and mystifying, again, as to how, as a species, we had come to be in such a place causing so much destruction.”

A hospice patient and his wife, as photographed by Wynn Bruce for his photojournalism class at Front Range Community College. Credit: Wynn Bruce

Candice was traveling home to visit two of her aunts who had been like sisters to her and were dying of cancer.

“It was phenomenal to see how Wynn worked with my entire family,” Candice recalled, “with so much grace, care, attentiveness, heart, depth, patience. A real authentic yearning to know their experience of how they were holding these women and saying goodbye to them.”

Wynn connected with another of Candice’s aunts who was also facing death.

“She was crying to me later on the phone saying that she had this kind of like profound awakening almost just being with him in the way that he was holding her and her experience,” Candice told me.

As Candice finished her program at Naropa and engaged more deeply with the world of counseling and therapy she would work in, the couple had less in common. She would eventually move back to British Columbia, but even after they split up, she and Wynn stayed in touch.

“It seemed like as we transitioned into friendship, and our lives went in different directions, then he got even more engaged in environmental stewardship and environmental protest,” she said.

Top left: Wynn Bruce paddling a canoe. Courtesy of Candice Ford. Bottom left: Candice Ford during a hike with Wynn Bruce. Credit: Wynn Bruce. Right: Wynn Bruce leads a snowy, Rocky Mountain hike with Candice Ford, who is the first in line behind him. Courtesy of Candice Ford

The Fourmile Canyon fire threatened the city as their romantic relationship was ending. Then, in 2012 and 2013, three more wildfires broke the “most destructive” wildfire record for Colorado, followed shortly by an epic storm and flood that devastated the Boulder area in September 2013.

“It seemed like those impacted him,” she said. “I believe that that probably was the turning point. Just seeing something that had been maybe more nebulous and invisible in terms of climate change, and then all of a sudden, there were the impacts, with these horrendous fires and floods and droughts here for everybody to experience and see and people that he knew losing their homes or, you know, in some cases, even losing their lives.”

A Devoted Student

After completing their Ph.D.s in climate science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Kritee Kanko and her husband, Imtiaz Rangwala, took jobs in Boulder. Both originally from India, Kritee joined the Environmental Defense Fund to promote Climate Smart Agriculture in Indian farming communities being devastated by global warming while Imtiaz was hired by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a partnership between the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado Boulder. Devoted Buddhists, they joined a sangha where they met Wynn, whom they found unusually welcoming.

“I’m a climate scientist,” Kritee told the meditation group. She wanted to gather people to discuss spiritual responses to the planetary crisis.

“We didn’t even say come meditate with us,” she told me. “We just asked, ‘Who are the people who are spiritually inclined, and Buddhist or not, care about the climate crisis?’”

Kritee Kanko, one of Wynn Bruce's Buddhist teachers, during a ceremony commemorating him at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas
Kritee Kanko, one of Wynn Bruce’s Buddhist teachers, during a ceremony commemorating him at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas

They started holding meetings at their home once a month—a silent meditation followed by a discussion of whatever environmental concerns the attendees might have and, finally, an educational presentation. Wynn was one of the first people to sign up around 2014.

They would talk about carbon markets, climate finance, taxing carbon, growing food together and genetically modified foods, Kritee recalled. “Then we would think of next steps as a community. How can we raise the awareness of the larger Boulder community?”

They soon confronted one of the city’s ironies, which, despite its environmentally progressive reputation, still got its electricity from a coal-fired power plant on the east side of town. The group decided to protest the plant with meditation.

“It was that group of people who started doing the demonstrations [at] the Valmont coal power plant,” Kritee said. “That was the group that Wynn joined.”

They carried signs about the climate emergency, meditated and chanted at the power plant, on the upscale Pearl Street pedestrian mall and at Chautauqua, a historic park overlooking the city.

“We would sit there in single-digit weather wearing all of these clothes,” Kritee said.

Eventually Kritee and Imtiaz founded Boundless in Motion, a nonprofit group dedicated to comforting climate grief and fighting for environmental justice. 

Wynn began to email Kritee about his environmental concerns.

“He was very well informed from my perspective already,” she told me. “He would see a video on fracking or a news article on oil and gas operations, and what are the financial constraints, and how some fracking companies might be suffering financially, why this is not a good idea anyway…regardless of environmental impact.”

A child walks into the foothills of the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains near Boulder. Credit: Wynn Bruce
A child walks into the foothills of the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains near Boulder. Credit: Wynn Bruce

In one email, he lamented the failure of a bill that would have required new oil and gas fracking operations stay at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and other areas like playgrounds. In another, he recounted a radio story’s description of fracking as a Ponzi scheme.

“I feel discouraged by the delusion and denial of carbon dioxide and its effects on the environment,” he wrote to Kritee. He asked her how to tap into his unconscious to help turn climate anxiety into hopefulness and “energy to fuel me/we/us forward.”

Kritee sometimes found herself calming Wynn down. “He used to get upset when people didn’t realize the depth of the crisis.”

In 2017, the year the Valmont Power Plant stopped burning coal, Kritee cofounded America’s first Buddhist retreat center dedicated to the planetary crisis and its social justice implications in the Indian Peaks overlooking Boulder. Kritee taught regularly at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, often leading classes about climate grief. Wynn became one of its most devoted students, taking classes with several of its founders and sometimes bicycling there from his home, a trip involving 3,000 feet of climbing over 20 miles. 

“I don’t think he missed a single volunteer day at the center,” Kritee told me. “He showed up for every trail maintenance, every cleanup, every bathroom cleanup, every kitchen cleanup. He really thought of the center as like his home beyond his apartment, and he loved the community.”

In a workshop conducted over Zoom when Covid prevented in-person meetings, Kritee and another teacher led a “seventh-generation practice” in which the students broke out in pairs, one portraying someone who is alive today and the other taking the role of someone living in 2222.

“The people from the future, 200 years from now, were thanking their ancestors for taking brave and radical actions to protect all life,” Kritee said, recounting some of the scenario’s dialogue. “‘Ancestor, please tell me, what did you do? How did you get started? What gave you courage? What gave you resilience?’”

After their dialogues, the students charted a path to the future they imagined.

“Kritee, that practice blew my mind,” Wynn told her afterward. “We really would have to take radical actions to make that future possible.”

But Wynn’s teachers couldn’t always help him join in such actions.

For a workshop that trained teams to conduct climate protests, Wynn wasn’t able to organize his own team and Kritee couldn’t help him put one together. He missed that workshop.

“I am part of the movement!” he responded to a subsequent email Kritee sent her students about the connection between civil rights, environmental justice and women’s rights.

At the end of 2021, the Marshall Fire exploded on the southern border of the city between Christmas and New Year’s Eve—a time of year when such fires were virtually unheard of. The latest blaze to break Colorado’s most destructive wildfire record, it killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 suburban homes, along with a hotel and a shopping center. 

Three months later, the NCAR Fire that ignited in similar conditions just five miles to the north was named, ironically, after the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which was threatened by the fire, as was the neighborhood where Kritee and Imtiaz lived.

Wynn saw the smoke while riding his bicycle and emailed Kritee to ask if they were OK. It was the last time she heard from him.

A Confession

I had never visited the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center until Kritee organized a memorial service for Wynn there in October of 2022. Nestled amid forests, meadows, crags and streams looking up at the Indian Peaks, the landscape invited visitors to just sit in nature and contemplate its majesty.

In a large room normally reserved for group meditation, Wynn’s writings, photos and artwork sat on tables and graced the walls. A shield he’d made in an art class showed a small human figure surrounded by flames. On the back of another I found a photo of Wynn with his arms locked in the crutches he used after his car accident, but both of his feet raised off the ground like he was doing gymnastics, a look of stern determination on his face.

A mourner for Wynn Bruce contemplates cottonwood seeds at a memorial for Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center. Credit: Michael Kodas
Mourners throw seeds during a service honoring Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas
Mourners throw seeds during a service honoring Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas

The ceremony, led by an Indigenous woman, was held outside and lasted hours as the participants took pinches of Wynn’s ashes and walked from a fire pit to stations at each direction of the compass where they listened to readings and songs Wynn loved—Otis Redding’s “Amen”—and passed flowers, incense and seeds among themselves.

I was surprised to see Melissa Bailey among the mourners.

We’d met when we were both journalists in Connecticut 15 years earlier, and reconnected when she came to an environmental journalism fellowship program at the University of Colorado for which I had once been one of the directors. 

Melissa’s first stop when she moved to  Colorado in 2021 was the Ecodharma Retreat Center, where she took a 10-day class dealing with climate grief.

“I thought the retreat was perfect for me because I was going to spend a year learning about climate change,” she told me.

Melissa Bailey, right, embraces Kritee Kanko during a memorial for Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado in October 2022 as Imtiaz Rangwala looks on.
Melissa Bailey, right, embraces Kritee Kanko during a memorial for Wynn Bruce at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Ward, Colorado in October 2022 as Imtiaz Rangwala looks on. Credit: Michael Kodas

There were 25 or 30 experienced ecodharma practitioners in the class.

“There was a Zen priest, a Buddhist monk and a Catholic nun who was a climate activist in Denver,” Melissa told me.

And there was Wynn.

The students mostly remained silent, but Melissa was in a small discussion group with Wynn. During the few times that the group met, she found him eccentric but caring.

In one of their last gatherings, students took turns sharing their feelings about climate. While the other students in the circle spoke, Melissa observed Wynn drawing into himself, like he was rehearsing what he was going to say. One woman talked about the guilt she felt for shopping and traveling. Wynn went next and seemed to dismiss her concerns.

He told the group that he had attempted to burn himself to death as a protest.

He had been so angered by Donald Trump’s presidency that he had doused his body with gasoline, he told them, but the fuel soaked the flint of his lighter, preventing it from sparking. A police officer was able restrain him before he could ignite himself.

Wynn’s story was disjointed and Melissa couldn’t tell how his attempted self-immolation was tied to climate change, or even where he did it. He said he spent two weeks at Bellevue Hospital afterward and wanted the group to know how kind the nurses were to him.

“‘I thought it was a skillful act,’” Melissa recalled Wynn telling his classmates, “‘but in retrospect, it wasn’t.’”

The group sat in stunned silence after Wynn’s confession until one of the leaders told them that the sun was out, the weather was nice and they should head outside.

After sunset, the entire class came back together for a bonfire. To Melissa, Wynn looked like a ghost in the firelight.

“I don’t know if it was zinc oxide, but his face just looked gray,” Melissa recalled.

The students danced around the fire. Wynn, who never passed up a chance to express himself with movement, sat alone and didn’t join in.

“He didn’t look well,” she said. “But the fire…” Melissa thought the flames might be upsetting him, given what he had just revealed. Or, she would wonder later, were they reminding him of what he was already planning for Earth Day?

David Loy helped found the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center beneath Indian Peaks with another area Buddhist, Johann Robbins, who he had joined on wilderness retreats, including floats down the Green River in Colorado and Utah.

“We both became interested in a retreat that would be less involved with putting up tents,” David told me when I asked about the history of the center. He had done a Buddhist retreat in Spain at a center called “Ecodharma” that was focused on environmental issues and reconnecting with nature.

“I was very inspired by that,” he said.

David had known Wynn for years through a Tuesday night meditation group, but saw the retreat center he, Johann and Kritee worked to create as even more helpful to him.

“It seemed very deeply therapeutic for him,” David told me. “He was somehow becoming more comfortable with himself by connecting more deeply with people like himself.”

Outside of their Buddhist groups, Wynn and David met regularly at a coffee shop, where Wynn once mentioned he had been away in the hospital. He’d told David he’d tried to self immolate in New York.

“It sharpened all my tentacles and we had a long conversation,” David recalled. “I told him I was happy it didn’t work out. That it wouldn’t make a difference. It was the wrong thing to do.”

Wynn listened quietly and David thought he’d reconsidered his action.

“I’m wondering if I took his silence for acquiescence,” David told me.

Wynn Bruce in his photojournalism class at Front Range Community College in Longmont, Colorado in 2011. Credit: Michael Kodas

Shortly before Wynn’s attempt to burn himself in New York, he’d sent David an email. Like many of Wynn’s writings I would find after his death, he only provided cryptic hints of his plans.

“The court recognizes me as a protected person due to my cognitive disability. The climate emergency, the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced, does not recognize me as protected from anything,” Wynn wrote. “Measurably, much has changed in the 30 years since my injury. I have learned that I am going to live and die. Part of the deal. Some die in pain. Some die in peace. What matters more than the inevitability of our own death is clean air, clean water is required for the future of life. The ability of future generations to live on Earth is what matters…

“I have a cognitive disability and I do not know what to do. However, that is not stopping me from doing something. I will not have the chance to be a parent. But I can recognize that children of the future are effectively being attacked by the existing power structure.”

Wynn noted that he was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is true.”

He quoted President John F. Kennedy: ”Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

He repeated Greta Thunberg: “No one is too small to make a difference.”

He shared a passage from the author Elizabeth West. “Without death’s whispering in our ear reminding us that our time is finite, it is easy to just let life happen. We stand right at the edge of the end of much that we have known and taken for granted.”

“Speak now or forever hold your breath,” Wynn wrote, then finished his note with a haiku.

Strong heart and clear mind,

what a gift just to be here,

Aware of breathing.

‘I Am Doing the Best I Can

Searching through recent items on Wynn’s computer, I found videos he shot of an Oct. 22, 2019 New York City newscast. They showed the back of a slender, balding man wearing only boxer shorts and handcuffs.

“A man is in custody tonight after he apparently poured gasoline on himself and tried to set himself on fire. Police stopped him before he could do that and the man was taken to a hospital,” the anchor reported as the officers mopped fluid off Wynn with towels and led him to an ambulance.

A tweet I found online hailed the anti-terrorism police officer who foiled Wynn’s attempt to burn himself to death.

Digging deeper into his hard drives, I found Wynn’s preoccupation with self-immolation started at least six years earlier. 

“As a friend, and a son, I want for you to understand that I have given considerable thought to self immolation (SI),” he wrote in a December 2013 note to his father that I could not confirm he had ever sent. “I imagine this will trouble you, but it is not my intention. I am trying to be clear with you about my confusion and disbelief about my life amounting to anything. Although you have told me that my actions could go completely unnoticed, I have felt that if the powers that be were to hide that non-violent protest, then I don’t want to be here anyway.” 

I found a folder on one of Wynn’s hard drives entitled “Not good day” with various treatments of a photo of a man with his head engulfed in flames. He’s standing in a wide city street wearing green cargo pants, running shoes and a black t-shirt. Some kind of orange fabric is draping down his shoulders, perhaps a hood to protect his head from the fire that obscures his face in his hands.

Wynn created the first version of the image on Oct. 22, 2014—five years to the day before his New York attempt to self-immolate and almost exactly 25 years after his brain injury. He turned the photo into something like a meme the following January, its text stating:

Those who die before they die…

are free to really live.

© Wynn Alan Bruce 2015

“It will hurt a bit for all of us,” he wrote in another document that day.

I have been one lucky sumbitch.

How I got this far without many abilities is trully (sic) astounding.

Michael Kodas, center, tosses the ashes of Wynn Bruce in a service atop Mount Elbert in honor of the climate activist. Credit: George Skoutelis
A painting found in Wynn Bruce’s portfolio from his time studying photography, graphics and art at Front Range Community College in Longmont, Colorado. Credit: Courtesy Candice Ford

Seven years later, in the months leading up to his trip to the Supreme Court, Wynn created a series of statements and manifestos, many just a sentence or two long, others carefully edited to exactly 50 or 100 pages. A number were addressed to the President, Vice President and First Lady or “Your honor.”

He wrote about climate change and other environmental issues, but his biggest concern is the act of “breathing.”

In a document titled T.I. from Feb. 14, 2022 he asked,


“I can’t breathe” is about more than “The Past”. 

“I can’t breathe” is about y/our FUTURE generations

If- “WE” DO NOT STOP…BURNING COAL, [-see COP26 and U.S.A. politics – ]


The essays are often jumbles of thoughts and narratives, photographs, typography, text colors and creative punctuation. They sometimes look like film noir ransom notes with words cut out of different magazines.

In several, Wynn included a screenshot of a game with letter tiles that spell out a word in response to a hint, like on the game show Wheel of Fortune. The clue was “burning or sacrificing” and, while the answer was incomplete, the collection of letters spelled “IMMOLATION.”

In a document titled “Mr and Ms President” on Jan. 22, 2022, Wynn wrote:

I actually attempted this presentation once before.  I had gotten myself to One W.T.C. in N.Y.C. on October 22, 2019.  This led to my having almost 2 weeks at Belleview Hospital before my generous father came to fly me back to ‘my team’ in Colorado.

In another document, written Feb. 15 and titled “Reality Check,” he recounted attending his high school reunion in Brooksville, Florida in October of 2019 after decreasing his medications.

I considered, with my emotional and psychiatric issues that I would make a go of a plan for my life,” he wrote, recalling that his plans to join the Air Force had changed 30 years earlier.

I filled my KleenKanteen with gasoline in Atlanta before getting to the train station.  I got to NYC.  I got to One WTC.  I attempted self-immolation.  

I made it on the news!  Is that a measure of “success”?  Rhetorical question.

Wynn explained that his own measure of success included slowing down and spending less money on food.

It seems that there are assumptions about my cognitive ability based on my communication skills. …*I am doing the best I can with what I know – not much.

I live in Boulder, I’ve got a job, I’ve got a cat and I’ve got a few bicycles.  I feel very confused and disoriented.  If I fall and hit my head again, I can only imagine this gets worse.  Do I get a say about, “my affairs”?

The End of a Long Journey

He signed many of his emails and documents “Protected Person” and in others explained that, in 2015, his father, in a meeting with one of his counselors, had announced that he was no longer going to oversee his son’s affairs and a guardian and a conservator would handle them. Doug Bruce was getting older and wanted to make sure that his son’s care would outlast him, but Wynn bristled at the legal process that would oversee his life and finances. He had gone through three guardians before, after arguing for himself in court and, bringing in his father to help him select the latest one, he had oversight he seemed to find acceptable. Still, in several of his writings, he cited the situation with his guardian and conservator as one of the drivers for his planned self-immolation. 

In a document addressed to the President and Vice President on March 15, he wrote:

I also found an image online. A number of images of people self immolating.

A few that nailed it and many that surely regretted being aware of themselves as on fire.  Well, I told myself, “If you are not able to have this guardian removed from this role, self-immolation is something to seriously consider – for a broader cause.”

Elsewhere on his hard drives, Wynn documented the challenges in his life. He made videos of a quake he had developed in his arm that made it hard to work on his computer, his difficulty organizing his townhouse and anger about how his life was being overseen. He complained about the toll his current job, baking pitas in a falafel factory, had on his body. The loud music other employees played made it hard for him to concentrate and he found the work demeaning.

He’d hit his head a few times in recent years, once when falling off his bicycle, and he worried the strikes exacerbating his brain injury.

“I fell on my bicycle the other day while riding to work,” he wrote in one of his notes to the president early in 2022. “I slipped on the ice, bruised my hip and rattled the contents protected within my bicycle helmet.  I felt very vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.  Things happen… as they did when I was 18.”

He “was not confident in what the later years of his life would look like,” Candice Ford told me. “With his brain injury, seeing some of the changes that were occurring within him.”

Wynn had witnessed his mother fall into severe dementia after struggling with her mental health—she didn’t recognize him when he last visited her—and Candice wondered how deeply that affected how he saw his own future.

“My aging experience is not going to look like a lot of others,” he told Candice. “With my brain injury, as I start to age, there are going to be changes and things occur that are very likely going to make my life very, very challenging, and may be very difficult for those around me to witness or to manage.”

In the last months of his life, Wynn developed a habit of remembering things by making hundreds of screenshots on his computer—dozens of images from each of the remote gatherings of his dance group, his Buddhist classes and meetings with Boulder environmental groups, as well as of the documentaries and television programs he watched and things he saw while surfing the web.

Doug and Holly Bruce. Credit: Wynn Bruce
Doug and Holly Bruce. Credit: Wynn Bruce

On the evening of April 4, 2022 he made a screenshot of a PBS Newshour story about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Fifteen minutes later he purchased his train ticket to Washington, D.C.

On April 19, the White House sent him a note confirming receipt of his statement, but I couldn’t determine which of the many documents he had addressed to the president he had sent.

While most people who have self-immolated did so close to their homes, Wynn traveled for two days by himself to get to Washington, D.C., all the while knowing what he had planned for himself when he got there.

He likely meditated during much of his trip.

Years before, he had spoken with Candice about the monks who self-immolated in Vietnam.

“What struck him was the quality of the courage of the statement that they were making,” she told me, “but also what would it be like to have a meditation practice that’s that deep and that strong that a person could actually go through with something like that.” 

Despite the prominent location, Wynn’s protest, late on a Friday, would likely have been seen only by tourists. Even media and police that might have responded missed it after a gunman riddled a D.C. school with bullets, injuring four people, including a 12-year-old girl who was hit by the gunfire a few hours before Wynn sat down on the Supreme Court plaza.

“Fire!” Reneé C. Gage, a photographer a few steps away from the Supreme Court reported hearing before turning to see a figure burning. “It’s a man! It’s a man!” 

Wynn burned for about a minute, silent with his hands folded at his chest, before Capitol Police officers scooped water from a fountain with traffic cones to douse him. Only when the flames were extinguished did he make the most primal scream of his life.

A helicopter from the National Park Service carried Wynn to a nearby hospital, where doctors kept him alive overnight. The following morning, Doug Bruce, who Wynn had asked for help completing a do-not-resuscitate order, asked for his son to be taken off life support. Wynn died 10 minutes later.

‘Back Up the Mountain

Six months later Wynn was in my passenger seat again—double bagged in ziplocks inside a cardboard box. I’d tried to find a more appropriate reliquary, but only came up with a scarf a Buddhist monk once hung around my neck to wrap the bagged ashes.

“It doesn’t matter,” Imtiaz Rangwala, Kritee Kanko’s husband, told me when I fretted about my disrespect in handling my former student’s remains.  “What’s important is we’re taking Wynn back up the mountain.”

Wynn had visited Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s tallest mountain and the second highest peak in the contiguous U.S., with his father while they were traveling around Colorado together the summer after he took my class. Doug retreated from the climb, but Wynn made it to the top with a family friend. They were chased off the peak by a thunderstorm.

“A CRASH overhead sent me curling, fetal, to the ground (survival-instinct),” he wrote of the experience.

Imtiaz Rangwala prepares for a service in honor of Wynn Bruce atop Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas
Imtiaz Rangwala prepares for a service in honor of Wynn Bruce atop Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado. Credit: Michael Kodas

“You’ve been to the top of the tallest mountain in Colorado,” Doug told his son, who downplayed his accomplishment back in camp. “How many people can say that?”

Imtiaz and I camped in the pine forest at the foot mountain where Wynn had camped with his father and were on the trail by 8. I’d worried that the October weather could foil our ascent, but the sky was clear, the winds calm and the air warmed quickly. Mount Massive, another of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, filled the skyline to the north and the crisp sunlight made the vast slopes of golden aspens glow. We only needed spikes on our shoes a few times on the ice and snow above the treeline.

A little after noon we came upon an American flag still wound tightly to its pole and wrapped in plastic with the hardware to hang it. Someone had likely planned to plant it on the summit but just stabbed the pole into the snow where they turned back. The flag that was never unfurled on Colorado’s highest summit made me think of the nation’s capital, where Wynn climbed most of the steps to the Supreme Court before planting himself to make his final statement, which I had never been able to fully unwrap. 

We summited around 2 and, with another hiker from Boulder who arrived at the top with us, held a makeshift ceremony, tossing Wynn’s ashes to each of the four directions, to the sky above us, and burying the last in the rocks atop of the mountain with a photo of Wynn and a stick of incense. The winds that had been calm during our ascent buffeted us on top, blowing the ashes in unexpected directions, including in our faces. Ten other hikers reached the summit from various sides of the mountain while we were there, but few paid us much attention.

Author Michael Kodas, center, tosses the ashes of Wynn Bruce in a service atop Mount Elbert in honor of the climate activist. Credit: George Skoutelis
Author Michael Kodas, center, tosses the ashes of Wynn Bruce in a service atop Mount Elbert in honor of the climate activist. Credit: George Skoutelis

Imtiaz and I stopped to gaze over the Sawatch and Elk ranges sprawling below us toward Independence Pass.

“Wynn’s death was really hard on Kritee,” he said.

At the end of the year, Kritee would take a six-month sabbatical from her climate science for EDF. She wasn’t sure she would go back to it. But she had moved past at least some of her grief.

“While it was brutal, I am inspired by Wynn to speak my truth more fully and more skillfully,” she told me.

The world had enough climate science to see what’s coming and plenty of big environmental organizations trying to stop it, but not nearly enough help to make people resilient to it. Not nearly enough help for people like our student.

“What Wynn really couldn’t comprehend about climate change was how we could knowingly be doing this to ourselves,” Imtiaz said, gazing over the Rocky Mountains from the summit of Mt. Elbert. “That we’re doing this knowing what’s going to happen.”

I thought of what Wynn had knowingly done to himself, and how much more of a difference he might have made in the planetary crisis if he was still with us, even if he was just picking up trash along a trail.

On our way down from the peak, I lashed the flagpole that had been abandoned on the mountain to my pack and carried it down with me. I’ll hang it on my house for Earth Day.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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                <img width="300" height="300" src="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Kodas_Arctic_Square-300x300.jpg" class="attachment-thumbnail-medium-square size-thumbnail-medium-square" alt decoding="async" srcset="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Kodas_Arctic_Square-300x300.jpg 300w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Kodas_Arctic_Square-150x150.jpg 150w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Kodas_Arctic_Square-64x64.jpg 64w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Kodas_Arctic_Square-600x600.jpg 600w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Kodas_Arctic_Square.jpg 702w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px">
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                <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/profile/michael-kodas/">
                    Michael Kodas                   </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Senior Editor</h4>

                Michael Kodas, of Boulder, Colorado, is the author of Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame, which won the 2018 Colorado Book Award for General Nonfiction and was named one of the 20 best nonfiction books of 2017 by Amazon. He is also the author of&nbsp;High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, which was named Best Non-Fiction in USA Book News’ National Best Books Awards of 2008 and was the subject of a question on the game show&nbsp;Jeopardy!. He is the former Deputy Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. As a photojournalist at The Hartford Courant he was part of the team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage in 1999. He has also been honored with awards from the Pictures of Year International competition, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition and the National Press Photographers Association. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Denver Post, Newsweek, the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War and many other print, online and broadcast outlets.

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