A father’s gift

June 2015

My father taught me to identify trees by their bark. We’d wander the woods, me sitting on his shoulders or skipping alongside, and he’d point out the different markings, colors and textures. My father has an intense, sometimes restless energy, not unlike my own, but out in the trees he seemed to relax. I fell in love with nature at my father’s side.

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These days, as I wander the woods around our home in Maine, breathing in the scent of freshly sunned pine needles, watching new leaves bud, it strikes me that my relationship to the living world, while filled with gratitude and love, is also nearly constantly tinged with grief. Climate change whispers its way through my conscience and a deep concern pricks at me, even as I delight in identifying birds by their song and, yes, trees by their bark. I know that nature is suffering and I know humans directly caused that suffering.

That grief has not always existed as an underlying texture in my daily experiences in nature. While I now know that Svante Arrhenius first proposed the possibility of global warming due to fossil fuel combustion in 1896, the concept entered my awareness sometime in my teen years. As a child, I raced through woods and fields full of joy, blissfully unaware that the world I loved so dearly already buckled under the increasing weight of decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

My children will never know a world untouched by the threat of climate change. Yes, I will not welcome my future offspring into the world with a cut of the umbilical cord and an introductory course on the science of carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect. But discussions of climate change vibrate with increasing frequency. And they should. My desire for my children to know the truth trumps my desire to shelter them from sadness. When the time is right, they will learn about climate change. My hope is that any grief or fear they may experience will be outweighed by their delight in the sound of wind sweeping through tall grass, fireflies lighting the night sky and the feel of water against their skin as they swim through the beam of light on the water’s edge.

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As I contemplate the finesse required to teach such a balance of joy and sadness, I think about my father. I have already inherited so much from that man. As I brew my coffee strongly in the morning, delight in physical labor, dash to the dance floor, struggle to sit still, and passionately raise my voice for anything that moves me, I feel echoes of the man who raised me. That legacy will always be a part of who I am. I am proud to be my father’s daughter, and these days some of my greatest pride springs from the way I see my father grappling with climate change.

My parents are by no means wealthy, but my father has invested in an installation of solar panels and an electric car. He still works full-time, but sets aside time and energy to work with groups in his town dedicated to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to renewable energy. He consistently acts as a reality-check in such groups. Are they just talking or are they acting? Are they duplicating efforts done by other groups, and, if so, why aren’t they collaborating? Are they alienating anyone with a differing opinion, or are they truly listening and trying to work with others? My father brings this same sharp investigation to voraciously reading everything he can get his hands on about climate change and really thinking about what needs to happen in this extraordinary point in history. Marching side-by-side with Dad in Washington, D.C. and then in New York City in days of climate action are memories I cherish.

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So, as I feel sadness when walking the woods or contemplating my children’s future, I turn to my father for hope. He teaches me so much about climate change and parenting. I may not be able to fix the world for my children. I certainly will not be able to single-handedly ensure that climate change is creatively, intelligently and quickly dealt with, giving my children and their children the bright, healthy future that should be their birthright. What I can do is act, every day, in a way that means I can truthfully tell them that I did the very best I could to preserve the world I hope they grow to love just as much as their mother and their grandfather love it today.

Teaching my children about climate change while simultaneously encouraging them to love the world is one of the greatest challenges I’ll face. However, that love is the best inspiration for action around climate change I’ve yet to witness. Recognizing trees like old friends has not only meant that I’ve never felt alone. That world I fell in love with at my father’s side may be suffering and it may grieve me deeply to see that suffering. But I sure as hell don’t love that world any less. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let greed, ignorance or irresponsibility hurt one of the most consistent loves in my life.

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