Greetings! As I shared a couple weeks ago, I have moved my writing over to Substack. A new post, “Transform”, is up on the blog. An excerpt follows. Wander over to considereddays.substack.com to read the full post and subscribe to receive future posts to your inbox.
A shift of light. A cloud slides away from the sun and, quite suddenly, the air fills with motion. Wings of gold flutter as at least fifteen Monarch butterflies alight from the garden bed in front of which we stand. Flutter. There is no more apt word for the movement. It is delicate and delightful.
My one year-old daughter begins to shout, “Bubba! Bubba!” I scoop her up and we chase after the objects of her enchantment. We find them all around us as they glide and then settle on new blossoms, sipping, fueling, recharging their bright existence.
I watch my daughter watch the butterfly and I am overwhelmed with admiration. Transformation is not easy. And yet, when I consider the future we share, I think: we all must transform.
Transformation is exciting. It’s also scary. To fully dive into the creative goo from which we can collaboratively rise anew, we must be willing to shed that former self, prior understandings of who we are and our place in this world. We must allow ourselves to be transformed, this time by love for the earth and our fierce need for one another.
My son and I stand in front of the great japonica bush. Bare branches break our view of the grey winter sky. Nearly every other branch is occupied. Chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches and the rare flash of a red or grey-and-orange cardinal: the birds have come to feast at my parents’ feeders.
And my son and I have come to behold. We feast with our eyes. My son is a mover and explorer. But even he has been caught in the spell of the small creatures. His little body stands still; his eyes are wide.
I watch as the birds flutter from branch to feeder and back. My eyes sharpen and focus, a rarity for a mother of two children whose attention is constantly divided. I listen as wings beat through air and the birds dart around my head.
My heart swells with affection for the little bodies, the soft feathers and dark eyes. I know that they are eating, that their activity is practical, but there is such joy in the way their wings beat, beat, beat back the air and then glide. Or perhaps it is simply the joy I associate with the ability to soar. Either way, it is contagious, and I feel my spirit lift, buoyed by both love and delight.
I speak of grief with increasing frequency these days for two reasons. First, because I feel its presence riding with me often. I see the loons swimming with their babies on their backs and I feel it. I watch as the fox pauses in our yard, paw lifted, eyes on mine, and there it is. I witness my children in a moment of supreme joy and a familiar pang occurs around my heart.
And so I speak the grief and then notice the response. Some listen and resonate. I feel their reaction like a pebble dropping into water; they ripple with me as we take up the larger mourning together. Others squirm in discomfort or urge me to keep up hope, as if the two cannot coexist. I feel their response like a pebble hitting ice; I bounce against the sharp surface and skid away, no soft landing available.
It is that discomfort with grief that also drives me to voice my experience of the threat and loss I see all around me daily. We are so eager to welcome the joy of the little birds’ flight, just as we embrace the joy of love. We are not as open to the complex mix of emotions that comes with truly taking in the current status of the Earth’s ecosystems and our role in creating the Sixth Mass Extinction.
I would like to say this: I beg of you, listen to the world right now. Sit still, don’t run, don’t explain, don’t push away. Let the birds and the trees and the many, many other beings who know, who have noticed, speak. See the subtle shifts, and the great ones. Read the advance notice of all that is to come, written in the movement of species, the droughts and floods, the fires and fleeing. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t rush past what you are feeling.
Grief is not an absence of hope. It is not to be avoided. It is the most appropriate, most resonant response to a loved one threatened.
I was five when my grandmother was diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma and eight when she died. I remember the ferocity of feeling that surrounded those years of my life. I was young and while I might not have grasped the specifics, I understood the greater loss that was unfolding.
And so, when I sat beside Grandma in bed in the morning, head against her dark green bathrobe, watching a game show on her bedroom television, I sharpened all my senses because I wanted to absorb her presence fully. My heart swelled with love and, right alongside that deep affection, filled with grief.
When I looked out my bedroom window at rest time and saw her bending over her garden, long legs in trousers, bandana tied around her bald head, I watched and watched until rest time was over, my little body flooding with love and loss.
The feelings of those years, held both individually and collectively by the members of my Grandma’s family and community, were our way of honoring her and our connection to her. We loved her. That love pulsated through every moment with her, and, right alongside it, the honest truth of loss as disease took hold.
I loved my Grandma (still do), and I love this Earth. I love the chickadees and cardinals, the loons and trees, the fox and my children, and the great, wild web connecting them all and extending far into the future. And so, because I know the truth of what’s happening to that web, when I fill with love these days, grief is not far behind. It’s the best way I know of honoring the presence of each bright being and my connection to them all.
It’s also a great source of inspiration for action. Which I why I beg this of each of you, of all of us: may we possess the strength needed to go to the heart of our mourning. As we watch the world ache, may we ache too. May we ache so deeply that we cannot help but transform that love (for what else is grief?) into powerful action. Because while it was too late to save my Grandma, it’s not too late to save the birds (at least some of them), or the fox or the children who are barreling together towards the future impacts of what we do today.
We talk about this past year, the year of 2020, the first year of the global pandemic, and some speak about “a lost year”. But if we cannot learn to be with the grief that comes with loving, and not just the joy, then I fear we will lose much more. We will lose the future.
May we be brave enough to feel the fullness of our love, now, more than ever. Perhaps love is our greatest language. Perhaps it is the only force transformative enough to drive the action needed to meet this moment, to truly feel our way into an answer to the question extended in the challenge of climate crisis: what do we mean to each other?
I’m listening for the sound of hope. Or perhaps it is the sound of the past.
My children and I make our way through the woods behind our home in Maine. The day is warmer and with fewer clouds than anticipated. Sunlight streams between tall pines, illuminating vibrant clusters of mosses, multiple specimens climbing and spilling over one another in a patchwork simultaneously less-programmed and more enchanting than any quilt I’ve ever seen.
We’re making the most of the fine spring morning. My daughter traipses ahead, propelled by her newfound fondness for long walks and the accompanying sense of adventure. My son occasionally pats me on the head from his perch in the hiking backpack, a gesture that in turns feels affectionate and reminds me forcefully that he is much stronger than his size would suggest. The moment brims with joy and aliveness.
And then, out of nowhere, I tune into a dissonance.
The woods are quiet, I realize. Too quiet for such a brilliant spring morning. The treetops should echo with the sound of birds piping their song to the sky, a celebration of the day. In particular, I suddenly realize that I am not hearing the call of the thrush, my special favorite, a sound that sends a thrill straight to my heart and means spring as surely as any daffodil. A sound that typically fills our spring walks.
Every year, the many voices of the natural world grow quieter as the sound and pace of industry increases. The road past our house is busier and louder earlier and later. More planes fly over more frequently. Simultaneously, I cannot remember the last time I heard a loon trilling its call as it soared above our rooftop in the predawn sky. Just two years ago, such an occurrence provided at least a weekly dose of wonder where we live.
Much has been written and spoken about this great “quieting”. In recent years, so many people have noticed the decrease in bugs splattered across their car windows that the term “windshield phenomenon” was born. (We are right to take notice. Bugs of all types make a pretty critical contribution to life on Earth, as pollinators, recyclers and the food source for many, many other species.) Others have reflected on how quiet the woods have become and so many others will do so that sitting here sharing my own reflection feels a bit cliché.
But it shouldn’t. The grief and fear that well within me as I notice such dissonances are deeply important and should demand my attention just as much as the dissonances themselves. Both feelings form a powerful compass, pointing me towards what I value, no, towards what I love. And that love, in turn, asks for action worthy of the beloved.
Grief. I grieve for my loss, and, much more so, for my children’s loss. It is a loss they cannot fully appreciate, never having known the woods as they were before, filled with a choir, not soloists.
Fear. It is the fear that we will not realize what we have lost – and how much we valued it – until it is too late. “Don’t wait to say ‘I love you,’” we are told. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I walk the woods and I want to scream: I am sorry, this was a terrible mistake, I care much more about the song of the thrushes and the trill of the loons than I do about any of those mid-winter flights to Florida or Costa Rica or lord knows where that I felt I just had to take.
But it doesn’t work that way. We must recognize what we truly value now, before those lives disappear. And then we must take up the mantle in honor of those beloveds and translate that love into action.
We do not say “I love you” to a thrush with words. We say it with the choices and actions that fill every single day, whether we are physically proximal to the bird’s flutter or half the world away. Some of those choices and actions are the big ones, like how we orient the systems of our communities, states, and nations – our very way of life as human society. Those are the daunting ones, but critical to dismantle, investigate, and build anew, better aligned with the priority of respect for all lives.
Some of the choices and actions appear more individual but are no less important. Choices like how often we fly, how we spend our dollars, and how we spend our careers build together into the system of human society that currently threatens to take down the natural world as we know it (humans included).
And some of the choices and actions are the blocks we place together now, the brush strokes we make on the canvas of the future, through how we fill our hours with the young people we love.
And so I walk the woods with my children, one ear tuned to each new dissonance, another tuned to the story my daughter spins as her young legs carry her into the next new adventure. They are both so eager to meet the world as it is, these two bright beings I’ve birthed into this most questionable of moments.
It is all true. Many members are missing from the canopy choir of the woods. And some still sing. Grief and fear tickle the edges of even the most delightful of days spent between the trees. And delight still abounds.
We dive straight into the center where the grief, fear and delight meet. From where else will our salvation come?
It had been quite a morning. I’d attempted to squeeze in exercise, computer work and cleaning. You – well, you had not wanted to let me out of your sight. Every moment felt a bit like a battle against the situation at-hand. Finally, as the midday light warmed the wood floors, I bundled you up and strapped you to my chest. Together, we headed out the door.
Your arms and legs began to move immediately, full of excitement. Our dog brushed against my legs as he raced ahead, down the narrow path between trees. In the midday warmth, last night’s snow – early, even for Maine – fell from the branches all around us in thick, glistening drops.
As we walked, I chattered to you, pointing out different trees, a squirrel, our dog’s journey as he scampered after scents.
Eventually, we reached the edge of a nearby pond. Small waves jostled over one another. Dried grass swayed at the edge, golden in the late November sun. Across the water, bare trees reached into a bright blue sky, like skeletal hands remembering a deeper warmth.
My chatter stopped. So did your movement. We stood, still and silent, and looked and looked. After the rush of the morning, my mind finally grew quiet. All ridiculously paradoxical thoughts of “Will I ever get time to myself?” and “Am I giving my baby enough attention?” ceased. A much larger drama played out before our senses, one filled with a great sense of purpose.
As we stood in silence, I wondered what you were thinking. While you are not yet speaking words, to say you aren’t communicating would be laughable. From cries to shrieks to many, many gurgled sounds, you talk to us often. But in that moment, you were quietly absorbed in the world around you. Your attention was palpable.
What does that world mean to you? What do you feel as you watch the sun and water dance and the trees brush the sky?
I watched the wind move the water and the grass and I felt a deep sense of peace wash through me. It was as if the breeze blew through my body, my bones, with a whisper of: “There. There.”
There, all around us, was what really mattered. And as we feasted with our senses, I noticed hope flood into me. I hoped for your relationship with the natural world around you. I hoped you would know the gifts of that world, how it can nourish you, provide you with purpose, and fill you with wonder. I hoped the struggle that is seeping into that world, a struggle against the growing negative impacts of industrial human society, will not negate your love for the natural world or its capacity to bring you peace.
I craned my neck so I could glimpse your profile, facing out from around the position of my heart. How fitting. I birthed you and hold you with the greatest of loves even as I send you outward, into the world. You two have an intertwined future. Eventually, if the fates are kind, you will both outlast me.
Your soft round cheeks were rosy in the November air. Your great blue eyes were open wide and darting. And as I watched you watch the world, I realized that you two are already forging your relationship. For all my hopes, all my chatter of plant names, you are most guided in this fresh new phase of your life by quiet observation. Your filtering of the world is untainted by facts or species identification. You are absorbed, as you were on that November morning, in pure sensation. You are noticing for the sake of noticing.
A new wish flooded me. I wished I could see the world from your perspective. I wished I could set down agenda and move between the earth and sky with no preconceived notion of my place in that great dance of life. What would I learn if my only teachers were the ones still most connected to the true rhythms of that world? What would I know about what I really need and how best to fill a life?
We walked the entire way back from the water in silence. Over moss brilliantly green after all the recent rain. Under chattering squirrels, busy in the branches above. And all the while, the great, shimmering drops of melting snow made their journey from trees back to earth. Just one glistening moment in water’s never-ceasing cyclical journey.
Back inside, I snuggled you into a nap and then sat in front of my computer to write about how best to foster a connection to nature in young people. I poured over studies and jotted down notes, but all the while, the look on your face as you gazed over the water echoed in my mind. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions. Perhaps we all are. Perhaps it’s not a matter of how we can foster right relationship between humans and nature in young people today. Perhaps, instead, it’s a question of how they can remind us how to begin again ourselves. Perhaps our best work is to take a walk together, without agenda, undefined by names or facts, our only objective to notice and be taught anew.
The stories are coming faster and more furiously these days. “What If We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped?” reads a most recent headline. Of course I want to turn away. I don’t want to dive in, to really consider the words in front of me. But I read on. I read as much as I can. I try to let the meaning sink below my defenses, try to open my mind and heart and whatever wisdom I can muster to what this all might mean for yourself and your sister and the wild future towards which you head.
I read. I consider. And then, when your cries tell me you have woken from your nap, I put aside the articles and climb the stairs, bare feet on hard wood. I open curtains and peer over the edge of your crib. We have a routine, you and I. I let in the light and you greet me with the widest of toothless grins. The world is bright and opening for you.
I pick you up and we settle in to nurse. I open Mary Oliver’s collection of poetry and let the words wash over me like a waterfall. They don’t eliminate the emotions that echo after all I just read. Instead, they thread between that reality and deepen its meaning. I ache and love and hope not only for you and your sister, but also for the wild geese, the grasshopper, the summer day.
I cannot turn away from the truth. Do I wish it otherwise? I don’t know. It’s not a question I spend much time considering. My days, these days, encompass a wild juxtaposition. I hold you and your sister, I love you, I watch as you meet the world, ready for each new discovery. Together, we are enchanted. And then I tuck you both in to nap or place you in the arms and care of another and I read the articles. I write grants for local, solutions-focused action on climate change. I research, consider and write about how one might best parent in these times. How to give you the tools you might need? The question reverberates. I connect with others who are seeking action, solutions, trying to gift a livable world. It’s imperfect. But I try.
And then I return to you and your sister, to your soft new bodies and deep, soulful hearts. We gather together in the woods with your father and our beloved pup. We eat a picnic lunch, pausing to examine mosses, hold pinecones, and watch the light shift between the trees. We sit in a rare moment of silence. Enchantment.
It’s all true. Just as death and life, love and grief are inextricably linked, I cannot fathom how I could love you and your sister as I do and not let in the truth of your world. Heartbreaking, yes, it is. And thank goodness. May my heart break open wide every single day that I’m fortunate enough to spend with you. May it break with the enormous challenge of your future and with the way your dimpled hands slowly consider each new rock. I cannot imagine another way to spend each day.
I see it in your eyes and the way your little body moves through your days. Your relationship with time is so different from my own. To you, time is endless. Yes, you recognize as each day starts to draw to a close. The slanting light of late afternoon often prompts the question: “Mama, is it evening time?”
But time as a whole, as a massive, mysterious, unfolding proposition? To you, it is without boundaries. And with that openness comes the gift of limitless possibility.
My relationship with time is different. Time now filters through my maturity. I am increasingly aware of the sense that a great clock is ticking. Much as I might wish it otherwise, your hands will not always be so soft, your eyes so innocent. And I will not always be here to hold those hands and provide comfort after each fall.
This growing sense of a finite span of time is something I’m navigating. Some days, I follow you. We immerse ourselves in unstructured wonder and I feel the ticking fade. Other days, I push and prod an agenda. And sometimes the ticking grows so loud, I cannot ignore the accompanying grief.
Sad as the finite nature of your youth and my life might make me, there is a greater ticking clock, one that I also can no longer ignore. The gears in this clock were wound by a perverse relationship to the earth, driven by greed and ignorance. Incredible and inspiring individuals are working to unwind this clock, to slow it, to change the nature of its chimes. But when it tolls, if it tolls, the unfurling challenge to your life and to the lives of so many of the living beings that fill your eyes with wonder will be incomprehensible.
I am glad that you know not of either of these clocks – yet. When I feel overwhelmed by their speed, one of the greatest medicines I find lies in your dance with your days and the eyes of your little brother. I sit back and breathe and watch you move. You are not driven by fear, panic, or the need to accomplish certain goals before it is too late. Possibility, imagination and delight propel you. There is no rush. I look into the eyes of your brother, so little he does not even ask: “Mama, is it evening time?” He just looks and looks and is not afraid. He is opening up to the world. Everything is possible.
Someday, you both will learn that this is not, in fact, true. Time is finite. Possibilities are finite. We each must make choices. These choices determine how we fill the numbered hours of our lives, yes. More importantly, these choices determine whether or not that greater clock will chime, the one that signifies the future of life on this planet.
When you become aware of both of these clocks, I hope you do not lose your sense of wonder. I hope you continue to move propelled not by fear, but by love. Yes, I feel grief as I notice my years passing with increasing speed. And yes, the ticking of that second clock often feels like a hand gripping around my heart, especially when I am looking at you or your brother.
But I do not let the grief stop me, nor do I allow that hand on my heart to close tight. My days are numbered, yes. A great shadow looms over the future of life on this planet, yes. But within the fact that we each must make choices lies the greatest antidote of all – we each get to make choices. We can choose fear, paralysis, and despair. Or we can choose to let the ticking of time serve as our best inspiration. We can engage in each moment fully. We can use our finite days to honor life, both our individual allotted time and all the beautiful, powerful life churning around us on this planet. We can change the toll of the second clock by moving through each moment with conscious celebration.
The two greatest sounds I have heard in my life were the first breaths taken by you and your little brother. If the fates are kind, I will not hear your final breaths, or at least not in the form I now take. You will outlive me. But in this wild time, this time in which each moment is laden with meaning and in which our actions will determine the future of life on this planet, may my choice to celebrate life and continue to move from hope live on in you.
I grew up at the end of a dirt road. My family has lived on that particular road since the turn of the century, when my great-great-grandfather purchased an old farm, driven by the dream of a vacation retreat. Over the years since, generations poured time, care, memories and love into the fields, woods, stonewalls and buildings surrounding the winding little road. When my grandfather retired from the ministry, he and my grandmother made a permanent move from the suburbs of Boston to the family land in the country. Shortly after, my father, mother, myself and my sister moved there as well, my father building us our own little house, the first new house on the road in decades.
To live at the end of a dirt road on land steeped with family history is an increasingly rare treat. My days were filled with wanderings, both of the body and the imagination. Every day, and in every type of weather, our surroundings beckoned to us. There was something seemingly magical about the place. We traipsed along wooded paths, bare feet treading over sunbaked pine needles. We abandoned shoes by the brook to feel the sharp chill of water and the softness of moss compressing beneath our toes. We explored old family gardens and climbed over stonewalls and up sprawling beech trees. In the winter, we snuggled between hay bales in the old barn attic. In the summer, we picked cherry tomatoes and grapes from the vine, chomping into tangy juiciness.
To this day, when I smell fresh thyme, I am transported to that place, to a particular patch of the herb that grows behind my grandparents’ house. I cannot count the times I’d seek out that spot, tucking myself away from view. I’d lie on my back, feeling the sun and smelling the thyme. A large hedge on one side and a sprawling old apple tree on the other gave the place the simultaneous feel of a grand English garden and a wild meadow.
Our family was not wealthy. But my childhood days at the end of that road were characterized by a feeling of abundance. My senses feasted on my surroundings and I was filled to overflow.
It all felt so magical, as if fairies might spring from the expansive hydrangeas and gnomes might peak out from under the old stone bridge spanning the brook. But what I now know, as I return to the place with my own family and watch my own children bask in the enchantment, is that hard work and an abundance of love made that place what it is.
Even before my ancestors walked and cared for the land, trees were cleared and strong arms lifted stones to build the many walls that criss-cross the property. The old farmhouse and barn were built and maintained.
My family lovingly and laboriously created gardens, terraces, and places for quiet reflection or play as they transformed the farm into a getaway from the noise and pace of the city. When my immediate family built our house there, my parents began to put years of labor into creating vegetable gardens and homes for various farm animals while helping maintain my grandparents’ property. Uncles have bent backs to restore stonewalls and the old buildings and gardens.
While the land echoes countless time and labor, however, the magic comes from something more. Memories reverberate between the trees and tall grass. They cast a glow that can only spring from deep respect and love, for the land and for each other. I was raised, more than anything, by that combination of love and respect. And it is modeled by the inhabitants of that bumpy dirt road to this day.
My parents’ home, my childhood home, is unrecognizable from the new clearing upon which our house was erected 33 years ago. The land is lush. The hours of labor are obvious. My parents produce much of their own food. Chickens roam between apple trees and blueberry bushes and raspberry vines bear vibrantly colored abundance. It’s all organically grown. And, driven by their respect for the earth that sustains them and their powerful love for their children and grandchildren, my parents cleared a new patch near their house to make room for a large installation of solar panels. On a recent visit, the panels seemed to glow, surrounded by dahlias and black-eyed susans. They stand as a beacon of a new kind of enchantment: hope for the future.
Whenever I visit, I once again am filled to overflow. Yes, with the beauty of the land, but also with the love that threads so tightly through that beauty, the two cannot be separated. When I leave, a part of me aches for my home, for the history of the place and the lessons provided about how we might preserve such spaces for the future.
And so I tend to my own home. My husband and I put hours of hard work into planting fruit trees, establishing new garden beds, spreading wildflower seeds and making paths through the woods. We install solar panels on our roof. And, just as importantly, we make sure we take time to wander those paths with our children, creating new memories driven by love and profound respect for the land. A new home, where we make our own magic for generations to come.
Your first home was my body. From nothing more than a knowing you were there to pounds of aliveness churning, kicking and hiccupping, we rode together. You transformed me. As I expanded to fit your growth, the way I experienced life shifted to fit you as well. Every moment of every day and night, we were together, inseparable. My nourishment was your nourishment, my breath feeding into your life.
Your second home was our arms and a sweet little hospital room. You came into the world with a gasp. I heard your breath before I saw your body. For three days, we existed together in a space between the womb and the world, colored with light gently filtering through rosy curtains, the hours as soft as your new skin.
Next came the space between the walls of our house. A home to bring you into and up within. We negotiated the slightly growing space between us and our need for one another. As days passed, we started to gaze outward more and more.
Your truest home, your most lasting, permanent, forever home, is the one we fling ourselves into for peace. First, there were the long walks when my mind couldn’t comprehend the enormity of your upcoming birth. Then, after we traversed that threshold together, there were all the times I strapped you to my chest and propelled us both into the forest when nothing else could ease your cries. We’d wander between trees and as the smell of mosses, the touch of sunlight and the call of birds washed over me, my calm became your calm.
I have watched as you have found your way in that truest, most lasting home. As your body has grown, so has your attachment to the wide, open space beyond walls and “comforts”. Your hands explore plants, thread through soil and reach to follow the flight of butterflies. Your questions come fast and furious and so I have searched for answers.
Propelled by your curiosity, we have learned together, you and I. And something I didn’t believe possible has occurred. As we talk about pollination, as we identify species on our walks, as we spend an entire winter amble with noses to the ground, tracking the path of a fox, my own love for the natural world that births us and sustains us has grown.
This truest, most lasting home has held my whole life. My mother assuredly carried me into the woods in the womb for reflection and comfort. My photo albums overflow with images of both my parents touching trees, bent over ferns, or ankle deep in the ocean, a little tow-headed toddler right alongside. I have loved, cried, hid and sought inspiration in the natural world time and again.
I don’t think I have a hope for you more profound than my wish that you know the same powerful, everlasting connection to that world. You grow up in extraordinary times. It has never been so critical that we realize that we are a part of and completely dependent on the natural world. We have very little time left to wake up to the truth of our existence, the truth that we need to preserve that most fundamental of homes in order to survive.
But it comes down to more than just need. Yes, we need the natural world. But action based in obligation lacks inspiration. And this is about so much more than obligation. We don’t just need the natural world. We love it. And if we don’t recognize that fact, I truly believe we are suffering a disconnection from our deepest nourishment.
From the plant on an office desk in the heart of a city to the dance between fireflies on a summer night to the way we look at the moon and the stars to the drive to get “out in the countryside” on vacations to the way words fail when we stand on top of a mountain, our connection to our truest home runs so deep, to deny it is to deny a fundamental truth about ourselves. And to disrespect that world is to disrespect the core of who we are.
And so I hope you continue to run between tall grasses, climb rocks even more than jungle gyms and sit silently before wide expanses of water. I hope your eyes and heart and soul continue to light up as your lungs fill with the freshest of air. I hope you never, ever forget the home that will always be there for you, if we only honor it fully.
My family and I are vacationing on the west coast of Florida – a stand-in for our preferred destination of Costa Rica as I am seven months pregnant and avoiding Zika. I am walking at an early afternoon high tide, feet in the subtle waves at the water’s edge. At first, the idyllic scene washes over me: the blues of the water, the white sand, the gentle breeze. My bare skin soaks up sun and warmth, foreign at this time of year in Maine.
As I walk, however, the feeling grows that I am tracing the steps of a sharp divide. On one side of me, human society sprawls over the sand. Plastic beach loungers are filled with travelers, not unlike myself. They drink from plastic cups through plastic straws and play beach games with plastic toys.
On the other side, nonhuman nature ebbs, flows and soars. Pelicans glide purposefully over the water, then suddenly pierce the depths. Terns dart, sea gulls swoop. The water glistens in the afternoon light as currents flow.
The contrast is stark and startling. Like me, many of the people to my right were drawn here by nature’s beauty. Like me, they dip into the water, scoop sand, and marvel at the bird life. But as I watch the two sides of the divide, I am struck by how sharply it is just that: a divide. And I wonder. I worry, as I do daily, about the future of the natural world, human and nonhuman alike. I wonder: as long as human interaction with the rest of the natural world is so clearly defined by our terms, terms driven by our wants and demands, will we ever be motivated to truly question the ultimate impact of those lounge chairs, air miles and plastic cups and straws?
My toe grazes something hard and smooth. I bend to examine. A shell, a wide spiral. Like the rest of the natural world, perfectly designed for purpose with a simple, elegant beauty. I pick up the shell. My daughter is napping as I walk, and I imagine her delight over the shell when she awakens. I can hear her: “Ooooooh, Mama!” – eyes and fingers spreading wide in a desire to experience the shell with as many senses as possible. Earlier, she darted in and out of the waves, not unlike a sandpiper. Occasionally, she would fling herself down on her belly, completely unbothered by the wet sand, completely propelled to immerse herself as fully as possible in her surroundings. Or she would sit herself down in the water, cross-legged, gazing out to sea as waves ebbed and flowed around her small body, for all the world like a little bathing suit-clad Buddha.
Amongst all the people along the water’s edge, the children are consistently the ones most immersing themselves in the sounds, sights and feels of the rest of the natural world. They have not forgotten that they are a part of this world, after all. I say this while wanting to be very careful not to over-romanticize that relationship. The natural world deserves our respect. It is strong, powerful and holds an overarching wisdom and sense of purpose that many of us humans have forgotten.
I notice a sole person venturing to swim the deeper water. His strokes aim him straight for a bobbing group of pelicans. I stop to watch. He draws ever-closer and I almost hold my breath. And then – the inevitable – the pelicans take flight. Nonhuman nature once again is moved aside. It almost appears to be placed in a way to accommodate human needs first and foremost. But this is an illusion. We humans will not be accommodated endlessly. To everything, there is a limit.
I dip into the water myself. As I swim, I watch a large group of pelicans fly over the tall buildings that were constructed practically on the sand. Like fortresses, the buildings stand prepared to protect their inhabitants, with air-conditioning and refrigeration and running water and electricity and Wi-Fi and the many other modern technologies that allow us to believe that we function apart from the rest of the natural world. These technologies support that illusion that we can meet all our wants regardless of what happens to the water and the air and the fish and the birds just outside.
The pelicans soar in formation straight towards the buildings, like a group of fighter jets. But what can they do? Peck at the roof-tops? Push their bodies through the windows?
We humans have made ourselves too impenetrable, too unyielding, too aloof. We have built too distinct a divide, there at the water’s edge and in many other parts of our lives. We have erected walls so thick they allow us the comfort of our delusional separation.
As I shake salt water from my eyes, I pray for greater clarity, for all of us. May we not just know, may we experience our interconnection. Every decision and action we take impacts the rest of life and, in turn, comes back to us. There is no divide. There is only all of us, all of life, together. We can seek the wisdom of the perfectly spiraled shells or we can stay on our beach chairs. The choice is ours. The consequences are extreme.
This morning, as I backed my car up to pull out of our driveway, my cellphone rang with a call from my husband. Our 2.5 year-old daughter was in tears just inside the house. She had, unbeknownst to either of us, been making me a Valentine with a plan to give it to me before I left for work. I had kissed her goodbye, not knowing exactly what she was doing and she hadn’t realized I was walking out the door and was now in tears, finished Valentine in-hand.
My daughter never cries these days when I leave. For me, it was a no-brainer to put the car in park and dash back to our front door. Face against the glass, my daughter stood with a red paper heart clutched in her little hands. I opened the door and she pressed the heart towards me. She had glued smaller hearts across the surface, wrinkled and piled, and her effort was clear. Tears gone, she beamed up at my face with anticipation and delight. I exclaimed gratitude and love. She started to trot back into the house and then turned around.
“Momma, I was upset, because I wanted to give that to you before you left.” I crouched down. “I am so glad that you did. I am going to carry this with me all day.” She walked right up to me and put her little nose against mine. Big eyes looked straight into my own. “I love you so much,” I said. “I love you!” And then her pajama-clad, soft little body was gone.
I got into my car and drove away, hooking a recent Fresh Air interview into the speakers. The interview was with James Balog, an environmental photographer who most recently created the powerful film The Human Element. The film vividly explores both the already-existing and future impacts of climate change on humans. I listened to Balog talk about a special school in a hospital in Colorado established for children with extreme asthma, induced by poor local air quality. Balog estimated that nearly 100 children attend the in-hospital school. These children can rarely play outside. As I listened, my unborn son kicked steadily against the side of my uterus.
I spent part of my workday reading more stories about the current impacts of climate change on young people: impacts ranging from loss of homes or parents in extreme weather events to severe anxiety to massive food insecurity. The most vulnerable are just that: most vulnerable. I thought about my two children, one who is already running around, breathing in, and loving the world and the other who has yet to see his first tree, hear his first loon call at night or identify the feeling of fear by name.
We are so fortunate. The air around our home is not extremely contaminated – yet. Water is not lapping at our front door – yet. We have not had to pack up our children and our possessions and embark on life-threatening travel to a new home – (here, it is especially terrifying to add “yet”). We have food and clean water. Our children can breathe and explore and learn to love the world free of extreme fear – for now.
I spend a great deal of my time these days researching, thinking and writing about how to best prepare young people for a world with climate change. I find myself increasingly supportive of introducing the topic younger than many might imagine – although certainly in very simple terms at first. I think a lot about how to balance truth with encouragement. Joy and play are essential. I do not want my children robbed of their childhood, pushed to grow up too quickly by the looming presence of climate change. But I also want them to incorporate the reality that is climate change into their worldview. I want them empowered to apply their joy, their play and their best loving, creative selves to the challenges ahead. I want them to know that bravery is not the absence of fear and that empathy is possible across vast differences, be those differences based in ideology or species.
When I get home today, I will wrap my daughter into my arms, perhaps with a little extra vigor. I will not tell her about the children with asthma or the ones who have lost their homes. For now, I will affirm her creativity and kindness. I will help her learn to value feelings, hers and others’, to name them and allow their presence while also learning how to transform them into action. I will walk with her out in the world and together we will soak up the interconnection of living beings and learn as much as we can about the delicate but powerful ecosystems that sustain us all. We will learn respect and empathy. We will recognize our agency and ability to create solutions to problems. We will read stories about heroes. We will learn how to listen to others and appreciate their feelings and values. We will separate our wants from our needs. And I will continue to leave her to go to work, to face the harsher realities, both so that I may make my contribution and so she may learn about courage and the value of community beyond her parents.
This is where we begin. Together, we will stitch the fabric of the blanket that will one day provide comfort, support and nourishment as she learns the facts about climate change.
Valentine’s Day, we have told her, is about saying “I love you” and showing the care that accompanies that emotion, something we hope to celebrate every day.
Together, I hope we become a Valentine to the world.