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.
Music vibrates from my phone speakers as I dash around our small kitchen, serving lunch while making dinner.
Dashing. There are moments, these days, when I wonder if I remember another pace. Home with two young, very active children, with my entire “professional life” squeezed into a handful of hours each week and with limited daylight similarly squeezing our time for outside play, I’m always trying to do too much at once.
Suddenly, my phone switches to a recording of the Boston Christmas Revels, music particularly beloved from my childhood. Music that defined every Christmas season and the many traditions my family celebrated annually.
It’s as if a great hand suddenly grasps my whole body and says: “Stop”. An ache spreads from my heart up through my throat and into my eyes, which flood with tears. I’m transported from our kitchen to the expansive hall of the great theater at Harvard to which my family traveled each year to watch the Revels. I’m holding my Granny’s hand and we are dancing.
Every intermission at the Revels began in this way. As Act One drew to a close, the performers would link hands to dance out of the hall singing “The Lord of the Dance.” And the last performer would take the hand of the first audience member and audience and performers alike would make one giant, seemingly endless chain that slowly curved its way out of the theater and into the entry hall. Under the arching ceilings and tremendous chandeliers, we all danced and sang. Together.
The memory gripping my being as I stand in my kitchen in Maine, miles from my family of birth, is of the last year I attended the Revels. Before my grandfather’s death. Before my own marriage or the birth of my two children. And Granny and I danced together. I remember watching her, eyes alight with joy as she kicked up her heels, thinking she looked like she might take flight, expecting her to let out one of her great, room-shaking “Whoopee’s!” at any moment.
And as I remember my Granny’s joy, and how the sight of it filled me to bursting, I stand in my kitchen in the afternoon light and cry. My children do not notice. They are hungry and devouring their lunches. As I return to the present, I watch their little heads bend over their food and my ache spreads and deepens.
This Christmas season, we are not joining hands to dance and sing together. We are not pouring towards each other in delight, celebration and love. We are careful and so very distanced.
And while I long for my work and community and moments where I don’t have to accomplish five things at once, the majority of my ache around this time often settles on those two little beings eagerly enjoying their lunch. I want something so very different for them. I want joyous, carefree moments with other children. I want their father and I not to be so consistently tired and overwhelmed. I want dancing together with many others, holding hands, singing our joy to the ceiling and beyond.
My son is still fairly oblivious. He is 18 months old, after all. He’s pretty focused on himself and his endless love affair with exploration and discovery (and, thank goodness, with his sister).
But I know this time has impacted my daughter. She watches me too closely, tries to help lift the burden of this moment too much. And as I notice her shoulder responsibility, I ache even more. We talk about it, of course. It is okay for Mom and Dad to be overwhelmed sometimes, or sad, or frustrated, or stressed. It is not her fault. But she feels what she feels. She wants to help. We humans tend, after all, towards compassion.
And as I watch her and ache, I think so often about innocence. It’s as if we’ve all lost a lot of innocence this year. And I think that loss is a good thing.
So much has been exposed. The extent of our connection to each other and, therefore, our responsibility. The depth of inequality, prejudice, selfishness and greed. The way we have neglected systems of care. The heroic spirit of many who have risen to meet this moment. The utter failure of many others.
And as we draw close to the threshold between this year and the next, and as Christmas music fills my home, I realize I’m not feeling much joy. Sure, there are moments of celebration. Yes, I still experience the thread that ties me to all I love about this wildly imperfect world.
But often, these days, a lump sits in my throat very close to the surface and I realize it is grief riding along with me as I change diapers, set up paints and paper, hold little hands as we walk through the woods, and serve lunch while I make dinner.
I’m not grieving for the innocence lost. Good riddance. The time to wake up and smell our responsibility has been long overdue. Within that responsibility lies so much potential. Potential for a world shaped by care and equity, reparation and justice, learning and leaning in, again and again.
I’m grieving because this is not my daughter’s work or the work of the countless other young people who are feeling this deeply. It is mine, and the work of many of us in older generations. My daughter already reflexes to compassion and care. But too many of us have dissociated from our more tender tendencies. Too many of us have met this kicking and screaming. Too many continue to kick and scream.
I have not hugged my Granny since last Christmas. She lives alone now, in the old farmhouse that my great-great-grandfather (her grandfather in-law) purchased in the early 1900’s to transform into a family summer home. What was once a sprawling summer playground is now a creaky old house. My uncle, one of the many heroes of 2020, has moved in with Granny and serves as her primary caregiver. We visit her outside or from her doorway. We do not hug. She is 92. The virus would probably kill her.
My Granny moved across an ocean when she fell in love with and married my Grandad. I’ve watched over the years as she has let go of that old world, bit by bit, as her Scottish family and friends die. I can’t imagine how painful it is to be so far, especially now. She tells me that when she is lonely, she thinks about her home in Scotland.
We are all letting go of an old world. We must assemble something new. Maybe it won’t happen through the pandemic. But it will happen, whether we consciously participate or go kicking and screaming. I feel the most grief when I think about the opportunity we might miss, the opportunity to make something really beautiful, to take the pain of this time and lean right into it, right through it, to the heart of what is possible. To create something together where no one is lonely—whether because they are physically isolated or because their rights or needs or existence have been discarded—not ever again.
“What would you do if you saw a gun?” the doctor asks my daughter, who turned four two weeks ago. I watch as a quizzical look crosses my daughter’s face. She is not sure what is happening. Is the doctor being funny? Telling a joke?
I am fairly certain my daughter does not understand the moment because she does not know what the word “gun” means. I cannot be completely certain. There are words she has discovered before I realized. “Princess,” for example. But I’m pretty sure “gun” is not on that list.
“Do you know what a gun is, sweetie?” I ask. She shakes her head, the quizzical look expanding.
And so the doctor turns her attention to me, explaining that this is a good age to start teaching my daughter about guns. My daughter, with the soft skin echoing of infancy and the wisps of baby hair, needs to learn about guns so that if she should happen to see one, she will know how to respond safely.
The doctor is right, of course. And yet everything about me – aside from that part of my rational mind that recognizes that yes, this is sound advice – revolts. Guns and my daughter, these two entities should not combine.
She has just learned that animals eat one another. She is in turns fascinated and terrified by that discovery. How will her father and I explain that long, long ago, people made weapons with which they could end the lives of other animals? Yes, including other humans. Importantly, including other humans. That in recent years, those weapons have become so sophisticated that the fastest can fire 1 million rounds per minute?
And then, of course, the mind wanders, as the mind does, and I realize that someday, when she is still too young for such news, she will learn that children occupied with nothing more than the desire to learn and discover and make new friends have had their lives ended by guns. No, not just once. Many times.
I don’t want these facts in her life. I want to build a fortress around her awareness and let in only the beautiful, enchanting parts of the world. Look at how the ferns unfurl every spring. Feel the softness of that moss. Lie on your back with me and look at the moon in its bright fullness as we listen to the loons haunt the night with their cries. Stay here, your soft hand in mine.
But that is not this world and that is not her life, or mine. Or any of ours. We take in all of it. Hopefully the beauty keeps us coming back for more, day in and day out. Hopefully the enchantment points us like a compass, aligning our work, our words, our very being. But we need to let it all in. She needs to know.
Would that I could give her the world just as I want it to be. But she is here, now, for all of it.
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?
We are at the edge of the pond in a patch of sun, seated between bare huckleberry branches. My daughter and son sit in front of me. Their heads bend towards each other, the pom-poms of winter hats touching. My son, just ten months old, shows my daughter a piece of bark. His face alight with discovery, he lifts his gaze from this most enchanting of finds to his sister’s face. “Look at this,” his expression seems to say. “How magnificent!”
My daughter, at nearly four, is more worldly. In just a few short years, she has touched many pieces of bark and explored the woods outside our home nearly daily. She “knows” so much. And yet, as her brother shows her his prize discovery, she marvels at the bark as if it were an exotic new creature. She has accepted his invitation to see with new eyes.
Get them outside. It’s been my mantra these past four years, since the birth of our daughter. Leave the walls of our home, leave the manmade items – some beautiful, some necessary, some both. Touch, watch, feel. Learn.
And so we don layers or bugspray, sun hats or rain boots and I usher them through the door. Some days, it’s effortless and I’m chasing small bodies that have already flung themselves into the world, heeding the call of adventure. Other days, grumbling abounds and the physical act of carrying at least one child is made ten times as exhausting by the mental game of trying to add inspiration. But, whatever the mood, whatever the weather, I bring them to the outside. I brought them into the world at this wild moment. I figure the least I can do is gift them a profound sense of love, belonging and communion with this place.
After all, while I am their mother, it is truly thanks to the earth that they have life. Their bodies, so beautiful and beloved to me, are made of water and minerals and twined together by deep breaths of pine-scented air. The soft, sweet parameters of their physical being are so familiar to me. I cannot count the times I’ve held those bodies, bathed them, fed them, kissed boo-boos, wiped salty tears. But deep down, the fibers of their being are woven by the wild.
Am I truly bringing them to the places where they are best able to hear, see and learn from the Earth? Or are they bringing me? As we make our way between trees, scramble over rocks, and plunge feet into icy brooks, they bend low, close, and behold. A sense of profound wonder radiates from the small bodies so eager to commune with their true mother, their most primal provider of life.
The words about to babble from my lips – names of species, descriptions of photosynthesis or evaporation or migration – fade before spoken. All are enchanting bits of information, to be sure, but they are ways of intellectually “knowing”. That type of familiarity has a time and a place and this is not it. This moment radiates with a more essential type of knowing, one that makes up the truth of their – of our – existence.
And so I follow their lead. I bend down, nose nearly touching a cluster of moss. Suddenly, the world beneath my feet explodes into enchanting detail. Colors and textures wind around each other as different mosses and lichens tumble together. My senses come alive in my own moment of discovery. A forest in miniature spreads across the ground.
But it was always here like this. My attention is the only new component. And for that, I must thank those two little beings bending their heads together to marvel over a piece of fallen bark. Thanks for the lesson.
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.
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.
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.
Last summer, my daughter fell in love. She was two years old at the time. If you think that is too young for a love affair, I urge you to set down this reading and immediately find a child occupied with nothing more than wandering, uninhibited, in the natural world. Watch how they look, listen and touch. Witness their little beings moved by the flooding of the senses with all this good earth has to offer. They are overcome with love, and rightly so.
For the now nearly three years of her life, I’ve watched my daughter as she traverses this deepening love affair. It is both steady while also displaying distinct moments of deepening affection, moments in which a new discovery or a new experience leads to a specific new love amidst her general, growing love for nature.
Last summer, it was the huckleberries. We are fortunate to be blessed with a path right at the edge of our driveway. This path leads into the woods and connects to a whole network of paths. It is just the type of path that promises the very best kind of adventures. Strewn with fallen pine needles and other forest debris, the ground is delicious under bare feet when warmed by the sun. As you wander this path, and especially as you let it lead you deeper and deeper between the trees, your companions are many: squirrels, all sorts of bird life, deer and even the occasional fox or porcupine.
We are doubly fortunate that a particular leg of this path travels along the shore of a large pond, or a small lake, depending on how you look at things. Before you see the water, you can hear the haunting cry of loons, a call that somehow simultaneously captures the joy of life and the ache of death.
Where the path meets the pond, they begin to spring from the earth – the huckleberry bushes. Their thin branches tangle and tumble towards the path as the patch thickens. In the spring, bright new leaves tickle our arms as we walk. In the fall, the patch bursts into vibrant shades of orange and red, a startlingly gorgeous visual against the blues of the water. And in the late summer, the branches are prolific in berries. Darker and glossier than a wild blueberry but about the same size, the huckleberry has a distinct flavor – simultaneously sweet, sour and somewhat nutty. And last summer, my daughter experienced that flavor for the first time.
Importantly, though, I think her enchantment has much more to do with the experience of finding food in the woods. On late summer mornings, instead of starting our day with breakfast, we’d begin with the path. Often, we wouldn’t even bother with shoes. We’d open the front door and step out of the cool of our house and into the warmth of the morning sun. Our dog would scamper ahead, disappearing around a bend, knowing exactly where we were headed. My daughter would walk for a while, bending occasionally to examine a leaf or collect an acorn. Sometimes we would stop to watch a squirrel busy at their morning breakfast, sitting remarkably straight and alert on a tree stump, a pine cone clutched between paws, munching and staring at us, ready to bolt if we made any predatory move but not wanting to prematurely abandon the feast. “It’s okay, little one, we won’t hurt you,” I’d say and my daughter would be fascinated. She’d want me to explain over and over why I said those particular words, why the squirrel might be afraid of us.
Eventually, I’d hoist her onto my shoulders and we’d catch up to our dog, traipsing down a short hill towards the water and then around a bend and there they would be. “I want to get down!” my daughter would exclaim as she started to wiggle with excitement. I’d plop her onto her feet and hand her the little cup we had brought along for gathering purposes. And we’d begin to pick. One for the cup, one for immediate consumption.
It quickly became evident that my daughter would pick without end, each berry more enticing than the last. “We need to leave some on the bushes,” I told her, early in the huckleberry season. “Why?!” – total incomprehension at this nonsensical suggestion. “Because, we aren’t the only animals that eat these berries.” And sure enough, we’d watch as birds darted between branches, occupied with their own morning snack. A lesson in harvesting honorably, in a manner that acknowledges our true place within a complex and interdependent web. We do not own this huckleberry patch; we are exceptionally blessed by its presence just a short walk from our house. I like to believe that the concept of this shared blessing only increased my daughter’s love for the little black berries. She did learn to modify her harvest, picking to fill her cup and then stopping.
We’d sit just beyond the bushes on a moss-covered rock and eat the berries as we gazed at the sparkling water below. The only thing that could motivate us onward in our morning loop of the path was the knowledge that, just a few minutes further along, we would come into full sunshine at the very edge of the water, standing on a rock that slopes into the cool depths. If we were lucky, we’d see the loons, calmly gliding further out, serenely surveying the new day. Assuredly, we’d abandon clothing and slip into the coolness, my daughter in my arms, her breath catching just briefly as her little body was surrounded by the water’s embrace.
It was a sad day when my daughter’s hands reached for berries and found only dried, shriveled remnants. A lesson in change, in the cycle of the seasons, in plant life. We still had a swim to look forward to, but even that eventually ended, as the water grew too cold.
“It will all be back next summer,” I promised. But through Maine’s long winter months, that must have seemed hard to believe. Bundled nearly to the point of immobility, we’d pass between the huckleberry bushes on our walks and my daughter’s mittens would brush the branches. Sometimes she’d ask to be reminded about the cycle of the plant’s life and when the berries would be back. Sometimes she’d just look, longingly, missing her beloved fruits.
It was early April before her patience began to pay-off and my story became more than just a story. We had nearly passed through the patch – me dismissing the bare branches for any sign of new action – when suddenly I saw it. I bent for a closer look and then called ecstatically for my daughter. She came at a clip. “Look!” I exclaimed. “Look at that!” At the end of many of the little branches – not all, but many – were buds. Beautiful, tiny, delicate pink buds. “Those are buds,” I explained. “They will open into leaves. That’s the first sign of the plant getting ready to make more berries.”
We were fortunate to be walking with a dear friend, an “auntie”, who is a student of botany. She and I worked together to describe how plants use leaves to make food, how that energy is put into making the flowers that, once pollinated, become the berries we so love. My daughter did not take her eyes from the little burst of pink as we relayed the science lesson with great enthusiasm. When we were done, she slowly lifted her hands and removed her mittens. She then extended one hand and oh-so-gently took the bud between her forefinger and her thumb. She held the little packet of life for a moment, then released it and licked her fingers. She looked at me, a huge grin spread across her small face. “I taste them, Mama,” she said. “The huckleberries.”
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.