As we prepare to celebrate the 48th annual Earth Day, I’m reminded of a line from John Keats: “The poetry of earth is never dead.”
I grew up along Lake Michigan, a mile as the crow flies from its shore. It was a rare summer day when one mother or another did not gather up the kids of our block and head for the beach. I remember the burn of hot sand on bare feet as we raced to the water’s edge, then plunged into its blue chill with the whoop of the saved. On a breezy day, white caps formed. You could hear the roar of them rolling, thundering, breaking before the shore. We loved white caps. We leapt like wild frogs, jumping high to avoid their slap, then sputtered, laughing when they knocked us over anyway. It was a real shock, when I went off to a landlocked college, to realize not everyone grew up on a lake.
When we weren’t at the beach, my friends and I often roamed the vacant wooded lot at the end of our street. Among its prodigious Queen Anne’s lace, honeysuckle, and grape vines, butterflies darted and swooped. Monarchs, Little Yellows, Swallowtails. We chased their flight, eager to see where they’d land next, and checked plant stalks for their cocoons. Vulnerable caterpillars found edging across the footpath or along the road were offered a stick or broad leaf as transport back to safety. As summer faded, we ate the wild Concord grapes straight from the vine. Of all grapes, Concords are the “grapiest.”
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” (Gary Snyder)
My dad spent part of his childhood in North Carolina. As a young boy, he used to go camping for weeks on end with his older brother. Just the two of them living in the summer wilderness of the Smoky Mountains. In his teens, he built a boat with a friend and they sailed the 300 miles from St. Pete to Havana. I loved hearing those stories, imagining those experiences. The vastness. The freedom.
One of the indelible memories of my life occurred during a two-week stay at the Girl Scouts’ Camp Shawadasee when I was ten. After dinner one evening, the counselors told us to fetch our sleeping bags. We were going to spend the night on the beach. On arrival, we scavenged for wood and built a sizable bonfire. As the summer dusk turned to a dark shot through with stars, we told ghost stories and sang songs.
The ash grove how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking
The harp through it playing has language for me.
Whenever the light through its branches is breaking,
A host of kind faces is gazing at me.
Sometime before midnight, we unrolled our sleeping bags in a circle around the dying fire and fell asleep to the gentle slap-suck of water on sand. At the edge of our dreams, a counselor strummed her guitar and sang.
If you were to ask me the definition of peace, I would recount that story. When I moved to the East Coast, I went down to Boston’s North End the very first day to dip my hand in the Atlantic and breathe in the expanse of that ocean. Echoes of a night on a beach almost 20 years earlier.
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
The family vacations of my childhood took us to historical places and natural wonders. I guess my parents thought they had a duty to improve our understanding of the world.
So, as a kid, I wandered through Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. It was my first venture underground and it started with the kingpin of them all. To call Mammoth Cave impressive is like saying Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are “pretty good.” With passageways totaling 405 miles, it’s beyond enormous. It’s also OLD. The original part of the cave began forming about 10 million years ago. But the sea that made it happen, the sea that laid down the soluble limestone, then sandstone and shale, that sea covered the central U.S. 325 million years ago. Those are some serious numbers, even for an 11-year-old. Mammoth Cave gave me my first understanding of my puny self in relation to nature.
I was reminded of that years later when I took my own kids to hike the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park, one of several vacations spent in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Gorge got its start almost 200 million years ago, at the beginning of the Jurassic period. Molten rock formed The Flume’s granite walls. As the granite cooled, it fractured vertically, allowing liquid Basalt to rise up in the cracks with a pressure that pushed the granite apart. Over time, erosion exposed these Basalt dikes, fissures formed, and water flowed in between the rock layers. Softer than granite, the Basalt eroded leaving a deep valley where the Gorge is now.
And this all happened before the Ice Age.
“The earth has its music for those who will listen.” (George Santayana)
The Flume Gorge hike occurred on our last trip to Franconia Notch. The first visit took place when my kids were 5 and 3. That week, we hiked the park’s easier trails. Autumn comes early in the mountains. The first fallen leaves carpeted our path, crunching underfoot as we walked. Its magic invited poetry, and I recited Robert Frost, Wordsworth. I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills… We rested on rocks to watch a waterfall. In truth, you hear a waterfall more than see it. The rush of so much water, tumbling from such a height. Close your eyes and it is the only sound on earth.
If you have kids or can borrow a kid, take them outdoors. Throw some old boots and a couple of water bottles in the car, and head out. I used to hike the Quabbin Reservoir with my kids. As a water supply for Boston that caused the Swift River to be diverted and four towns dismantled, the Quabbin was a source of tragedy for its former residents, many of whom had lived there all their lives. But its generous watershed continues to protect 56,000 acres of woods and fields from suburban sprawl development. In the Quabbin, we spotted tree frogs, encountered wild turkeys, watched bald eagles soar. Hiking in the wild, there’s time to talk, the space to listen, permission to just shut up and breathe in the view.
“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
When I taught first grade, I frequently took the kids into the woods behind our school. There, we looked for nests, counted the rings on tree stumps, examined seed pods. But what really got them cranked up were the snags (standing dead or dying trees) and rotting logs. From the moment Nicole peeked inside a snag to find a nuthatch nest, we left no dying tree unexamined. The kids figured out that all the insects feeding on the tree, in turn served as dinner for the birds who nested there. They also found caches of food that mice, chipmunks, and squirrels had wedged in the crevices, and were amazed by an outcropping of mushrooms, growing straight from the rotting bark. Together, we witnessed the way a tree breaks down completely at its end, returning to the earth as fertile soil for new plants and trees. The cycle of life, the connectedness of everything.
“If you cut down a forest, it doesn’t matter how many sawmills you have if there are no more trees.” (Susan George)
The statistics aren’t good.
More than 34 billion gallons of raw sewage was dumped into Lake Michigan from 2000 to 2013. Some 50 beaches tested positive in 2012 for mercury, E. Coli, and polychlorinated biphenyls used in coolant fluid.
The Monarch butterfly population has dropped by 90 percent over the past 20 years.
More than 30 percent of Honeybees, so critical to our food chain, have died off in the last half decade, largely due to climate change and neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides.
Camp Shawadasee was auctioned off in parcels in 2011, most of them touted as “potential building sites.”
Almost half of the world’s forests have been cleared. Each year, another 32 million acres disappears. In particular, the ever-increasing demand for cheap palm oil is decimating our rainforests, upping carbon emissions, and threatening many species with extinction.
The natural world is under fire in all directions. And with it, our own survival. I don’t particularly feel like dying so that fossil fuel magnates can make another hundred billion, or companies that use non-sustainable palm oil practices can pocket a bigger profit.
On one of those educational vacations, my parents took us to Gettysburg. Standing in that green and peaceful place, I tried to imagine the Civil War battlefield that Lincoln spoke of so movingly in his most famous address. The dead and dying, close to 50,000 men and boys, their life’s blood, their final moments, spilling out among the muddy carnage. In that instant, so silent and serene, I understood that whatever befalls us, Earth will continue, heal up, perhaps to start over with some less contentious species.
For now, I am turning over the earth in my garden, feeding the soil, coaxing green shoots from last year’s dead brown. This season, I’ll plant Orange Milkweed, because milkweed is the only caterpillar host plant for Monarch butterflies. In summer, I’ll sit on the deck in the evening and marvel at the stars splayed across the heavens. What a miracle the world is.
And how lucky I am to be a part of it.