Yesterday, we celebrated Earth Day, but most people didn’t give it a second thought. I think that’s a shame. We were, after all, born from the dust of the Earth, or so Genesis and modern science both tell us. Her chemical elements form our muscle and bone. Her oceans flow through our veins.
Earth Day has come and gone, but our environmental problems remain. Our lakes are still choked with algae. The polar ice caps are still melting. The oceans are still rising. Our land, water, and air grow increasingly thick with pollutants.
I have spoken with many scientists on the matter. They are sometimes taken aback by the barrage of naysayers on subjects like global warming. They say, “I showed Bob all the evidence. It is clear and convincing. Why doesn’t he believe me?”
I think the problem runs pretty deep. By necessity, humans have a way of pushing aside long-term problems to satisfy short-term needs. Coal miners must make a living despite the heavy toll that mining takes on the environment and, quite sadly, the miners themselves. Farmers must make a profit or lose their land, and thus today’s farms are often more like food factories than the farms of old.
We must feed our children now, we argue. Let those children be alive and healthy enough to worry about the incremental effects that our industrial society has on the environment.
However, our collective skepticism about environmental issues runs far deeper than that.
We have lost touch with our planet and the natural environment out of which we grew. We have shunned Mother Earth, and yet we wonder why she turns against us.
Recently, that fact came into clear focus for me on a brief trip back to my hometown, Austintown, Ohio.
For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in that working-class bedroom community. My father came home tired, dirty, and bedraggled from long days working at “the mill.”
But for me, Austintown was heaven on Earth because, unlike today’s children, I could roam free and explore.
During my visit home, I walked the short walk to a few unused acres of land where I had spent every weekend and many days after school wandering alone. As I stood alone in the stinging rain, what I found instead was an apartment complex.
Don’t get me wrong. People need places to live, and I do not begrudge them their homes.
However, on that ground once stood a little patch of woods that seemed to me to go on forever. It was my little patch of heaven. I knew every tree, every little trickle of a stream, and every patch of grass in it.
The Woods, as I called it, is long gone. I hope I will be excused for my delay in mourning its passage after half a century of forgetfulness and neglect.
The Woods was marked at its entrance by the best climbing tree that Mother Nature has ever gifted to the planet. Here I would build tree houses and, perched high in its branches, get my first glimpse of the larger world.
Here I saw my first pollywogs wiggling in a stream.
Here I would dig out the seven-year locusts buried in the ground.
Here I would dig them out with a stick and make small piles of the soil.
Here I gathered up the dirt with my small hands, put it to my nose, and inhaled deeply the sweet odor of life.
Here I saw my first grasshopper. Swarms of them emerged in late summer. Here, every year, I would go to the woods, rain or shine, on the last evening before school began and dance among the grasshoppers.
And here I marked the end of my youth.
During the summer after my sixth-grade year, my trips to the woods slackened. I preferred to ride my bike to friends’ houses in our development and play in their yards or visit the larger wooded areas near my grade school and my church.
Besides, I had begun to feel a faint stirring, a vague longing, that I knew in my heart of hearts would not be satisfied by a little clump of trees.
However, on the evening before my life-altering entrance into seventh grade, I visited The Woods one last time. Again, I walked the well-worn trails. Again I climbed that tree.
And one last time, I danced among the grasshoppers. As they flew in countless numbers around me, as the great swarm enveloped me, I wept great salt tears of joy and sorrow.
It all happened more than half a century ago. But to this day, I remember the tiny pricks of the grasshoppers on my skin. I remember the taste of those tears.
My youth had come to an end, but the whole world lay before me.
All of those memories came flooding back as I stood looking at that apartment complex. And as tiny pricks of rain stung my face, one last memory hit me like a sudden gale.
I remembered a fine spring day after a violent, windswept storm the day before. My climbing tree stood firm and solid as before. But nearby, a much larger tree lay upon the ground, its roots exposed, naked and unprotected, with no solid earth for it to cling to.
Through those roots, the tree had held steady against the wind. Through those roots, the tree drew life-giving nutrients and water from the soil. After decades of reaching upward toward the sky, it was sure to die because it had lost its contact with the Earth that gave it life.
It had reached upward, always upward, with its tall trunk and leaves to gather in the light, but now Mother Earth would reclaim her substance to become the food from which new saplings would perhaps spring.
Oh, my friends. Take your children to the woods. Teach them to aspire to greatness, to climb upward toward the light. But let them know that the winds will inevitably come.
For some of them, the winds will come as a gentle breeze. For others, the winds will heave with cyclonic force. To withstand such winds, they must fix their roots firmly into family and friends and community, but sometimes even they do not provide fertile soil. Thus, your children must sink their roots deeply into the planet on which we all must stand and out of which we all must grow.
Since that day, I have walked thousands of miles through climes far more breathtaking than my small patch of trees. As I stared at that apartment complex in the pouring rain, I realized with the suddenness of a thunderbolt the answer to a question I have asked myself countless times in countless ways.
Why do I walk? Why do I walk in the blazing sun? Why do I walk in the ice and snow? Why do I walk in the stinging rain? Why do I walk this long, long trail that will end only when I can walk no more?
There I first dug my hands into the ground, pulled up clods of dirt, and inhaled the sweet odor of life. There I first professed my love for Mother Earth. There I first felt a palpably physical, even spiritual, connection with the natural world.
I have carried with me a tiny spark of that connectedness ever since. I will carry it with me until Mother Earth again reclaims me and enfolds me in her loving arms.
But life is hard, and I carry only that spark. I will walk until I find that childlike joy again. I will walk until the gentle winds blowing through the trees slowly coax that tiny spark of tree-strewn heaven into an all-consuming fire.
And I will strive with what energy is left in me to love and nurture the little ball of dirt and trees that I have come to call Mother. I will do so to pay back to her in some small measure a debt of gratitude I can never fully repay. I will do so for my own piece of mind.
Most of all, I will do so for the sake of some small child in some unfathomably distant future. Perhaps that child will want to find a tree and climb upward toward the light and — with eyes wide open and a heart nearly bursting with astonishment — glimpse the larger world.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.