Life on Mother Earth
Yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day.
It’s one of those days in history that I wish I could remember. I was just shy of turning two — not even in preschool yet. But it wouldn’t be long after that monumental day that I’d become enraptured by Mother Nature’s beauty unfurling around my house in rural Wisconsin.
Living in the natural world with no concrete sidewalks, no traffic and few neighbors allows one, even at an early age, to be drawn into the rhythms of our universe. Feeling at times isolated and lost, I’d bask in the wonders of nature and its secret harmony just as the Romantics had nearly two hundred years before me.
I celebrated the arrival of each season and mourned its passing as a new one was born. For three seasons, the waves of the La Crosse River lapped against the grassy knolls, tickling me into an ethereal, fantastical world in which beavers built McColonies and birds clustered in shaggy, verdant foliage, singing arias from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. With winter, the river disappeared under an overgrown white beard, unkempt by the scratching trails of hungry birds and fox. Months passed, ever so slowly, and the perfume of bright purple lilacs enticed the musky sighs from earth’s long slumber into a dusky waltz. Then came summer, with its laughing flowers of robust greens, reds, purples and blues, and the shiny black garden snakes basked in the sun’s rays. Autumn was my favorite time of year — the forest filled with burnt oranges and citron yellows like a bowl full of Halloween candy. I would dart under the boughs of oaks and maples, whose leaves crunched like cellophane under my feet.
The forest was where I felt safest to dream. To fear. To create. When classes weren’t in session, I’d rise before daybreak and steal out of the house with my school bag brimming with the day’s supplies: a flashlight, Mr. Kitty — my beloved stuffed animal, a book, a notepad and pencil, a can of soda, snacks and a magnifying glass. While my family slept, I basked under the green canopy of an old pine situated at the center of our woods. I often wondered how old he was but wouldn’t dare think of cutting him down to count his rings — a maudlin celebration of life and death. His broad arms reached to the heavens as if offering an embrace of the world upon my shoulders. I would spread my arms wide and pay him my respects, a god who loved me and protected me from snow, sleet and the harsh tears of spring showers. If the earth were damp and mushy, I also brought with me an old blanket and laid it out with painstaking care across the roots of ancient life.
Reclined against the rippled bark, I would stare into the pine-needled sky and wish to be a bird with wings. I dreamt of soaring through the clouds, feeling superior to the tiny movements of human beings and their lame attempts at living. My eyes would follow the frolicking chatter of chipmunks as they scurried through the forest floor in search of that one favorite nut. Once I brought an old rake to the tree and swept away the dead pine needles, fallen pine cones and other scattered debris gathered by the arms of whistling winds. He seemed to smile at me, but I was never quite sure. Stolid, he was in nature and emotion. I had read a children’s book where ants became larger than life and stomped on the homes of humans. Fearful that such an occurrence might actually be possible, I made great pains to avoid stepping on the spiraling anthills rising from the interstices of the tree’s roots.
As I grew older, the tree became my point of departure for longer journeys into unchartered wilds. I’d venture into the unknown, always a bit hesitant that I wouldn’t find my way back to my tree. Fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and Ivan and the Wolf, warned me of the dangers in nature, but, through these adventures, I also gained independence by testing my personal strength and sense of direction. Besides, I told myself, I feared humans much more than anything on four feet. I was always on the look out for wild honeysuckles. The bleeding red hearts would bow their golden crowns to me and offer their succulent fluids. I would suck at the sweet droplets of honey, and my body was filled with the vigor of a timber wolf …
Like all children, we move away from our childhood homes at some point — setting off on our own quest into adulthood. Mine led me on many divergent paths, ultimately working to protect the environment for NGOs in New York for nearly a decade. It was some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done thus far.
Years later, when I returned to my family home I couldn’t wait to visit my grand tree once again. To wrap my adult arms around his trunk and allow his branches to embrace me.
It wasn’t meant to be.
A housing development had blazed the entire forest.
The dirt road is now paved.
There are cars in driveways, on the main road and in garages large enough to house three families in any other part of the world.
I wept for my tree, but also for humanity and where we’ve come in four short decades when the world was afire with demands for clean water and clean air.
And I wondered what the slew of children climbing on faded, plastic jungle gym equipment would have thought about climbing a tree instead.