On Earth Day, George, now a first-grader, brought home a mobile he made at school. At the top hangs a picture of the Earth coloured bright blue and green. Suspended below are three hearts upon which, in his best handwriting, he made three pledges.
I promise to turn off the lights.
I promise to compost my food scraps.
I promise to turn off the water.
After bedtime, I stared dumbly at the mobile. These were small, positive things that could become habits for a 6-year-old. They were actionable. Achievable. Provided personal agency. They were a school assignment meant to answer a specific question and to be completed in a 20-minute period. In many ways, these were the foundation for future successful actions and personal responsibility. Oh, how I hated them.
Because where was the soul? Where was the joy? Remember: First, stomp in puddles. Lay in the grass. Catch frogs, trout and lightning bugs. Get curious. Fall madly, wildly in love with being in the world. Then do the work to protect it. Fill the cup, then let it pour over.
George had done the assignment and filled his hearts with the things he could do. He had the “what” of making the earth a little bit better. What wasn’t there was the “why.” As well-meaning as the mobile was, if the only thing kids are getting in terms of environmental education is a list of chores, we’re doomed. Altruism is great, but what’s in it for them? Root activism in selfishness and we’re onto a long-term commitment.
It sounds like a jerk thing to say, but let me explain.
I love fishing Western rivers for trout: browns, rainbows, cutthroat. It is straight Type I fun, and I can’t think of another way I’d rather spend a spring, summer or fall day than goofing around on the water convincing fish to eat, bringing them to hand and letting them go. It cracks me up, and delighted is how I like to travel.
Loving catching these fish has led me to love the fish themselves on their own merit. Because I love the fish, I love the bugs. Because of the bugs, I love the river. Because of the river, I love the riparian zone, the mountain snow supply and the geography of the land. Because of the riparian zone, the mountain snow supply and the geography of the land, I love the climate. Because of this love, I act as protector and steward.
Finally, because I am selfish, I want others, especially my children, to understand these things that I love. Yet, my experience telling them spinach is delicious lets me know that I can’t just tell them fish are good, bugs are cool and the climate is changing. They need to figure that out on their own, so I take them to walk in the rivers and help them discover for themselves that it’s all messily, beautifully connected.
When we return home mud-splattered and bug-bitten, we turn off the water and lights and compost our food scraps together in an expression of appreciation for rivers, fish and bugs. It’s transference in all its impossible glory.
Our daughter, Mae, was born at 28 weeks gestation, prompting a 59-day stay in the intensive-care nursery. With both boys, we had them outside within days of their births and on the water in the first week. But for those two months in the hospital, there was no fresh air, no sounds of birds, no splashing currents. Instead, I held that little girl against my chest and told her of the whole big world waiting for her. I told her about the jolt of energy that travels from the steel hook through a monofilament, down the line and backing, across the graphite and into the cork, where it strikes your hand like lightning before leaving you shaking with adrenaline long after the fish has swum away. I told her about skiing and said that making powder turns with friends on alpine faces is probably one of the best ways to spend a day, maybe a life. I promised her sunlight and blizzards and everything in between.
Emily Gracey and her daughter Harper master the fine art of goofing off while waiting for the fish near Oregon’s Rogue River. Photo: Katie Falkenberg