John Muir, as America’s first environmentalist, convinced presidents to pay attention to America’s natural treasures and founded the Sierra Club. Muir is the man whose birthday we celebrate as Earth Day. He is also the great-great-great grandfather of my two young sons.
My husband knew the dating value of his connection. On our first phone conversation he dropped the fact of Muir to see if I’d catch the significance of it. I was properly impressed. We married seven months later. Now we drink mimosas, carefully poured from the Muir-dented sterling pitcher. Yet the accumulated weight of responsibility for his family’s crystal and silver is nothing balanced against the legacy of our duty to the world beyond the china cabinet.
It’s a serious inheritance, and our family feels the burden of his work as we spy the robin in the yard cocking his ear at the ground—and the rainbow sheen of chemicals in the puddle beside him.
All of our children are heir to this world. Parents learn the melancholy process of instruction as we help our sons and daughters discover that the rainbow smear they instinctively appreciate as beautiful is, in fact, toxic.
Balancing the accretion of harm done to our planet with an appreciation of its stubborn fragile beauty means organizing the possible—what can a child do to help? They know how to look—how do we teach them to see?
It starts with paying attention. Like a tracker in the woods, a child in a suburb or city can find the domesticated wild in crows, squirrels, rats, pigeons, rabbits, and raccoons. These are the animals most like us, those who have learned to thrive in an urban setting. Teach a child to take a closer look and they will find a grass blade shoving aside asphalt, the fertile casts of worms, coyote scat, swooping peregrines, the dust of pollen, the pungent skunk, deer tracks, the blazing copper eyes of a startled possum at night, and the soaring presence of thousands of migratory birds—reminding them, and us, that we are not outside of nature.
This spring break we drove from Chicago to Tampa for a reunion. As we headed south, I began to recognize and name trees and plants and birds. It struck me that, replanted in the North, I had been surrounded by the environmental equivalent of strangers. In Chicago, I don’t know most of the names of the trees my children climb, the flowers we find. But the southern redbud, dogwood, slash pine, loblolly—even kudzu filled me powerfully with a sadness and a rightness for knowing what was around me.
‘“How imperishable are all the impressions that ever vibrate one’s life! We cannot forget anything. Memories may escape the action of will, may sleep a long time, but when stirred by the right influence, though that influence be light as a shadow, they flash into full stature and life with everything in place.” John Muir, October 23 entry, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf
Stopping in Cedar Key we realized that we had stayed in Louisville, and in doing so had reproduced John Muir’s Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. The difference, though, could not be more acute: he was on foot, mostly through riverbeds and tangle, while we were powered by a fossil fuel V-6.
As the smells and sounds and heat of Florida, the very quality of the light, surrounded me like the friends and family I traveled so far to be near, I understood that I have a responsibility to learn and love the Midwestern plants and beasts—to teach my children what’s beautiful, what’s missing, what’s in harm’s way. To teach them the role of the prairie and grasses and take them to the few places left to Illinois that are wild. They are city children and I must give them their inheritance.
Muir did not leave any natural environment, nor person, as a stranger. We must give children, this Earth Day, their birthright: to know intimately the natural world around them and their part in it- to be taught that nature is not defined by where we are not.