Archive for February, 2009

Recently a friend and I were debating the merits of public versus private elementary school.  She was telling me tantalizing things about her children’s private school: the way each child is given space to learn at his or her own rate, the small class sizes, the music, the art, the fresh baked bread (that last one almost did me in).  I could have easily come up with one of many things I love about our public school, but oddly what came out my mouth was, “Well, it’s really important to me that I can walk or bike with my kids to school.”  


My friend, who drives twenty minutes each way to her kid’s school, replied, with a more than a wee bit of puzzlement, “Boy, that must be really important to you!”  She thought I was saying that our humble daily trek to school was compensation enough for the classic public-school ailments from which we were surely suffering: less individual attention, classes that are too large, under-funded music and art curricula, soulless bread.  In a way, that’s exactly what I was saying.


It is true that my kids and I have had lots of nice experiences on the way to and from school.  As we’ve covered the three quarters of a mile, day in and day out, we’ve admired the rose colored winter light, we’ve named the glowing fall trees (“Emperor Tree” for the very most glowing one).  We’ve eagerly spotted, and then stomped on, paper thin feathers of ice skinning the puddles, we’ve cleared sewers of slithery leaf piles to watch the backed up water gush in.  My older daughter saw her first pileated woodpecker, a magnificent creature, in the pines a block from our house.  


But the truth is, as anyone knows who has ever faced the task of getting kids off to school in the morning, it’s usually not quality time.  “Will you please HURRY up?” and “Mommy, it’s pouring. Do we have to walk?” are far, far more common than sniffing the lilacs and other idyllic pursuits.


What is it then that pushes me to this daily ritual, come horizontal rain, come tree-rattling winds, and come endless days of sub zero temperatures?  I might say something about the benefits of exercise and fresh air, the environmental virtues of not driving, or those occasional enchanted mornings.  But really, it’s about the weather.  


Americans are utterly fascinated by weather.  We have 24-hour weather channels which people sit and watch for hours.  We have weather blogs and weather diaries which folks read religiously.  Much of our small talk is about weather – and that is only partly because we have nothing else to say – we  love to talk about the weather.  Simply put, the weather is, for many of us, our last great tangible connection to the natural world.  


We are, in so many other ways, completely divorced from the biological and geological processes humming all around us; and because of this distance we fail to notice many of the profound disruptions we have already wreaked.  


We might not notice that dramatically fewer songbirds return every spring.  We might not notice toxins in our water and in our breast milk.  We might not be aware that the peaches and plums we happily munch are pollinated with trucked-in bees because there are not enough wild ones left.  We can go months without an endangered sea turtle swimming into our thoughts.  


But we can’t ignore the weather.  If it’s colder or hotter than usual, we notice.  If it rains, oh so anguishingly, all the summer long, we notice.  Weather makes or breaks our vacation plans.  It intrudes forcibly into even the most shut-in life via heating bills, ice dams, and flooded basements.


Climate scientists wonder what will it take for folks to wake up to the terrible threats of global warming.  The stakes could not be higher.  In a recent speech, former Vice President Al Gore warned that “emitting greenhouse gases at current levels would bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth.”  Did that get us to change our behavior?  


For many of us, such proclamations are too abstract.  The threat of mass extinctions is too abstract, the melting of glaciers and arctic sea ice is too far away.  But, when our local weather starts to change significantly, we will start to wake up.


We will notice when storms the strength of Hurricane Katrina hit the Atlantic coast several times a year.  We’ll notice when the lack of winter snow in the the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico depopulates the west.  We’ll notice when fruit can no longer be grown in California and maple-syrup trees flee northward.  We’ll start to care when polar ice melt laps at the streets of our coastal Maine towns.  


Through their daily walk to school, I give my children this gift: you may sleep in a warm room, you may eat imported bananas on your breakfast cereal, you may snuggle with your stuffed sea turtles as real sea turtles make their last stand in the tropical seas, but you will also pay some mind, every day, to the texture of the wind, the color of the air, the whispering ice, and the lilac buds beginning to swell.  


As you walk between the warmth of your house and the safety of your school, you will have your small daily reckoning with Mother Nature and you will make your peace with her.  It’s not too cold to go out.  It’s not too wet.  It’s not too hot.  There aren’t too many mosquitoes.  This is my gift to you.

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