Heartland: A Child's Story

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On a recent Sunday morning, after spending an hour fiddling with a new espresso machine that had sprayed coffee all over the kitchen, I decided to straighten a bed where my 11-year-old friend Alondra had spent the night. She had slept over after attending an event I had co-hosted for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which is campaigning to end America's oil addiction, promote sustainable logging, and bring green ethics to Wall Street.

I was a little grumpy as I went about the task, so it took me a moment to notice a series of Post-it Notes neatly arranged on the headboard. Looking more closely, I saw that Alondra had filled the small yellow squares with hand-drawn pictures and captions that formed a sort of storyboard: an attempt to process what she had heard about environmental crisis the night before. The starkness of the images--cars in toxic clouds, coughing people, dead bodies--hit me unexpectedly and, seeing the enormity of the world's challenges through the eyes of a child, I found myself in tears.

'The hippies had it right all along,' irreverent columnist Mark Morford recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. 'All this hot enthusiasm for healing the planet and eating whole foods and avoiding chemicals and working with nature and developing the self? Came from the hippies. Alternative health? Hippies. Green cotton? Hippies. Reclaimed wood? Recycling? Humane treatment of animals? Medical pot? Alternative energy? Natural childbirth? Non-GMO seeds? It came from the granola types.'

I've been there, done all that--with a righteous stridency. I've also gotten distracted and, faced with the seeming futility of my efforts, suffered bouts of ennui that weren't easy to shake off. Now, as global warming and peak oil and all those other time bombs tick in our collective consciousness, it's become clear that our only salvation will be a mass response. But where to begin, and what if it's too late?

Most of us aren't in a position to build a state-of-the-art, ecogroovy house off the grid. So it occurred to me that I must not be the only one who's stymied about how to change our immediate surroundings, in my case a rambling 1900s house that I'm not ready to give up, even though it's bigger than my family needs. So I decided that a serious investigation into how one might 'futurefit' such a home would be a great way to start a conversation about what's feasible and what's affordable. (I pitched the idea to Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor of our sister publication Natural Home , to see if she was interested in providing some direction. She is intrigued. Stay tuned!)

I've also been quietly observing some neighbors as they work together in their yards: the adults tearing down fences, shuttling landscaping dirt to and fro; the kids and dogs running back and forth. One afternoon, someone ran from one house to the next to point out a circling eagle. They all gathered to watch together.

The collaboration seems as simple as it is fun, and watching it all unfold, I found my mind drifting to Alondra's drawings.

It's true: We face overwhelming challenges. And sometimes we get scared because it doesn't seem that there's anything we can do. But I wanted her to understand (we all need to understand!) that while danger is inherent in crisis, we also have an unprecedented opportunity to use our intelligence and creativity to create a revolution. It is, quite simply, an exciting time to be alive.

I want Alondra to know that, as a mentor used to tell me, worry is optional. And while life doesn't ever give guarantees about outcomes, having fun along the way will give us the best odds. As philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, when we learn to harness 'the energies of love, then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.'

I showed a draft of this column to Alondra. Her reaction surprised me and gave me courage. 'I'm not scared,' she said. 'I'm just saying that this is what's happening in the world and we need to stop it now.'

As for that espresso machine: I've returned it. I don't need it.


Nina Rothschild Utne is Utne Reader's editor at large.