I was barely 17 in the summer of 1973, rangy and restless, sweating through a muggy July in South Bend, Indiana, the land of corn and rust. I made five bucks an hour working a drill press — using it to bore little circles into blue plastic electrical boxes, or on other days, making half-inch mounting-bolt holes in the tops of bright-red Snapper lawnmower seats. In July I got a better job: fifty cents an hour more to work in a metal shop on the south end of town, where I dropped faucets and trailer-hitch balls into giant tanks of sulfuric acid, wincing and snorting against the tang, to prepare them for chrome plating.
My parents were away weekends that summer, 45 miles to the southeast, finishing a little cottage they’d been working on for a half-dozen years. Left alone, I was twitchy, stirred up by the urge to roam. One Friday night, at around 9 p.m., I loaded a small backpack with food and water, slipped into a torn blue windbreaker and walked a block and a half to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. There I hunkered down in a patch of weeds, screening myself from passing cars, and waited. I’d timed the outing to roughly coincide with one of the westbound trains rolling through — a schedule I knew from having spent years of nights listening to the freight cars rolling across the neighborhood.
Sure enough, in 15 or 20 minutes came the usual signal for trains approaching an intersection — two long horn blows, one short, another long — and then the rails started shimmering in a big pour of headlight. There was the deep, earth-shaking grumble of four giant diesel engines rolling past, the grind of steel wheels against the rails, a screech of brakes as the train slowed. And finally, the sound of the white gravel stones on the track bed crunching under my shoes as I trotted out of the bluestem and butterfly weed to jump butt-first into the open doorway of a boxcar.
And suddenly there I was, rolling west through the summer night, fireflies blinking on and off in the ditches. In 10 minutes or so came a line of abandoned, dimly lit brick factories and warehouses at the western edge of the city, their long lines of rock-shattered windows blackened with soot. And then, finally, countryside. Here and there a small wood lot. And at the edges of the fields near Stillwell, a sweep or two of hedgerow — lines of thicket that in those days seemed to be vanishing right before our eyes, as farmers plowed everything under to plant corn and soybeans. And farther west still, clinging to the last soggy places not yet filled in by bulldozers, the dull silhouettes of thrush and cattail, where I imagined resolute little green frogs singing up the summer moon. At my turn-around point, three hours up the line in Gary, the landscape was ghoulish, vile. There were clusters of fuming smokestacks and a row of burn-off plumes from Standard Oil and U.S. Steel. At night the skies shined like weak neon. The fires that erupted now and then in the Gary city dump added onto the usual sulfury odor of the city, a smell like scorched wires.
At the edge of the freight yard, on a bleak street paved with crumbling bricks, I struck up a conversation with a guy in his fifties named Stan — stooped, unshaven, wearing a dark blue t-shirt ripped at the shoulder, smelling of Aqua Velva and cigarettes. He said he’d been fired from his job on the slag line for showing up drunk. Now he was trying to get west, to Kansas, hoping to crash for a couple of months with his oldest daughter. At a pause in the conversation I told him how strange Gary looked to a guy from South Bend: the crazy-colored sky, the nasty smell, the puddles of fuel oil. He flinched.
“To hell with that,” he snarled, turning to walk away. “You don’t get it, fella. Poison is progress.”
I grew up in an age of industrial hauteur, a woozy time of contrivance and contraption that, despite enormous benefits, was by the mid-1950s sick with bravado. My brother and I, along with millions of fellow baby boomers, took our first bike rides and hoisted our first kites in a world stained by poisons, from nuclear fallout in the Rockies to DDT on the Great Plains. In New York City alone, three separate smog events between 1953 and 1966 killed more than 600 people.
Meanwhile the Bureau of Reclamation was stumping hard to shove dams across many of the last wild rivers of the West, including a dogged yet ultimately unsuccessful attempt to plug Colorado’s Green River, in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. Urban waterways were fouled beyond recognition, most notably the Cuyahoga in Ohio, so dirty with oil and solvents that in 1969 it caught fire. Public forests throughout the Pacific Northwest and California suffered from massive clearcutting, including the destruction of nearly all the giant sequoias on private land. In 1964 there were still government-sponsored bounties on a wide variety of “bad” animals, from mountain lions to coyotes, wolves to weasels, hawks to owls. And in 1969, when I was 13, 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara, wiping out thousands of birds and sea lions and elephant seals.
The environmental movement that arose in response to these disasters was hardly populated by Luddites. The very emblem of the movement was a photograph called Earthrise, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders — the product of one of the most complicated technological accomplishments in human history. Indeed the boomers deliberately linked science and technology to the goals of clean air and water and sustainable agriculture. They succeeded because they were good at speaking scientific truth to power rather than pining for an Arcadian past. In 1967, about 20 percent of Americans listed the environment as a top priority. Just 15 months later — in large part thanks to rallies and protests and organizing by young environmentalists — that number had swelled to 80 percent.
In 1970, 20 million people hit the streets for the first Earth Day, giddy to show a little love for the home planet. In that same year, young Americans called for — and got — a powerful new federal health overseer called the Environmental Protection Agency. On the heels of that came the National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. The last of those alone had by 1990 prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and saved some $22 trillion in health-care costs.
So what happened? Why does the generation that launched the modern environmental movement wince at the mere mention of climate change, claiming it leaves us overwhelmed, or too sad? Why couldn’t we figure out how to grow the brilliantly naïve, hot-blooded urges of our youth into a mature ecology? How is it that the generation that should be inspiring the country, having come at last to that powerful season cultural-psychologist Mary Clare calls elderhood, can on many days seem all but absent from the stage?
For all the skills boomers had when it came to organizing, we had blind spots. Boomers were recipients — and ultimately, purveyors — of centuries of hierarchical, binary thinking. Our early environmental leaders were mostly middle-class white guys, prone to dissecting the world and then ranking the component parts: wilderness over here, city over there. Federally protected acreage versus ranch lands. Man versus woman. Rationality versus intuition.
While early on we took our activist cues from the civil rights movement — especially when it came to organizing — we became increasingly exclusive, blinded by our own privilege. Plain and simple, we were lousy at building big tents. In 1970, 80 percent of the black and Hispanic population lived within five miles of a toxic waste site, but the environmental movement ignored those communities. A truly effective environmental-justice movement wouldn’t gain traction for almost 20 years — thanks then almost entirely to black and Hispanic, rather than middle-class white, activists. Feminists, meanwhile, were offering insights into essential principles of ecology — including the fact that for any system, the key to long-term health is diversity — but they too went largely unheard. We missed opportunities to grow our sense of the world. And in the process we lost millions of allies for the environmental movement.
Filled with the headstrong enthusiasm of 20-somethings, our work on behalf of the earth was often tainted by hubris. We were seduced by the age-old fantasy of good guys battling bad guys: we thought we were in Gunsmoke, with fewer horses and more drugs. We’d been the first kids in history to fall ass over teakettle under the spell of television, which was holster high in one-dimensional heroes and villains. By 1958, there were 25 Westerns on the prime-time network lineup. Gunsmoke eventually became the longest-running television drama in history, serving up its hour-long mix of leather and bullets for a staggering 20 years. Those male heroes who rode into our living rooms every week wanted nothing so much as to be left alone — free of women and free of cities, free of people of color, too. And they encouraged us to take heart in the venerable but dangerous American idea that no matter how ruined things might be around us, there’s always a place that’s still unblemished, somewhere to the west. That fantasy blinded us to one of the most profound ecological lessons that wild nature can teach — which is that wilderness by itself is never enough.
For example, we rarely considered that critical winter range and migration corridors for elk, deer, bison, and pronghorn were outside protected federal preserves, on private land. And it was for a long time a kind of heresy to suggest that, if we wanted to save the animals, we should also help save the cattle and sheep ranches. Furthermore, by seeing ranchers as villains, we missed altogether the notion that holistic range management — where cows are bunched together and moved regularly, a system that takes advantage of the symbiotic relationship between grasslands and grazing animals — may lead to healthy rangelands. Too often we abandoned our commitment to science because, well, we preferred the fight.
This living under a small tent, peering out from under the canvas to engage in gunfights with marauding polluters and developers, thrilling as it may have been, would over time lead to widespread fatigue. We’d shown up for a sprint, but we found ourselves in a marathon. By the late ’70s and ’80s, some of us were even talking ourselves out of our earlier environmental enthusiasms, dismissing them as naïve.
When it comesto our current relationship to the planet, meaningful elderhood requires that we stop long enough to celebrate all the things we got right, but also acknowledge what we missed. Even more than that, it requires a kind of reset. A recalibration. Solving climate change — getting our carbon dioxide emissions down to 350 parts per million, cracking the 40 percent-efficiency barrier in solar panels, supporting alternative energy, and building higher-efficiency cars — will take sustained inspiration. And it will take a steadfast desire to lead a more compassionate, more caring way of life.
Early in my writing career, I took part in a project that required me to peruse more than a thousand nature myths from around the globe. I spent over a year on the work, at various folklore libraries, neck deep in old books and audio recordings. Along the way, it dawned on me that nearly every tale I came across pointed to at least one of three qualities that people — spanning thousands of years — considered essential for living well in the world. The first was community. The second was mystery. The third was beauty.
When it comes to boomers recalibrating, to us moving through our grief so that we can act intelligently on our concerns for the planet, we need to build fresh relationships to those qualities.
You could just as easily call it ecology. While it’s true that 45 years ago we had a fairly narrow idea of community, in truth a larger, more useful version was already emerging, more or less beyond our ken. Across just one year — 1973, when I was riding the rails through the fading industrial belt of northwestern Indiana — the country embraced an extraordinarily important conservation law called the Endangered Species Act, and the EPA announced limits to the amount of lead allowed in gasoline. This was also the year the last American troops came home from Vietnam; Maynard Jackson of Atlanta became the first black mayor of a southern city; Native Americans rose up at Wounded Knee, South Dakota; and, in Tucson and St. Paul, the first shelters for battered women opened their doors.
All these events, and many more, were early signs of a deepening sense of what ecology means. The fact is, the fight to save our planet goes hand in hand with the effort to stop the oppression of people on the basis of race, class, and gender. Serve one, and you serve them all. From a community perspective and from a conservation perspective, going forward into elderhood means laying claim to a bigger imagination. It should be a truly ecological imagination, one that recognizes that every culture — and every group within a culture — has its own vast storehouses of essential knowledge.
Albert Einstein called mystery “the source of all science and all art.” Maybe we could support science and technology without demanding from them quick, simplistic solutions. Every bit as important as the answers science comes up with, after all, are the questions it raises. There’s so much we don’t know. And if science is really doing its job, a decade from now what we don’t know will be greater still. Will we choose to make this a source of anxiety, or can we pull from it the simple pleasure of wonder?
Right now there’s no end of fear and resistance to the idea of looking climate change in the eye. And to be fair, the first consequence of such an act may be feelings of sadness, alarm, regret, numbness. But in truth merely standing up and facing such emotions is the first step in getting across this turbulent river. We can’t know what we’ll find on the other side until we get there.
And finally, beauty. That thing storytellers around the world say is critical for nudging us forward when we’re stuck. Beauty free of distraction, free of scrutiny or analysis. When I was twenty I would’ve told you that beauty lived mostly in nature, in wilderness. Now I know better. Beauty is in the community gardens in downtown Detroit, and in the farmers’ market under the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore. It’s in the smell of jasmine along the sidewalks of Northeast Portland, and in a backyard in Birmingham, where a little girl stoops down to show her mother a spiderweb glistening in the sun.
But there’s something else to know about beauty. The ancient Greeks had a wonderful definition for it: beauty meant “to be of one’s hour.” It is the ability to inhabit who we are in this particular place and time. Boomers are crossing into the last decades of life’s final chapters, each one sure to play out against a wave of environmental challenges. What if we chose to rise to the occasion? Not just to leave the world a better place for future generations. But also — after we cut through our regrets, our fears, and our distractions — to find one last, exquisite chance to know what it’s like to be truly alive.
Gary Ferguson has written 22 book son science and nature. His latest, The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness, won the 2015 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing award. Reprinted from Orion Magazine(July, August/September, October 2016), a bimonthly magazine that brings ideas, writers, photographers, and artists together, focused on nature, the environment, and culture, addressing environmental and societal issues.