Footprints: The Children of Earth Day – Post 38 by Gavin Lakin
Earth does not belong to us; we belong to earth. Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints.
– Chief Seattle
On a sweltering June 1971 San Fernando Valley morning, children in bell bottoms and paisley skirts, with flaxen long hair or brunette braided ponytails, stood attentively before our nation’s flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It was an age of taking pride in learning, World Book Encyclopedias, spelling word families and identifying every country on a map. Homework greeted diligently with an implicit understanding of its reasoning. The notion that straight-A’s didn’t make you a loser kiss-up, but actually someone to admire. The idealism that America was beautiful, as witnessed by the boy’s poem, recited in unison by his entire graduating class. Air would be clean, water would be free of pollutants, cleaner energy would rule the day—farewell to dependence on foreign oil. He and his friends were ready to forge ahead, after the pomp and circumstance, giddy to leave their footprints like those endless sunny romps from Santa Monica to Venice, Topanga to Malibu.
Following the second year of celebrating Earth Day the previous April, the elementary school’s theme was “Save Our Planet.” Forty-eight years later, his generation did everything but.
Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.
– Ray Bradbury
Footprints are equated with leaving one’s mark. Don’t we all want to be remembered? That while we were here, no matter the length of stay, it all meant something? Bradbury’s “incredible destinations” shapes the story of the boy’s generation. He would tell you that the gift given, the opportunity offered, the forever future was fumbled away into the ether. So all-consuming has been the journey of human potential, self-esteem, latchkey, me, me! and the just do it American culture of these past fifty years, that myopathy and earning life’s door prizes and acquiring the American Dream blinded us from seeing the loss of our most essential human character trait: empathy.
How do you answer the question: “What do you do?” Or in other contexts, “What did you do before retiring?” This hyper-focus on doing as opposed to who are you or were you, or “How are you?” is mindboggling, but so damn American.
Well, what did we do?
We’re the ones who can make a difference. If we lead lives where we consciously leave the lightest possible ecological footprints, if we buy the things that are ethical for us to buy and don’t buy the things that are not, we can change the world overnight.
– Jane Goodall
The boy is older and wiser now, a kid at heart, but a man nonetheless. Though far from lowering his carbon and all otherwise ecologically-hurtful footprints to optimal levels, he takes incremental steps, he sees results. But prior to these meaningful steps, there have been hundreds of thousands of moments behind the wheel of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. A lifetime of eating dairy products, courtesy of farting cows. International air travel. Plastic water bottles. Not composting. Eating produce that uses pesticides. Living with air conditioners. Buying products that are inhumanely tested on animals. The list goes on. What he did was convince himself that Mother Earth is resilient. She can deal. Immense meteors, ice ages, endangered and vanished species. She always bounces back.
This time, it’s with a vengeance.
Long since, the desert wind wiped away our footprints in the sand. But at every second of my existence, I remember what happened, and you still walk in my dreams and in my reality. Thank you for having crossed my path.
– Paulo Coelho
If the Anthropocene Epoch inevitably does us in, why should we be surprised? It really will be “thank you for having crossed my path” because that’ll be all she wrote. Humans are, by nature, prone to taking. Giving back and caring for don’t jive well with the way men are wired. Women have faced an uphill battle of Sisyphus proportions to counterbalance yin with yang, to save us from ourselves. Do they have enough time?
The man is optimistic, as he always has been. One can wallow in our species’ failures or stare into the eye of these perfect storms, these swallowing swaths of flames, these harrowing hurricanes, the unparalleled flooding and devastating temblors, the poles’ permafrost, impermanent.
The most significant gifts are the ones most easily overlooked. Small, everyday blessings: woods, health, music, laughter, memories, books, family, friends, second chances, warm fireplaces, and all the footprints scattered throughout our days.
– Sue Monk Kidd
The man mentioned to me that because of how things are now, particularly the growing divisiveness, we feel the need to band together in enclaves. Communities are bound together like manuscripts in the most welcoming institutions of our society: the library. Here is where you’ll find Sue Monk Kidd’s “footprints scattered throughout our days” with home concerts, street fairs, barbecues, caring for the elderly, forgiving instead of holding the grudge.
But as comforting as that may well be, this crisis is an international one. It calls for unity beyond the cul de sac, the city streets, a state capitol’s steps. Ego and financial avarice are a lethal combination. Watching the Walter Cronkite CBS news report, broadcast nearly fifty years ago, one has to wonder was it ever well-formed from its origin? Somewhere along the way did we forget that America has always thrived on greed, individualism, social Darwinism? That it was doomed from the start? That, really, we are also wired to self-destruct because we don’t deserve this world?
There must be limits, somewhere, to the human footprint on this earth. When the whole of the world is reduced to nothing but human product, we will have lost the map that can show us how we got here, and can offer our spirits an answer when we ask why. Surely we are capable of declaring sacred some quarters that we dare not enter or possess.
If the young man had applied earlier, he might have found himself on Mount Rainier in 1979 when members of a college class and their instructor were caught in a white-out. Instead, he was offered a different program, working with kids. If he had been accepted to his first choice, he would likely had gone into the sciences, most likely field biology or environmental science; if he had survived. As it happened, a tragedy occurred on Mount Rainier, stunning the college community and the families involved. He learned how quickly life can flash by. Similarly, Mount St. Helens erupted a year later, where he was close enough to watch the eerie floating ash sticking to cars, dusting hair, layering the streets. And most personally, just over twenty years ago, his family’s vacation home was destroyed by El Niño; churning up his life as much as the rains did to the Pacific.
Robert Frost walked the road less traveled. Aerosmith walked this way. Also, almost fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong said, “I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine sandy particles.” Timothy Leary’s analogy was surfing: “The act of the ride is the epitome of ‘be here now’, and the tube ride is the most acute form of that. Which is: your future is right ahead of you, the past is exploding behind you, your wake is disappearing, your footprints are washed from the sand.”
Therefore, the notion that footprints are left, are washed away, they tread lightly or much too heavily is left to all of us to consider. That boy back in 1971 Los Angeles, like many of us, wished that he had a glimpse of today. Maybe all of us would have dedicated ourselves to reducing our impact. In “Refuge of the Roads” (1976), Joni Mitchell presaged our self-importance and the implied hubris musing about “. . . that marbled bowling ball . . . Or a forest or a highway / Or me here least of all.”
I am that boy, the young man, the man. I am that girl, the young woman, the woman. Born just at the tail end of the Baby Boom, still counted among the generation, but one who missed out on the be-ins, the burning of draft cards, The Summer of Love, Woodstock, bad acid trips, and everything in-between and far-out. I am James Taylor, Johnny Quest, The Jackson Five, The Partridge Family, Carole King, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, SNL, Carlos Castaneda, Quisp cereal. On that June morning I confidently strode up to the microphone, faced the parents of our graduating class and announced “We will now recite ‘America the Beautiful,’ a poem by Gavin Lakin.
I have a copy of my first dabbling in ecological manifestos, somewhere in a plastic storage box, along with much ephemera kept and handed down by my ever-thoughtful mother. That landmark morning launched me on a trajectory that included environmental activism (Diablo Canyon nuke plant, Bangor, WA nuke submarine station), El Salvador government corruption. Writing, recording and performing songs with prosocial messages. Teaching hundreds of students to be excellent global citizens through their knowledge and actions. Fighting for teachers’ salary and benefits that actually showed respect to the profession.
Now, my three-a.m. agenda is: did I do enough?
Only Dr. Seuss, now no longer with us, but he sure left a footprint, knows for sure:
“Even though we may all become extinct, we can still leave our footprint in the sand.”