For the last few years, I’ve stored away in the basement of my heart words from a ten-year-old girl at my church: “I hope I’m dead before it gets really bad.” She was referring to the climate crisis. I was told about this exchange by the girl’s mom. In her mom’s retelling, I heard a child’s awareness of a truth which I think many white, middle-class adults like myself fear saying directly: it’s likely going to get worse. Most scientists predict more floods, famines, and fires, so it’s just a matter of how much worse and when. I also heard a child wishing for an early death. If things were going to get bad, she didn’t want to be alive to see them.
I carried the words down to my heart’s basement, because—like my divinity school diploma, my ice hockey goalie skates from high school, and my great-grandfather’s book on the history of the YMCA—I didn’t know what else to do with them. What would I say if that young girl, or any child, spoke those words in my presence? Would I lecture the child on how life is a gift from God and its value doesn’t depend on outer circumstances? Would I admonish her by telling her that she has the power to make a difference if she is willing to join others in the fight? Would I ask her to say more about what she was feeling, and then shut up and listen? I stashed her words away and hoped that, one day, I’d have a meaningful reply.
What would I say if that young girl spoke those words in my presence?
Her words gathered dust until a few months ago when I embarked on an olfactory quest. I was in a Zoom writing class called “Rewild Your Words” and was charged to discover what I could smell in my own backyard. It turns out that it’s hard to smell much of anything in mid-March in Vermont standing on the icy crust of calf-deep snow in a hilltop field with the morning wind gusting from the north. I sniffed a pine sapling. Nothing. I sniffed a fallen tree along the stone wall between the forest and the field. Nothing. I lifted a handful of snow to my face. Only the smell of my sweaty mitten. And then I saw a piece of arm-length scrap wood jutting from a mound of manure that had been dumped in the field last summer but never spread. I walked over to the pile and knelt down to shake the board free. The winter elements had turned the exposed wood gray, but the buried tip was dirt-brown. When I brought it to my nose, I smelled an August garden trapped inside an icicle: earthy and fecund, but just barely. Something at last! And then the scent vanished on the wind.
Soil is full of wonders. I learned later that more organisms live in a handful of soil than there are humans on earth, and 5,000 types of bacteria live in just one gram of soil. But the greatest wonder was how, kneeling on that pile, the ten-year-old’s words – “I hope I’m dead before it gets really bad”—suddenly burst into my awareness. It’s often said that scent is the organ of memory; the scent of that soil stimulated my recollection of those anxious words that I had shelved. They were, the workings of my memory seemed to be saying, of the earth. I don’t have an answer to the girl’s well-placed concern, but I think I know the right posture for seeking an answer. It turns out that sniffing in a compost pile is a lot like bowing, and when you face questions with your senses aimed toward the earth – not toward a notebook, or a laptop, or even toward a book– you feel the support of hundreds of billions of creatures churning out the stuff of August gardens a few feet below the surface in March.
Sniffing in a compost pile is a lot like bowing…
My wife and I are expecting our first child in June, a boy. I’ve been anticipating his potential ecological questions. “Why didn’t you do more?” “Will my life be anything like yours?” “How bad is it going to get?” “What do I need to learn to survive?” “Are those skills that you can teach me?” God only knows how our world, his questions, and our safety and survival all might change by the time he’s old enough to ask such things. Maybe we’ll regularly be on our knees in the soil weeding because we have to grow our own food, or regularly on our knees pleading for reprieve from whatever difficulties or evil might befall us. Maybe we’ll be on our knees living on a different planet. Who knows?
Whatever conversation we will have about the climate crisis, I don’t know what I’ll say, but I do know what I want to do in the meantime. In the meantime, I will pray for willingness and guidance to use my political agency to help minimize the harm caused by carbon emissions. In the meantime, I also want to dig and sniff in the soil with my son, soaking in the support of billions and billions of creatures. I want us both to learn how to hold things lightly in our hearts because we know from kneeling in the soil that we, too, are being held.