When I was 22, I lived for a short time with a family of four above a butcher shop in the middle of Delhi. I remember that you couldn’t see the stars there, the sky was too thick with exhaust. Just after arriving on the plane, and before meeting this family, I had used a pair of scissors in a hostel bathroom to cut off all of my hair. Most people shave their head with an electric razor, giving it a somewhat even appearance, assuming one has a somewhat evenly shaped head. But I didn’t have access to such a device. I had, the month before, cut my hair boy-short, but now it needed to come off, all off, urgently I guess.
I wonder what that family thought about an American girl with the privilege of traveling across the world who had apparently had her hair forcibly removed, gashes of scalp showing here and there. They certainly were not particularly warm towards me.
The butcher shops in Delhi did not have a refrigerated meat counter with carefully arranged steaks and chops, pink, just-ground chuck, little packets of breasts and wings wrapped tightly in plastic. They had animal carcasses, skinned and hanging from hooks, in the air, bloody, right there in the street as you walked by. No window, separating meat from passer-by. I remember the overly rich smell, and the strong scent of iron. I remember the flies. I would walk past the shops on my way to hail a rickshaw to take me to class where a holy man dressed in all orange taught me that every grain of rice is sacred. That he is always careful never to step on an ant. This was not a hallucination. Though, all these years later, it seems like it could be.
In my class, we visited a village. I use the word village so that you will understand it was an organization of people in a centralized place. The children had those puffy bellies that you used to see on commercials asking you for just the price of a cup of coffee a day. I remember someone pulled down a child’s lower eyelid so we could see evidence of some parasite or disease, like the kid was a mannequin. These people had been living somewhere else but that place had been flooded to make a hydropower dam to generate electricity, so they had been sent here instead but apparently here was worse than there. That was the story anyway. I didn’t ask if they would have had parasites and swollen bellies had they stayed where they were. I just took away the intended lesson: The path of progress is deadly and its victims are innocent babes. Or maybe: hydropower electricity is used by bad guys to make money and here we see the victims of their greed.
A few years later, I went to Africa for the first time. My assignment was to coordinate a group of scientists to survey a few of the remaining forest patches left in the southeastern corner of Guinea, a tiny country on the coast of West Africa. A mining company was very interested in the iron ore found in the Simandou range of mountains and we were to document any particularly interesting or important ecological information to make sure they didn’t do too much damage, kill chimps or wipe out the whole population of a group of toads that live nowhere else on earth.
Driving across Guinea for two days—there had been a recent coup in the Ivory Coast so we could not approach from that direction as intended—there didn’t seem to be very much ‘pristine’ nature left. We arrived at the Pic de Fon, the peak of the mountain we were to survey, in the dark, in the rain, in four Guinean 4x4s laden with our equipment and we tried to drive up steep mining tracks, red with iron dust. That same iron I had smelled in Delhi, veins of it running thick and deep under my feet.
That was my first month in a tent in West Africa. I held an olive sunbird in my hand, hiked 17 kilometers to see chimpanzee nests and find evidence (some cracked nuts) of their feeding. I learned how to look for tree frogs and shrews, I pet bats, looked for pygmy hippos, unwittingly stepped in piles of driver ants, bathed in a river, woke up each morning to birdsong, fell asleep each night to frogsong and sometimes to the sound of rain on a tent.
Today, a mother of two, I live in a suburb outside of Washington, DC, pretty close to the Pentagon. My street is full of lawyers, Hill-workers, secret service agents, and folks who are in/closely related to the US military. And us, some tree-hugging hippies with a dirty compost pile in the front yard. People are nice enough to us though I’m never sure what they really think about my random vegetable garden in the one sunny-enough spot right next to the street, my let-it-live approach to clover and dandelions.
Tuesday morning is trash day in my neighborhood. Everyone has one large bin for trash and one large bin for recycling. I drive down the street in the morning before the trucks arrive to cart it all “away” and it seems that every trash can at every house is overflowing. This is one street. I don’t dare do the math.
I came back from India with a lot of information. A lot of pictures in my head and a lot of words, explanations. I knew that families were being displaced, towns being flooded, I knew that children were filtering green-revolution chemicals out of their drinking water using their t-shirts, I knew that invisible gases were changing the climate, I knew that Coca-Cola was everywhere.
To provide one example of the messages I internalized via my global education, let’s consider food: To make the food, you start with some cleared land (so first you have deforestation or maybe just land degradation). This land is intensely irrigated (taking water from someone) and heavily fertilized (contributing to climate change and requiring mining for petrochemicals). Next the requisite herbicides/insecticides are applied (poisoning the water supply, killing pollinators, decreasing biodiversity). In the case of plants (or animal feed), multinational corporations sell seeds that can only be grown with patented chemicals to a poor farmer who has no choice but to buy the seeds and chemicals, his family gets poisoned by the chemicals and still has to borrow money the next year to buy more seeds and chemicals (incidentally, if you meet this farmer he is a very nice guy and his kids have beautiful hearts that burst right out through their eyes, they just have to drink chemical backwash is all). Once he sells his meager crop for nothing to a crop distributor, they store it (invisible gases into the air, refrigerant chemicals, pesticides killing more pollinators and infusing food supply), package it (solid waste) and ship it (more invisible gases into the air). It then goes to trucks or trains (more invisible gases), gets sent to a factory to be turned into something (water pollution, invisible gases) that no longer looks like a plant or animal (poor health outcomes, obesity), packaged further (plastics, solid waste), shipped again to a store (more gases, asphalt damage, car accidents), stored there (energy from cooling, energy from lighting, energy from people driving to store, deforestation for making bags, energy for shopkeepers to drive to store, petrochemicals for cashier’s lipstick), some proportion of that goes straight to landfill because of sell-by dates (methane, waste of life energy) and some goes to someone’s house to be refused by her five-year-old because he had cupcakes six times at school that week (future me editorializing).
I think the lesson was supposed to be that I needed to plant an apple tree and barter with my neighbor who had chickens.
Coming back from this experience, this “education,” my most immediate problem was what to eat. With every bite, I was hurting something. Every spoonful a ladle of misery. Animals were suffering in appalling conditions, people were losing homes, the shroud around the planet was thickening, the rivers were silting, the fish were growing extra eyeballs. All because I wanted some breakfast.
I just wanted some breakfast.
I remember a trip with my mom and my younger sister. We were taking her to summer camp. I think she needed some batteries so we stopped at a Walmart on the way. I remember studying the carts there. I had been taught that Walmart was destroying the earth, killing communities. But in the store I saw people with lives and wishes, just people, buying the things they felt they needed. And I looked in the carts. Diet Coke by the cartload. In my memory, the bulk of what was in those carts was soft drinks. I walked back to the car, stony faced, silent. Crying turned laughing turned sobbing—I could not reconcile what I had seen, what I had felt—over there— with what I was seeing and feeling now.
I imagined an international tribunal, some kind of court of inalienable human rights, weighing the right of a child to not grow up in a dried out riverbed filled with literal trash versus my right to have six diet Cokes a day. I know it is a totally ridiculous thought experiment. Candy apples to rotten, worm-infested oranges shipped from Mars. Not real. But these were the kinds of calculations my mind was making. Every day. About every thing.
And then I went to Africa where I met a mountain covered with tree frogs and sunbirds. Again, I returned home to the land of warm showers and dishwashers and cheese anytime you want it. Water from a tap. A land where my car, my pots, the train, my office, my spoon were made from iron cut out of mountains just like the one I loved.
When I see a Halloween-themed tablecloth, I feel sadness. I feel that something sacred has been rended from deep in the earth and transformed into a macabre festival of disconnected, unintended, destruction. You’re just trying to make something nice and festive, I understand.
If a lion does not eat, he will die. If a lion does eat, something else will die. To remain alive, you have to fill your body with energy from the sun, and you can’t photosynthesize. You have to protect yourself from the elements, and you can only grow so much hair in so many places. And you have to be able to breathe.
I don’t know if I can ever make peace with that Halloween tablecloth. I live here—but I don’t exactly know how to be alive here. I feel so many feelings, a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, a lot of fear. And when I watch the news, or read emails from well-meaning organizations, or look in my mailbox, I find plenty of information, words, images to feed all of these feelings.
I had to leave home to be shown the damage that my life was causing to other lives. To take on the burden of knowing. The internet was brand new, my camera had film, you couldn’t make a video with your phone (plus your phone was attached to the wall of your house in America). But my children, my little ones, five and seven, have not had to leave home to learn these lessons. These lessons are around them every day. In books they read, at school, from my lips. My seven-year-old, who had a lesson in climate change at school last month, asked me why people are hurting the earth, why people do bad things to damage, to injure, Mother Nature.
It is important to have information. It is important to understand unintended consequences and how things are connected. But, at 22, I did not make this world. For 20 years, instead of singing a lovesong to my home, instead of embracing, and celebrating, and shining a light on beauty and connection, I have fretted about tablecloths. I have seen life as damage.
There are problems to solve, shifts to be made. But I know this from experience—you don’t teach a child by calling her bad. You teach a child by wrapping her in your arms. You tell her that people love the Earth and people work hard to take care of it. That people are a force for good. That her life is not a burden, but a gift. That there are things we have not understood but that we are learning all the time, and once we learn then we can figure out how to take better care of our home and of each other.
You hold her close, you feel her warmth, her questioning, her aliveness, her care. You close your eyes. You hope, you pray, that what you are telling her is the truth.