I grew up on Little Traverse Bay, off of Lake Michigan. Small towns wrapped around the water front, which alternated between sand dunes and huge piles of gray rock. Behind the grocery store, a gravel access road was edged on one side by rocks and sand. One day my mother and I had lunch on the rocks, and explored the shore. We came upon this small inlet, where a sandy bank rose up from the shore, creating a half circle of earth that sheltered a pool of still water. Trees rose from the bank, their roots tumbling down the sides, capturing leaves and stones.
I wouldn’t have known to call it sacred then, but that’s what the place was–I felt it immediately. To this day, I get that same tightness in my chest and fullness in my heart when I stumble upon a space of unexpected beauty.
But moments after delight rushed through me, we found the pile of trash–fast food wrappers, beer and soda cans, condom wrappers.
I burst into tears. I couldn’t explain why the desecration hurt me; I could only say “I don’t understand why people don’t care.” My mother tried to be sympathetic. She also tried not to laugh at me. She was mostly successful.
I still feel a little bit weepy when I find trash. Yes, really. But these days I tend to think maybe I should pick it up instead of crying about it. And if it isn’t too disgusting, I do.
One of the differences between being a grown-up pagan and being a child with a mystic’s heart is taking responsibility. Part of growing up–and growing spiritually–is realizing that caring for the earth is part of my work. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t the one who polluted the park. As someone who reveres nature, I consider it my responsibility to do what I can to take care of it. That doesn’t mean I’m responsible for the everything. Obviously I’m not going to give myself a communicable disease, no matter how much I love Forest Park–but I will climb over some ferns to retrieve a beer can and take it to the nearest recycle bin.
I’m not going to undo all the damage in the world by picking up a plastic cup someone left by the trail. I know that. I’ve just decided that the limited reach of my influence doesn’t let me off the hook.
Also I have this misty-eyed notion that if each of us fell in love with one little piece of the planet and did everything we could to protect and care for it, the whole planet would be better off.
Yes, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a sentimental idealist. I still think I’m right.