by Scott Russell Sanders
You are still curled in the future, like seeds biding your time. Even though you are not yet born, I think of you often. I feel the promise of your coming the way I feel the surge of spring before it rises out of the frozen ground. What marvels await you on this wild Earth! When you do rise into the light of this world, you’ll be glad of your fresh eyes and ears, your noses and tongues, your sensitive fingers, for they will bring you news of a planet more wonderful and mysterious than anything I can tell you about in mere words.
Mere words are all I have, though, to speak of what I’ve treasured during my days, and to say what I hope you’ll find when you take your turn under the sun. So I write this letter. As I write, I’m leaning against the trunk of a fat old maple in the backyard of our house here in the southern Indiana hills. It’s early one April morning, and the birds are loudly courting. I’m surrounded by the pink blossoms of wild geraniums, the yellow of celandine poppies, the blue of phlox. A thunderstorm is building in the western sky, and a brisk wind is rocking the just-opened leaves. My pleasure from wind and rain, from cloud drift and bird song, from the sound of creeks tossing in their stony beds, from the company of animals and the steady presence of trees — all of that immense delight is doubled when I think of you taking pleasure one day from these same glories.
Even here in a tame backyard, Earth’s energy seems prodigious. The grasses and ferns are stiff with juice. The green pushing out of every twig and stem, the song pulsing out of every throat, the light gleaming on the needles of white pines and in the bright cups of flowers, the thunder clouds massing, the wind rising — all speak of an inexhaustible power. You will feel that power in your day, surely, for nothing we do could quench it. But everything we do may affect the way that power moves and the living shapes it takes on. Will there be whales for you to watch from a bluff on the Oregon coast, as I watched with my own children? Will there be ancient redwoods and cedars and white oaks and sycamores for you to press your cheeks against? In your day, will there be monarch butterflies sipping nectar in gardens, bluebirds nesting in meadows, crayfish scuttling in creeks, spring peepers calling from ponds?
Because of the way my generation and those that preceded us have acted, Earth has already suffered worrisome losses — forests cut down, swamps drained, topsoil washed away, animals and plants driven to extinction, clean rivers turned foul, the very atmosphere unsettled. I can’t write you this letter without acknowledging these losses, for I wish to be honest with you about my fears as well as my hopes. But I must also tell you that I believe we can change our ways, we can choose to do less harm, we can take better care of the soils and waters and air, we can make more room for all the creatures who breathe. And we are far more likely to do so if we think about the many children who will come after us, as I think about you.
I think of you as lightning cracks the horizon and thunder comes rolling in like the distant rumble of trains. When I was little, thunderstorms frightened me, so when the rumbling began, my father would wrap me in a blanket and carry me onto the porch and hold me close as the sky flashed and the air shook and the rain poured down. Safe in his arms, I soon came to love the boom and crash. So when my own two children were little, first Eva and then Jesse, I wrapped them in blankets and carried them onto the porch to watch the lightning and hear the thunder and feel the mist and smell the rain. Now I am doing the same with my grandchildren. Maybe one day a parent or grandparent will hold you during a storm and then you will not only read what I’m saying but feel it in your bones.
The smell of rain reaches me now on a wind from the west, and my skin tingles. The stout maple thrums against my back, like a thick string plucked. This old tree is tougher than I am, more supple, more durable, for it stands here in all weathers, wrapped in bark against the heat and cold, deeply rooted, drawing all it needs from dirt and air and sun. Often, when I come home feeling frazzled from the demands of the day, before I go into the house I stop here in the yard and press my hands against this maple, and I grow calm.
I hope you will find companion trees of your own, where you can hear the birds hurling their lusty cries and watch the flowers toss their bright blooms. May you climb into the branches to feel the huge body swaying beneath you and the wind brushing your face like the wings of angels.
I hope you’ll be able to live in one place while you’re growing up, so you’ll know where home is, so you’ll have a standard to measure other places by. If you live in a city or suburb, as chances are you will, I hope you’ll visit parks, poke around in overgrown lots, keep an eye on the sky, and watch for the tough creatures that survive amidst the pavement and fumes. If you live where it never snows, I hope you’ll be able to visit places where the snow lies deep in winter. I want you to see the world clarified by that coating of white, hear the stillness, bear the weight and cold of it, and then relish warmth all the more when you go indoors. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll travel into country where the land obeys laws that people didn’t make. May you visit deep forests, where you can walk all day and never hear a sound except the scurry and calls of animals and the rustle of leaves and the silken stroke of your own heart.
When I think of all the wild pleasures I wish for you, the list grows long. I want you to be able to chase fireflies as they glimmer in long grass, watch tadpoles turn into frogs in muddy pools, hear loons calling on clear lakes, glimpse deer grazing and foxes ambling, lay your fingers in the paw prints of grizzlies and wolves. I want there to be rivers you can raft down without running into dams, the water pure and filled with the colors of sky. I want you to thrill in spring and fall to the ringing calls of geese and cranes as they fly overhead. I want you to see herds of caribou following the seasons to green pastures, turtles clambering onshore to lay their eggs, alewives and salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. And I want you to feel in these movements Earth’s great age and distances, and to sense how the whole planet is bound together by a web of breath.
As I sit here in this shaggy yard writing to you, I remember a favorite spot from the woods behind my childhood house in Ohio, a meadow encircled by trees and filled with long grass that turned the color of bright pennies in the fall. I loved to lie there and watch the clouds, as I’m watching the high, surly storm clouds rolling over me now. I want you to be able to lie in the grass without worrying that the kiss of the sun will poison your skin. I want you to be able to drink water from faucets and creeks, to eat fruits and vegetables straight from the soil. I want you to be safe from lightning and loneliness, from accidents and disease. I would spare you all harm if I could. But I also want you to know there are powers much older and grander than our own — earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados, thunderstorms, glaciers, floods. I pray that you will never be hurt by any of these powers, but I also pray that you will never forget them. And remember that nature is a lot bigger than our planet: it’s the shaping energy that drives the whole universe, the wheeling galaxies as well as water striders, the shimmering pulsars as well as your beating heart.
Thoughts of you make me reflect soberly on how I lead my life. When I spend money, when I turn the key in my car, when I vote or refrain from voting, when I fill my head or belly with whatever’s for sale, when I teach students or write books, ripples from my actions spread into the future, and sooner or later they will reach you. So I bear you in mind. I try to imagine what sort of world you will inherit. And when I forget, when I serve only my own appetite, more often than not I do something wasteful. By using up more than I need — of gas, food, wood, electricity, space — I add to the flames that are burning up the blessings I wish to preserve for you.
I worry that the choices all of us make today, in our homes and workplaces, in offices and legislatures, will leave fewer choices for you and your own children and grandchildren, fifty or a hundred years from now. By indulging our taste for luxuries, we may deprive you of necessities. Our laziness may cause you heavy labor. Our comfort may cause you pain. I worry that the world you find will be diminished from the one we enjoy.
If Earth remains a blessed place in the coming century, you’ll hear crickets and locusts chirring away on summer nights. You’ll hear owls hoot and whippoorwills lament. You’ll smell wet rock, lilacs, new-mown hay, peppermint, lemon balm, split cedar, piles of autumn leaves. On damp mornings you’ll find spider webs draped like handkerchiefs on the grass. You’ll watch dragonflies zip and hover, then flash away, so fast, their wings thinner than whispers. You’ll watch beavers nosing across the still waters of ponds, wild turkeys browsing in the stubble of cornfields, and snakes wriggling out of their old skins.
If we take good care in our lifetime, you’ll be able to sit by the sea and watch the waves roll in, knowing that a seal or an otter may poke a sleek brown head out of the water and gaze back at you. The skies will be clear and dark enough for you to see the moon waxing and waning, the constellations gliding overhead, the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. The breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent.
The rain has reached me now, rare drops at first, rattling the maple leaves over my head. There’s scarcely a pause between lightning and thunder, and every loud crack makes me jump. It’s time for me to get out from under this big old tree, and go inside to keep this paper dry. So a few more words, my darlings, and then goodbye for now.
Thinking about you draws my heart into the future. I want you to look back on those of us who lived at the beginning of the 21st century and know that we bore you in mind, we cared for you, and we cared for our fellow tribes — those cloaked in feathers or scales or chitin or fur, those covered in leaves and bark. One day it will be your turn to bear in mind the coming children, your turn to care for all the living tribes. The list of wild marvels I would save for you is endless. I want you to feel wonder and gratitude for the glories of Earth. I hope you’ll come to feel, as I do, that we’re already in paradise, right here and now.
Scott Russell Sanders is the author, most recently, of A Conservationist Manifesto. He was also distinguished professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington from 1971 to 2009, and winner of the 2009 Mark Twain Award. This article was first published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril.