This Earth Day, I imagine the surprise she felt at all the unexpected bodies hitting the ground. She had been around for billions of years, but eight minutes and 46 seconds still felt far too long. But it would happen again, and again, and again, as we took her children out of their lives and misplaced them.
A pandemic year has brought us grief, and this Earth is no stranger to it.
This year, though, I wonder if she forgives us a little. We’re living in the 13th month of a global pandemic. We watch people get shot and beaten and killed, and then we watch their assailants try to get away with the violence on national TV. We wake up to deaths by shooting in the morning, and we go to sleep to deaths by shooting at night. We bury bodies into the same earth that we terrorize — Take them back, we say. We’re sorry we didn’t protect them like we should have.
When I was young, my other mother and I shared thirty minutes on Thursday evenings at our dining table. She would pull out a book of traditional Chinese poems written during the Tang dynasty. In a practice likely familiar to other children in Chinese families, I was asked to commit the poems to memory, one new one every week.
There’s one poem written by Meng Jiao that I’ve been thinking about recently. In it he says:
慈母手中線 / From the threads a mother’s hand weaves;
遊子身上衣 / a gown for a wandering son is made.
臨行密密縫 / Just before his departure, she sews stitch by stitch,
意恐遲遲歸 / in her mind fearing for his late return.
誰言寸草心 / Who would say that the heart of young grass
報得三春暉 / could repay the sunshine of the deepest spring?
I don’t know what sorts of meanings my mother scribbled into the spaces between the lines in her book, and interpretation of Tang poetry isn’t something I’ve ever studied.
But today this is the image I see: our earth the compassionate mother, us the wandering son. I see the different ways she tries to remind us that she’s still there, waiting. Grass stains imprinted on jeans, bare feet stained with cold dirt, patches of red burnt onto shoulders.
There’s nothing that she’s made that wasn’t meant to also love us. Stitch by stitch, she grew the flax plant for the linen in the canvas that once met Picasso’s brush. She nurtured the spruce tree for the body of the violin that sang with Sam Cooke when he told us a change would come. She planted the aspen tree for the wood pulp in the paper Toni Morrison used to write: “Something that is loved is never lost.”
A year into what was probably the most trying year of a lot of our lives, I wonder how hard our mother loved us so that our wandering would not find us lost.
Some people have called this pandemic The Great Pause, as people and governments were forced to stop in their tracks, to reconsider important decisions, to slow down. Oil and gas companies went bankrupt as we learned to live without fossil fuels, forcing many of them to pivot towards renewable and lower-emissions energy. Cities rerouted streets as bike lanes and walking trails. Less soot and dust meant cleaner snow with higher albedo that has been reflecting more light, and thus melting at a slower rate. Water quality improved with less pollution. A year ago we held our breath, and when we let it go, some cities felt the fresh air, literally — this is what our home could look like, if we took care of it.
But a pause is just that — one pause. It would be too easy to return to business as usual. We’re already using more single-use plastic out of fear that reusable containers will aid COVID-19 transmission, and we’re creating more waste from that plastic and from disposable masks, gloves and empty hand sanitizer bottles that have turned up on seabeds. Economic downturn has disproportionately impacted the poor, immigrants and communities of color, who are also dying at higher rates from coronavirus due to localized air pollution. Extreme weather events like those in California and Texas have only worsened that inequity.
Business as usual also means a mass shooting at a school, a child shot by a police officer, a hate crime in the streets. These do seem like more existential threats than a changing climate. We’re tired and fatigued, and we want to go back to a life where we’re not suffocated by uncertainties and anxieties. If this Earth has been anything, it’s been patient.
How do you repay this sunshine of the deepest spring? Practically, this Earth needs unrelenting pressure on those with resources and power and position, namely fossil fuel companies and the recipients of their dark money, to turn towards cleaner energy. This Earth needs coordinated and collective efforts to shed our addictions to consumption, to build climate and sustainable infrastructures, to harbor and protect plant and animal ecosystems. We need to move this Earth, and find a movement on this Earth. We’ve done it before, on the first Earth Day in 1970, when millions of Americans demonstrated large-scale concern for the environment and urged the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act.
Something like that is a lot to ask right now. But as tiring as it sounds, the pandemic year has brought us resilience, and this earth is no stranger to it. Wildfires burn redwoods black, the ocean eats at the coast, sea ice bleeds out. She lives through it all.
More than that, though. This planet mothers us — she feeds us, heals us, gives us space, watches us grow. She lets us go when the years pass and we think of her less. But when we meet the end of the world, it’s us who needs to mother our mother.
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