A “traveler between indigenous and scientific ways” of knowing about the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer works as a professor of environmental studies at State University of New York. Descended from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she grew up interacting daily with the plants, woods, and wetlands that became her companions, neighbors, and friends. Moved by an elder who told biographies of plants in her valley—their gifts, responsibilities, friendships, and animosities—Wall Kimmerer is the rare scientist who speaks of plants as teachers rather than objects, who seeks to learn from plants rather than simply about them.
Somewhere deep in the bones aches a longing for the kinship with the living world of which Wall Kimmerer speaks. Particularly in the age of climate change, when the list of large animals on the verge of extinction grows longer each year and the polar ice caps melt away, I long to step out into a world where my existential panic is hushed by the simple beauty of spring petals unfurling their velvet glory. In the last year alone, dire predictions about climate change have proven too optimistic. Global warming, like the earth’s congestive heart failure, seems to be slowing the circulation of the oceans powering the Gulf Stream. Coral reefs are disappearing. The Totten Glacier of East Antarctica appears to be compromised, which could unleash “over 11 feet of sea level rise” in coming centuries. Last week, a young sperm whale washed up on a beach in Spain to reveal 64 pounds of waste, most of it plastic, lodged in its stomach. While lead-tainted water in Flint slowly poisoned a generation of children, Michigan also recently approved the Nestle Corporation’s permit for increased water pumping from the Great Lakes.
The drumbeat of dire news is paralleled only by the odd twists and turns of news leaking from the EPA, whose embattled highest official Scott Pruitt once sought to do away with the agency completely. Suddenly, we live in a nation where our government flinches at the words “climate change,” hollows out agencies filled with lifelong public servants, rolls back regulations in favor of corporations, and shirks responsibility to curb climate change within the community of nations. The inertia of these times nearly catapults us into cynicism.
As parents, however, we don’t have the luxury to dwell in cynicism. We must face head-on the challenge of explaining climate change to our children, despite the residue of guilt most of us internalize about the world we are handing down to them and their children. We want to be honest with them, yet we also want to inspire them to hope, to problem-solve, to believe that we can change the world.
In this polarized, partisan climate, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on belief in climate change as the litmus test for whether one truly cares for the earth. While it’s certainly true that we should teach our kids the science behind climate change (especially if they are not getting this information at school), sometimes we emphasize belief as if intellectual assent to scientific fact is enough. Theologian Marcus Borg points out, however, that at its root, believing connotes beloving—to what do we give our hearts and lives? Cultivating, within our kids, the beloving of the wild positions them to fiercely pursue kinship with the living world. Kinship, by definition, understands that every living thing has its rightful place in the wider family of life. It requires the unrelenting interrogation of ourselves, asking how we are in right relationship with the earth and where we need work.
To all the exhausted parents fighting to teach their children about justice in many realms of life while resisting the onslaught of fake news, Trumpian denial of truth, and the merciless 24-hour news cycle, take heart. All that is asked of us is to invite our children to love the wild. If we hike breathtaking brinks with them, wade into the river, canon-ball into water holes; if we marvel at lightning bugs and trace the migration of a butterfly; if we grow our own food from seeds and lay under the blinking stars with our kids by night; if we thank a laying chicken for her eggs and scratch the soft chin of a horse; if we dance in a rainstorm and catch snowflakes on our tongues, then we will teach our kids how to love the earth. And when they fall under the spell of the wild, they will also listen to her. They will speak up for her. They will give their lives in service to her. They will know true kinship.