Something Old, Something New: The Legacy of Caring Continues . . .

A legacy may be as simple and subtle as an impression left on a child from a walk in the woods, or as impervious as a monument erected to commemorate a species gone extinct. It can be created through a commitment, a calling, a vision; passed on through a handshake, a book, or a song. However we choose to work, believe or love, we leave a legacy, as contributing writer Ann Zwinger said, “whether we want to or not.”

My grandmother’s legacy to me was her love of all things green. It was her favorite color, she told me, because she could never count all its shades. “Just look at a hillside!” she said. “There are more greens than the trees that wear them.” This love of green was her love of nature. I wonder if I would have the same affinity, had it not been for her influence on my life.

During only a few of my younger years I lived near her farmhouse, in a clearing on a forested hill. There I followed deer paths in the woods, cut forts out of bamboo patches, made hallways among the branches of streamside shrubs. She applauded my imaginary forest friends, watched me climb trees and pick flowers and chew grass, waved so-long from her back porch when I disappeared into the hayfields. She lead me everywhere from flowerbed to berry patch, from vegetable garden to kitchen sink. I watched her save table scraps for compost, rinse plastic bags to be hung dry and used again, collect tin cans for the berries, the scarecrow, the back porch shelves. She taught me conservation in an age when it was considered old-fashioned, to grow things when it was considered too much work, to love all that life promises when troubles threaten to outrun the joys.

I learned from her a love of animals I never grew to question. We stood hand in hand in summer’s evening grass and watched deer arrive in ones and twos to feed in nearby fields. Each time another appeared she squeezed my hand tightly, though no words ever broke the silence. They were more beautiful than the deer living on shelves of glass in her living room windows: seventy-five porcelain, wood, ceramic, plastic, and felt figurines, fist-sized down to an inch big. Years later, driving down a country road, I passed a line of hunters’ cars parked end to end along each stretch of shoulder. A gunshot cracked the calm facade of the surrounding woods, and fear filled my heart that one of these animals had fallen. So many years after watching deer gather in the twilight, I realized my grandmother’s love had become my own.

Elders teach us to see, show us where to look, and remind us what to love. Perhaps their most profound teaching is pointing our attention toward things we may not yet have the ability to notice on our own. Working for the environment has become a profession and field of academic study during the lifetime of most of today’s elders. Environmental practitioners today can draw inspiration from the strong, young legacy of many conservationists, scientists, and writers of these decades past who cared for the earth and heeded its future dangers. The legacy of their love inspires continuing passion for this work.

Throughout this volume of Whole Terrain’s exploration into legacy and posterity, a key question reflecting back is, “who?” Who do we look to for guidance, who has been there before, who holds the knowledge we need from the past, and who has the vision we need for the future? The answers are various: mentors who bridge the gap, grandfathers who introduce nature, outdoor guides who teach simple living, scientists who persist despite the odds, poets who squeeze our hand to point out the unspoken, ancestors who watch over, elders who lead by example, and we, ourselves, who are only just beginning.

Why now, in the midst of millennial fever, has the editorial board of Whole Terrain chosen to honor the legacy of the elders? Writer Shigeyuki Okajima answers: “When the elderly among us die, our ancient traditions often die with them. The present time is crucial as we only have another twenty years or so before this treasure chest of ancient skill and wisdom dies out with this generation. In the past, culture was transmitted from one generation to the next in each household, but this has ceased to be true.” Three underlying tenets appear again and again throughout the selections, attesting to the need of transmitting these ancient skills and wisdom: environmental activism is an intergenerational commitment; passing on a love for nature is the hope for its present and future protection; and defending the natural world is the inclusive legacy of all environmental practitioners.

Some are born into a legacy of conservation work. Nina Leopold Bradley speaks of life with her father, Aldo Leopold, and the lessons her family learned while nurturing their land together. Family rituals are often at the core of legacy and posterity. Rabbi Everett Gendler tells of haybaling with his wife and children, and in his story we see how everyday family experiences have the potential to become lifelong spiritual memories. Katherine Fiveash reflects on the role of the family as a continuum, tying her hopes as a grandmother back to her own grandfather’s legacy, “there was nothing he wanted more than to give to me his love of the world, which I could carry with me into the future.”

This kind of direct transmission is the fundamental way knowledge from our ancestors finds its way to our descendants. Janet Pivnick writes from Calgary, “But what elders have to pass on to subsequent generations depends not only on their wisdom and their willingness to stand for their beliefs. It depends also on our ability to hear and our willingness to listen.” Simon Ortiz emphasizes the importance of listening in his essay about the storytelling tradition of his Acoma Pueblo culture. This oral tradition encourages listeners and tellers to participate in the event of the storytelling, creating together the links from the past to the present. Ana Charvelle’s essay, written from a series of dreams, illustrates how our ancestors are linked to our lives in more mysterious ways, how they are with us, and how they help us. It reveals the essence of what legacy is about: the way our legacy is carried through the generations in our bodies.

Several contributors illustrate how actions taken today bequeath a legacy to those following in our own footsteps. Shigeyuki Okajima writes of bringing urban children into contact with elders in Japan’s mountain regions, saying most of these children are “born in concrete boxes and limited to subway travel, and cannot imagine themselves playing in fields.” Ann Zwinger writes about passing on a love for the natural world through “a legacy of observing,” teaching careful observation of the living world around us. Ricardo Sierra describes why mentoring students makes a difference: ”…give them an experience they can take with them forever… something that will make them feel alive and present…show them why you chose to study the earth all those years, what inspired you.” Such mentors, says Larry Daloz, “appear at crucial transitional points, times when we need a wiser head and more practiced hands to guide us into the unknown.”

Others are creatively shaping opportunities and challenges for posterity. Maria Isabel Garcia writes from the Philippines: “The current generation can be collaborators to the story of our land…It will of course require that the current stewards should study the legacy bequeathed to them and carefully bring it back to life. This is not going to be easy since the legacy did not come with a manual.” And through actors Lee Stetson’s and Kaiulani Lee’s one-person plays about John Muir and Rachel Carson, we see that performance art is a powerful way to tell the story of those who have gone before, keeping their legacy alive and growing in today’s environmental consciousness. “The reason I wrote the play,” says Ms. Lee, “was to reach out to this next generation and to inspire our own generation to take responsibility for guiding them.”

For some writers in this issue, legacy is held in a landscape, a generation, a mentor, a dream. For others, it is embodied in environmental heroes. A common theme connects all the essays, interviews, and poems in this volume — how a legacy of caring is passed from one generation to the next, and how such a living legacy can both nurture and alter the course of our environmental history. Let these stories of activism, hope, and continuity inspire you, knowing your work too, is linked to posterity, to this timeless tradition of caring for the earth.

Sherri Miles, Editor

©1999 Sherri Miles