I am 4 or 5 years old. My arms are curled tightly around my father's neck. His arms are wrapped around my waist. We are standing in the Ogeechee River, wide and dark, brown as coffee. The trees that grow along its banks are tall and heavy with branches that dangle over the river, dripping Spanish moss. On the sandbar just a few yards away, my family – aunts and uncles and cousins, grandparents, my mother, my brother – move around in a cone of sunshine, a spotlight cutting through the canopy of cypress and pine and scrub oak.
They are laughing and talking. The children are running back and forth, splashing at the edge of the water. It is bright and noisy where they are. But where we are – my father and I – it is dim and quiet. It is peaceful. It is a different place. This is my first, my oldest memory of not just being outside, but of being IN the world.
I have conjured this memory – and I do mean conjured as in pulling it up with a kind of spell, an incantation of wondering and a potion of solitude and quietness – as I work on remarks I am scheduled to give to an environmental group. My topic is “How To Make An Enviromentalist.”
I have no idea why I suggested that topic. Do I even know what an environmentalist is? A word loaded with meaning, it used by people of widely varying stripes with alternately positive and negative connotations. It is a word like “artist,” “Southerner,” “liberal,” “athlete,” or “Christian,” heavy with history, both personal and societal.
Is the “artist” a photographer or a classical pianist? Is the “Southerner” a descendant of the First Families of Virginia or a wiregrass farmer? Is the “athlete” a member of the PGA tour or someone who goes the gym every day after work?
I decide that an environmentalist is a person who has a significant emotional or historical attachment to a particular place, an attachment which motivates him or her to work to preserve that place. I also decide that I am one.
An environmentalist, at least this one, takes a while to make, but in that first, oldest memory I can see the recipe and the ingredients. First, I notice how young I was. Four or five. My attention had not yet been captured by the socialization of school. My entire world was my family. Where they went, I went. What they liked, I liked. What they honored, protected, appreciated, I would learn to honor, protect, and appreciate.
Second, I notice how I felt. Held securely in the arms of someone I trusted implicitly, without even knowing what trust was, I knew no fear. And knowing no fear, I could absorb the sensory elements of that experience, absorb and retain them for the rest of my life.
Third, I notice where I was. The Ogeechee River is right down the road. It is the spot to which the people I know are referring when they say “the river.” No one needs to ask which one. It is just a river, but it is ours and therein lies its great value.
Early exposure through a trusted adult in a comfortable and familiar place. The rain and sunshine and fertilizer that turned my innate connection to the earth, a connection every human has, into a great love. That made me an environmentalist.
This is what I will tell them, the people who have asked me to share my thoughts. This is what I will tell them and suggest that they go provide the rain and sunshine and fertilizer for a child they know. This is what I will tell them with the prayer that we all become, all remain environmentalists.