Using a squeaky black marker, I carefully labeled the top of each piece of paper: My favorite things about nature. Where does trash belong? Why is trash bad for plants and animals? Then I handed all three pages to my seven-year-old son and said, "Get to it."
Being stuck at the kitchen table on a sunny afternoon and scrawling out mini-essays was my child's punishment for his carelessness earlier in the day. We'd been at a park in our hometown of Eugene, Oregon, when my son picked up a piece of garbage from the ground and inexplicably threw it directly into a nearby pond, nearly beaning a paddling mallard on its tailfeathers.
At the time, I was deeply dismayed by my child's actions. Littering? After all our camping trips, hikes, and discussions of how important the outdoors is to our family, I had truly believed he knew better than to throw trash around outside. Plus, did he have to do it in a public park in Eugene, for crying out loud? Jesus, kid, why not go ahead and hang out a sign saying, WE BUY SHAMEFUL AMOUNTS OF GLUTEN-RICH PROCESSED FOOD ITEMS EVERY WEEK AND MY MOM NEVER REMEMBERS HER REUSABLE GROCERY BAGS.
It wasn't until later, after I'd doled out his homework assignment and stood watch as he began laboring over each page ("Ilike how bees go from flowwr to flowwr"), that I gave some thought to how my own habits may have influenced my son's momentary lapse of reason.
Not that I've ever given him reason to believe that a duck pond is a perfectly good receptacle for someone's leftover fast-food wrapper, nor do I share his frankly disgusting magpie instinct for wanting to put his hands on practically every discarded object he spies on the ground (ask me about the time he lunged for a tampon applicator, thinking it was a pen!) (or actually, don't—I totally can't talk about it without making a dramatic series of involuntary cat-retch noises). But when it comes to respecting our natural environment, I don't always practice what I preach.
The truth is, as a parent I have always valued convenience above living green. I'm ashamed to admit it, but if the environmentally friendly option involves more work, I usually toss it aside in favor of making my own life a little easier. In some cases, I literally toss it aside—my paper towel consumption alone is off the charts, and that's just a portion of the shocking amount of waste my family of four seems to produce on a daily basis.
I tell myself that I'm stretched thin enough as it is, trying to balance a busy work-from-home freelance career with the day-to-day chaos of raising two young children. After all, who has the time or inclination to hand-shave their own laundry detergent, convince kids to prefer Earth-friendly carob-flecked HempChunks over "Snackimals," and leave toilets unflushed on PURPOSE?
It's easy to exaggerate the effort it takes to make environmentally conscious choices, but when I'm honest with myself, I realize that prioritizing my own comfort above taking even small steps to protect our planet's resources is at complete odds with the values I try to teach my kids.
A year ago, my husband and I finally accomplished our years-long dream of moving from a crowded Seattle suburb to the small town of Eugene. We're closer to everything in our lives that we love: family, a cabin on the Umpqua river, our favorite camping and hiking spots. My husband is an avid hunter who loves teaching our boys about the outdoors, from memorizing plant names to identifying which animals make those big Raisinet-style poops and which splat out something that looks like the uncomfortable aftermath of a blackberry burrito (elk and bear, respectively).
In other words, the natural environment is incredibly important to us. So why have I been so reluctant to step up to protect our planet's resources, and help do my part to ensure my children's children have access to the same wild beauty that we do?
I certainly don't have the excuse of living in an area where it's difficult to make sustainable choices: Eugene's shopping, eating, transportation, energy, and recreation options are consistently recognized in nationwide environmental rankings. It's not for a lack of access to information—god knows there are plenty of suggestions out there for baby-stepping your way to a greener lifestyle.
Really, there's no way around it: I've been pretty selfish about this stuff. I don't walk around throwing crap in ponds all day, mind you, but I've hardly been an eco-conscious example to my kids.
It's time to make some changes.
Here at TakePart, I'll be chronicling my efforts to become more aware of what I'm doing, buying, and using. I'll be tackling some tough personal challenges (remember those paper towels? Um, there may be a paper plate issue too), and writing honestly about what works, what sucks, and what I've learned along the way. I hope you'll join me.
Trash is bad for plants and animuls beckus if thae eat it thae can get sick, my son wrote. And thae might not come there eine more. Spelling aside, his heart is in the right place. I think that's probably true for most of us, really—some of us just need a kick in the ass to change our ways.