Listen and Act
By Amy L. Newton – May 2017
If everyone helps to hold up the sky,
Then one person does not become tired.
It seems some people know from an early age what they want to be when they grow up. I think they are the lucky ones, as they are focused from an early age and presumably make decisions and attract mentors who move them logically along their desired path.
I was not one of them. At least I thought I wasn’t. I wanted to be a veterinarian, then a missionary, senator, governor, referee and baseball team owner. The list went on and on. Being a bit undisciplined—along with liking so many professions and attracted to so many jobs—that was my dilemma.
So how did I end up in the environmental field? As I reflect back decades later, the journey was really so clear, with stepping stones that helped me to safely land and move forward. At the time I just never knew the path was laid out in front of me. That guides were with me all along the way, even though I thought I was traveling alone. I just had to take the first step, and then the second and then the third to end up exactly where I was supposed to be.
I grew up in New Jersey and New York. My father was a musician working in the city. My mom was our neighborhood’s “Martha Stewart.” I was raised with two older sisters, a dog and a bunch of Italian cousins who were always, happily, around. My childhood was easy, full of time exploring the woods near our home, with the freedom to be on my own or to play with dozens of friends and relatives. I got up early in the summers and played outside all day long, coming inside only for lunch, a bath and dinner. Life was good and really very easy for me.
At age 8 things changed. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and my outside world became less important than my inside world. To be with my Mom was exactly where I wanted to be. A woman who loved the outdoors, she was now inside more than out. Fortunately she was an avid reader. I can see her now, sitting in the den, what we called the “TV room” with its huge Zenith television with rabbit ears, surrounded by books on the shelves that lined the walls. Though frequently in great pain, she seemed relaxed and at ease when she was transported by a good book into a world she could only imagine. Reading was her salvation, her joy—and the means by which she opened the eyes of her daughters to the outside world and all the possibilities ahead.
My mother always looked forward to the arrival of her “Book-of-the-Month,” and in October 1962 that book changed my life and hers. It was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It begins by gracefully describing a peaceful setting. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields…” Then, in her poetic language, Carson alerts the reader that change is happening, the beauty giving way to the silence of the birds’ songs and a damaged landscape where pesticides are killing the fish in the streams. And the people are wondering what they had done.
My mother wondered too.
I can recall as if it were yesterday that chilly autumn Sunday when she called me into the den. She said she was reading an important book that will change the world, a world she will not be able to live long in, but a world I would inherit. She told me —not asked me—to do something about it when I grew up. I had no way to understand the seriousness of the issues or even what her request might ever prompt me to do. I just listened.
Eight years later, after a visit to her in the hospital, I was lost in my thoughts walking alone in Central Park when I heard music and saw hundreds of people gathering. I paused and stood to hear the speakers. It was the very first Earth Day in April 1970. Preoccupied by the crisis of my mother’s rapidly failing health, my focus was internal. Again, I only listened.
I entered college in Ohio with little thought about what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” I gravitated to history and political science classes, but was required to take a hard science class to graduate. I thought environmental science might be interesting, and it looked a lot easier than the other science classes offered. Unfortunately my grades in that class could not have been worse, yet I loved it so much. My professor gave me a passing grade, on the condition that I would promise him I would never try to be a scientist—but rather would channel my interest and great enthusiasm into another side of environmental issues. I listened again.
My mom passed away during my senior year in college. I was engulfed by grief. My best friend no longer walked the earth with me. What could I ever do to honor her? I listened again, but this time I also began to act.
I applied to graduate school in Colorado and went on to earn my masters in environmental planning the following year in an expedited program. Upon graduation I acted on my passion and set forth on what became my lifelong journey to care, respect and protect the earth.
Looking back I can see clearly why I made the choices I made. It all started with my mom, who shared her love of nature with me, encouraged me to explore on my own—and to always listen for the guides that presented themselves to me along my journey from childhood to young adult, and even to now.
And so on a very rainy Earth Day 2017, I was outdoors with many local citizens cleaning and planting, listening—and acting.