Recent legislation and changes to environmental laws over the past few years in the United States have prompted me to write about the relationship of self-care and caring for our planet.
In the early 1990s I wrote a biweekly column for a local newspaper in a Montana town. It was my first foray into journalism, and I wrote about topics I knew well and felt passionate about. To help advertise themselves, the newspaper had T-shirts made. Given the granola-crunchy nature of the paper’s staff, the shirts were tie-dyed in bright colors with the paper’s name in bold letters across the front.
One day I wore the T-shirt on a trip to the grocery store. After loading my purchases into the car, I returned the cart to the store entrance. Two high school boys were standing outside the door. As I passed them, one mumbled “tree hugger.” I continued into the store, racked the cart with the others, and turned around to head back out. When the boys saw me coming back, they turned their faces toward each other in embarrassment, trying to avoid eye contact with me. As I passed them again, I looked at them and smiled, “I’m proud to be a tree hugger.” One of them replied sarcastically, “Good for you,” because, teenage boys.
Reclaiming tree huggerness
Some use the term “tree hugger” as an insult; others wear it as a badge of honor. Little did these boys know that I was—and am—and unabashed tree hugger; it wasn’t just the tie-dyed shirt. I have actually hugged trees. The boys also didn’t know that I had college degrees in both forestry and wildlife biology and was an avid hiker, mountain biker, skier, and wildlife-watcher. My newspaper column was about the environment and outdoor recreation. They just saw some lady wearing tie-dye and decided to pick on her. They were also unaware that my tree-hugging values were at work for them, supporting environmental laws that protected our water, soil, air, and food so that they and their future children would be safe from largely invisible, yet potentially lethal, threats to their very existence. I hug trees for them.
And here is where I get flummoxed when people decry environmental laws as a hassle, an unnecessary and costly hurdle over which they must jump to develop land or farm or operate a “harmless” factory. I guess unless a sufficient number of your friends and family aren’t dying from cancer or suffering from chronic illnesses, diseases, and malformations, it doesn’t matter that people you don’t know are. Racist legislation and policies play a huge role in preventing these issues from affecting privileged White communities, although unprivileged White communities also suffer the effects of environmental racism (i.e., classism).
What these destroyers of the environment don’t realize—yet—is that we all live downstream. But now there’s an even graver crisis than harmful substances: climate change. It’s the great equalizer because it affects everyone. It knows no political boundaries.
It’s about you and about US
The problem with the American experience is that we Americans have come to expect, and in some cases demand, immediate gratification. We want what we want when we want it, and we complain and stomp our feet and sue when we don’t get it. In the history of civilization, only fairly recently in what is today the United States immigrants who invaded this land believed everything was free for the taking. In a way, it was, although the native peoples had something to say about that (which is why European immigrants committed genocide of American Indians). My fellow Americans, our natural resources are not free for the taking. They never really were. There are consequences to our demand of immediate gratification and harboring all the toys so no one else can play with them. We will all pay the price for selfish narrow-mindedness. The more we consume, the more we destroy. Consuming includes dumping pollutants into our planet’s life support systems (water, air, soil). Be very skeptical about the motives of those who complain about having to comply with laws that protect everyone’s health. They do not have your best interest in mind.
I was born before many of our current most potent environmental laws were enacted. I remember when the outdoors didn’t look so good. I remember when some species were nearing extinction. That sea change in our will to treat Mother Earth with kindness resulted in miraculous improvements. The air and water were cleaner, and species such as bald eagles rebounded in spades. Now I see the ravages of climate change reversing all that was good; millions of acres of forests up in flames or killed by insects that in past years cold winters were able to keep in check.
So, self-care. What good will all that taking care of yourself do if every time you took a breath or a drink you were risking your physical well-being? Self-care isn’t just about you. It’s about getting your own house in order so that you care enough to help others get their houses in order, including the Big House: Earth.
Hear the good news
If you don’t like what people are doing to our planet, you get to do something about it—in addition to modifying your lifestyle to consume less and more wisely! One of the greatest rights Americans have is the freedom to vote in fair and open elections. Do not take this right lightly or abuse it by not voting. Even if you think elections are rigged or no candidates live up to your expectations or your vote isn’t going to make a difference, do it anyway. Every vote does count, and the more people who vote with their conscience, the greater chance Americans have of keeping this country good, healthy, and safe for all people. If you really don’t like your choices, write in someone’s name (a legitimate name, not a smartass one like “Mickey Mouse” or your favorite actor).
Remember, self-care extends to caring for our communities, to the broader region, to the country, and to the planet. We all count on one another for our well-being, and it starts with you.
For links to self-care through retreating and retreat resources, visit my Resources page.
Happy journeying…and give a tree a hug!