A Child’s Paradise Lost


“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. In all my works I take the part of trees against all their enemies”.—- J.R.R. Tolkien

It was the largest tree my seven year old eyes had ever seen. Stately thick limbs spreading out into a huge leaf canopy that seemed to reach skywards forever. Beneath was a small clearing of grass and dirt where I could admire the tree house that the big kids had built, complete with  small boards attached to the tree to make a ladder upwards. 

The tree house was sturdily built with a strong platform, a roof of boards and a glassless window where one could look out on the rest of the forest. And best of all,  the big kids who built it told me I could use it anytime. I have no idea how old these kids were, probably no more than 12 or 13. But they were nice big kids, not the like the bullies I often encountered in Glenmont MD of the 1950’s.

These big kids were also kind enough to reveal another wonder of the forest. The nearby creek. It was not especially wide, maybe 6-8 ft across and no more than a foot deep. But it ran crystal clear with glittering flecks of mica and small stones scattered across its sandy bottom. 

It also contained marvelous creatures I had never seen before. Crayfish. They were small, no larger than the minnows that swam nervously about. The big kids would hold crayfish in their hands and watch them snap their tiny claws in defiance. I had no desire to catch one myself. Seeing one amidst the rocks was enough for my curiosity. Besides they were fast and experts at concealment when they detected any motion from above.

It was a Child’s Garden of Eden. And I had no idea someone actually owned it. I was familiar with peoples’ yards. They surrounded the small bungalows of the neighborhood and were clearly part of each family’s property. Some even had fences around them.

But a forest was a whole different matter. A forest simply was. I didn’t know that somewhere a deed was being scrutinized. Title searches were underway. Papers were being signed. Money was being transferred.

So the machines came to the forest. Bulldozers. Earth movers. Dump trucks. If you have seen the films Ferngully or Avatar you know how how quickly green can turn to brown. Choking dust now filled the hot summer air. I pretended that the construction machines were monsters out to devour everything in sight. I would run from dirt pile to dirt pile in an effort to evade them. If the operators even saw me, they ignored my presence.

I found a large pit filled with muddy viscous water. Knowing nothing about hydrology, I was certain that they had imprisoned the creek here. Then I saw movement in the water. Some kind of insect larva. It was about 2 inches long and had legs. I was certain it would die in the foul water of the pit. So I scooped it up with a discarded can.

At home I transferred it to larger jar with water from our garden hose. I knew nothing about the chlorine that was dissolved in it. I tried feeding the tiny creature small bugs and bits of table scraps. It was dead in a couple of days. I buried it under a rock in the field behind our house, thinking that it been doomed in the pit anyway. At least someone  had mourned its passing.

A few months later a paperback book caught my eye on the rack at the Wheaton Pharmacy where I normally went to buy candy. It was The Web of Life by John H. Storer. Originally published in 1953, it was a popular introduction to the science of ecology, the interrelationships among plants, animals and the earth itself. I laId down 35 cents and rode my bike down the sidewalk of Georgia Ave to go home and read it.

I didn’t understand a lot of it. But I understood enough. When the machines came they didn’t just destroy trees and a creek. They had destroyed an entire complex world. Eventually I realized that my own house, built in 1951, was part of the same destructive onslaught. And that driving nails into a tree for a treehouse ladder is not good for the tree. Things are never simple, are they?

I began following the political battles to save wilderness areas and national parks in the pages of the Washington Post that my dad brought home after work. I wanted to become a park ranger. A defender of wilderness. I never became that park ranger, but several enviro-groups now have my credit card number and if you shove a petition in front of me that says save whatever, I’ll add my signature. I go to meetings and conferences. I sometimes hold hand written signs at demonstrations.

Small acts of resistance to be sure; acts of resistance that I can trace partially back to the sorrow I felt about my child’s paradise lost. But only partially. I also recall the joy and wonder of a seven year old at the existence of trees and crayfish. Nearly 60 years later it is with both sorrow and joy that I think about our biosphere.

Unlike in the films Ferngully and Avatar there is no mystical force of nature we can call upon. I like to think that the wonders of nature that remain, plus our animal instinct for survival, may be enough to develop the planetary consciousness necessary so that in the distant future, our descendants will look back and say,”This is when things changed. This is when humanity reached maturity and wisdom.” 

That’s a hopeful thought. I think I’ll hang on to it.



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