Educating My Youngster to Love a Dying World

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As a rabbi and climate activist, I had mourned for a long time. For our trees, for the great Appalachian hemlock forests as well as for the burning Amazon, the oceans suffocated in plastic, the hungry people. For the whole beautiful and complex system of life brought to its knees by a species rich in intelligence and wisdom, the most dangerous apex predator that has ever lived on earth.

Abraham sat under the hemlocks on earth that was hard-packed by his game. He called this place the corner of frog and toad last fall, and he enjoys taking toddler outings there before falling triumphantly into my arms when he “comes home” on the terrace. His small body rocked gently back and forth. I resisted the urge to distract him or myself from our own versions of the same vast and sacred sorrow.

Like so many, my husband and I worked from home this spring and summer with no childcare. I took care of Abraham every day, sneaking in emails wherever I could, and found myself outdoors more consistently in the spring than since my own childhood. Each day, Abraham and I walked the few blocks from our Boston home to the back of Peters Hill in the Arnold Arboretum, a 281 acre collection of plants from around the world owned by Harvard University and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Every day we saw, smelled and felt the changes in the trees. The collection closest to our home features the Rosacea family, and we spent hours under the blooming crab apples and hawthorn to mark the days when it bloomed, whose petals began to fall, which began to shed leaves or fruit. Inspired by the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, I started using personal pronouns when referring to all plants and animals, teaching us both a new grammar that I hoped would be Abraham’s mother tongue.

As we walked, Abraham and I talked about the trees as people – and in fact, for the first month of quarantine, they were the only people besides us he could see up close. In the absence of human friends, it became obvious to greet the trees with an awed shake of a lower branch. “Hello, European larch tree,” said Abraham in his toddler dialect, reaching for the feathery needles on the drooping branches.

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