The poem, For the Children, by Gary Snyder, written in 1974, is amazingly fitting for 2022. It reminds me of what is essential if we are going to make this world a better and safer place for those yet to be born.
For the Children
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
"For the Children" by Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island. © New Directions, 1974.
A Dangerous Present
Water levels, temperatures, pollution—we hear statistics of rising levels of each of these every day and there is an emotional and intellectual conviction among many that, as a species, we are going down as a result of our own harmful activity on this earth. For many, there is a deep awareness of the steep climb ahead of us as we struggle to better care for the world we inhabit. That "steep climb" of the poem is one that we will be on for a very long time if we are going to do the work needed to create a better place for generations to come.
These scientific statistics place a heavy weight on us—a heaviness that is not just on specific individuals, but on all of the members of society, whether or not we willingly open our eyes to the facts these statistics would show us. Intentional blindness and ignorance do not make us immune from the results of this reality.
A Future Vision
But the poem does not just leave us within the "steep climb" and the paralyzing grip of this weight. In the second stanza, the poem presents a sparse but beautiful vision of a peaceful valley in front of us as the goal to work toward. The pastoral images evoke for me the lines of Psalm 23, with its grass to lie on, a sky to look up at, and a vision of rest and quiet to hold in our minds. For those who live in the midst of often cacophonous activity and noise, this picture of "valleys" and "peace" is a vision well worth working for.
The poem warns that this isn't a valley we ourselves will be able to enjoy, but one that will take a while to attain—"in the next century or the one beyond that." There is a lot of work to do if we are to not just get ourselves there, but "meet" there together. By holding the image of the valleys and pastures of peace that we long for in our minds, we are better able to see what steps are needed to find our way to where we want to go.
This willingness to work toward a vision whose completion we will not ourselves attain demands perseverance and a willingness to put the needs of future generations ahead of our own immediate wants. We will need to work for the sake of future generations knowing there are no guarantees that we will succeed. The poem, using the phrase "if we make it," suggests that failure is possible; we are not guaranteed the outcome we hope and strive for. But that doesn't release us from the responsibility of doing what we can to complete the climb.
Words to Remember
It is not just our generation that will need to work toward this future. We must teach our children how to grasp this vision and do what is necessary to bring about that desired future.
It's a cardinal rule of hiking—when you're hiking with someone, stay together. You never know when one of you might need help from the other. Staying together makes you better able to handle an injury, a natural disaster, a cold night.
If we're going to "meet" in the valley of the poem, we have to stay together. This means finding common ground that we share. It means seeing the ways we are the same and learning how to walk together in those similarities despite our differences. The extreme divisions currently at work in our world make clear the harm of not staying together. When even the survival of our world is something that splits people apart, it should be apparent that relearning and reteaching the value of "staying together" is of utmost importance.
Learn the flowers
I've learned that there is value in knowing what something is. Being able to get beyond a rudimentary description such as "little purple flowers with pointed ends" to recognition and calling something by name—"shooting stars"—helps me learn more, such as when they bloom, where they grow and what they need to thrive. It deepens our relationship and honors the thing being named. Calling something by name recognizes an existence of the thing being named that reaches beyond my own personal experience of it; the little purple flower with pointed ends becomes something with history and a part in the larger ecosystem.
To "learn the flowers," can also mean knowing things in a way beyond just an intellectual knowledge—it can mean experiencing them, enjoying them, smelling them, planting them, caring for them. To "learn the flowers" rather than just "learning about the flowers," implies a knowledge that goes beyond objective facts.
Another lesson from hiking is that when you're carrying a backpack for an entire day on a hillside, every ounce matters. What feels minimal at home in your living room, will feel much heavier after hiking for several hours or days. Too much weight can slow you down or even keep you from reaching your intended destination.
It is easy to equate what we want with what we need. But, considering the tremendous damage we've done to this world by insisting on having things that aren't truly essential, we need to rethink what our actual needs are. In order to "go light," we will need to leave behind some unnecessary comfort items. What we want because it is new or stylish may keep us from getting up the steep slope. What we cling to may weigh us down, turn us around, or keep us from the valleys and pastures where we could find peace. We need to look clearly and honestly at the things we insist we need and jettison much of it along the way.
Reflection Questions: Does one of the phrases: "stay together," "learn the flowers," "go light," particularly resonate with you?
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