Visions of Sustainability: A Dream for My Students
As an urban teacher whose heart yearns for wilderness, I dream that my students will see a Polar Bear swinging its head from side to side as it pads silently through the subarctic, as I have seen. I dream they will see an albatross gliding on seven-foot wings over the waves of the Pacific Ocean, and a Fairy Tern will hover above their heads on a nearby island. I dream they will watch a Grizzly with cubs, scavenging along an Alaskan shoreline, a shoreline where thick hordes of shiny salmon congregate. I dream they will see diminutive shorebirds on their way to the Arctic from Argentina, voraciously feeding on tiny, pearly-green eggs that Horseshoe Crabs deposit on the Delaware Bay beaches each spring.
I dream they will come to know like I have come to know the 24-legged Sunflower Stars creeping in clear, cool Alaskan waters, Sandhill Cranes congregating in astonishing numbers on the Platte River, and Whooper Swans floating elegantly among icebergs in Iceland. I dream I will witness my students’ surprise when they realize that a Short-eared Owl, flying low and silently over the tundra, is watching them as it deftly twists its supple neck to get a better view. I dream my students will swim unobtrusively after sharks on a reef and watch them slip through the water propelled by slight flicks of their tails.
My dreams don’t stop here. I dream my students will hear like I have heard, the otherworldly and mournful cries of loons reverberating across a serene lake—a lake unmarred by the passage of motorboats. I dream they will hear wolf howls echoing in the morning immediately after a moose and her calf thunder by. I dream they will hear like I have heard, Northern Ravens and sled dogs communicating back and forth in a way that makes all human conversations halt.
I tell my students about these profound moments that have shaped my life. When I do, I want to tell them that the animals and places I have described do exist in healthy ecosystems. I also want to tell them that the experiences I have had are still possible and will be possible indefinitely because we have recognized that “every being has rights to be recognized and revered” (Berry, 1999, p. 5). Yet the sad fact is that at this point in time I cannot make such a promise. Most of the species about which I tell them are at risk, and when I tell my students this troubling fact, they become quiet with shared sadness.
Why do I dream my students will have these mesmerizing experiences given the material abundance and technological richness of their lives? I dream they will have these experiences because when we pause and deeply look at, or “behold” another, our thinking and understanding expands. Beholding one another teaches us justice and compassion and ignites our feelings of wonder. Beholding one another reminds us that we are never truly alone. Justice, compassion, wonder and companionship may be the most important qualities from which to cultivate sustainability.
Justice and compassion spring from the hearts of people who recognize our profound interdependence and interrelatedness with one another and the Earth. When we gaze with unwavering attention and receptivity at a Polar Bear, salmon, albatross, crane, shark, wolf, and fellow human being, we step outside time and our singular selves. We look into the profundity of life itself, including the outrageous improbability of our own lives. The diversity we witness leaves us awestruck, too, as the dazzling array of adaptations are made clear. We become aware, at first with a slight flickering and then later with a deepened understanding, that despite our colorful diversity, we are, in so many ways, the same. This powerful understanding of our oneness and uniqueness—and also of our enduring affinity—is sacredness unveiled. We sink to our knees with humility, reverence and gratitude. We recognize that our actions are circular: as our actions go out to affect others, they come back to affect us in a great “boomerang of being.” In light of our deepened awareness and recognition of these relationships—our deepened humanity—we discover there is only one way to live: a just and compassionate life illuminated with participation in revitalized systems of governance, economics, and education that create a sustainable world—a sustainable world in which we first and foremost celebrate and honor life so that it may continue to flourish in all of its glorious, riotous abundance.
This is what I tell my students. This is the world about which they dream, too.
Berry, T. (1999). The great work: Our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.