I was fourteen when I went on my first overnight wilderness trip without an adult. And my only companion was eleven. We were unlikely best friends--an awkward, socially failed, legally blind teenage girl and an relatively normal eleven-year-old boy. But I like to think we had more fun than most.
On this particular occasion, we hiked to the top of Mount Emily on the western side of the Grande Ronde Valley in northeastern Oregon. The steep mountainside happened to extend directly from my friend Ethan's backyard 2,500 feet into the air. We did ask permission to do the overnight hike, but none of our parents believed we would go through with it... until we were gone.
We climbed the mountain and emerged on the breathtaking ridge line topped by a dusty road around midday only to find a water jug tied to a forlorn trail marker with a note from our mothers on it. They had driven the significant distance winding around the back side of the mountain to try to find us once they realized we were serious. We joyfully guzzled the water and walked giddily through the sage brush to the massive overlook rocks and sat swinging our legs over hundreds of feet of empty space.
Then we headed for the campground. Ethan's eccentric artist/scientist father (the only adult we had really consulted with very much) had promised that the campground would have more water. When we arrived, we found the campground long abandoned and the hard, semi-desert rocks bone dry in the afternoon sun. A broken pipe was the only evidence that water had ever come to the surface there. We had not rationed either our original water supply or the gift dropped off by our worrying mothers nearly as much as we would have if we had known there was no water at the deserted, so-called campground.
Now we had only a few swallows left, the afternoon was long and hot and we hadn't seen another human since we started up the trail early that morning. Quickly we scanned the outline of the mountain around us, looking for the tell-tale dip of the horizon that could signal a water source... in theory at least. As I recall it, we spotted several dips and settled on one more or less at random. Then we set out for it, walking another forty-five minutes or so toward our selected goal.
When we reached the place where the dusty wilderness trail we were following crossed the dip, we found to our relief and joy, a damp patch of mud and moss. We scrambled off the trail and up the shallow draw until we found a clear trickle of water that became "our spring." It was a moment of triumph, almost a coming of age for mountain kids. We had gone into the wilderness alone, encountered difficulty and found water in the semi-desert of northeastern Oregon. We had proved our survival skills and were elated and empowered.
We camped at the spring that night under the stars. And returned home conquering heroes the next day.
But when we told adults about our water troubles and the spring we had found, someone callously mentioned that the spring would soon be dead and dried up, just like the water at the campground. There was a clear-cut logging project planned that would decimate that little draw and the mountainside around it. In this dry country, the spring, which was already no more than a seasonal seep, would almost certainly dry up.
I was shocked but still newly empowered by my experience. I grew up in an activist family and had already been to several anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s as a child. So, I got out paper and pen and wrote a letter of protest to the local newspaper. In many situations that would have been the end of it. But in this case, someone wanted to prove a point. A few months later, I found myself back at the little draw on the mountain in the company of two Forest Service employees. They had invited me along to view the aftermath of the logging.
I'm not sure what they meant to prove. They said they wanted to show me that I was wrong and that the clear-cut was fine. But clear-cuts are never pretty and this one was no exception. We never could find exactly where the seasonal spring had been. The landscape of devastated branches and torn top-soil was distinctly depressing. It was late summer by then and there was no water, but there wouldn't have been any water, even without the logging. The question was more about whether it would return the next spring.
I knew I had lost that round. I was a kid and they were adults. I was just one individual, and they represented a state agency. They wanted me to prove there had been a spring or else be quiet.
For the moment, I was quiet... but I learned and I remembered.
Today I'm a mother and I have my own kids to bring up. In the years, since my first activist letter to the newspaper, I have immigrated to a new country, led a national anti-war movement there, participated in a Greenpeace blockade camp that successfully stopped a foreign military installation in a traumatized country, made a anti-racist documentary film, organized and negotiated with political parties and activists of many stripes from all over the world, and written thousands of articles and letters.
I've seen a few small successes in my time. The Greenpeace camp and the campaign that surrounded it was a highlight. But I've also seen a lot of passion and work go for naught--or so it seemed. My kids are astute--apparently more so than I was--and they ask me if writing letters and going to protests works.
We pick up litter in our little town. I volunteer at the school to do inter-ethnic coexistence workshops in an area with a lot of racial tension. I still write letters and have sign building materials on hand. Recently I published Shanna and the Water Fairy, a children's book for earth warriors and water protectors. The book essentially takes my experience as a teenager trying to defend a vulnerable spring and gives it a better ending. It's still realistic though. It could have happened that way.
Sometimes we do win. But mostly we don't win quite so overtly.
There are some today who argue that I shouldn't even tell my children about social justice and environmental issues, that it is unfair to fill their heads with a desire to make a difference and supposedly "save the world." In my generation it was more common for parents to teach their children these things. Today in the twenty-first century, we are supposed to be beyond all that--a savvier, brainier generation focused on kids being "gifted" and learning rare martial arts and musical instruments at younger and younger ages.
But there is an emptiness I feel in my children's generation, something beyond the regular angst I knew as a child. Sure, I suffered because I championed lost causes. I cried over my little spring. But it never set me back. It is only as an adult that I have ever considered whether the struggle for a better future is worth the sweat and heartache of activism. As a child, I knew that it gave me hope and that was enough.
And so I tell my kids activist stories and show them little things we can do. I shield them from graphic images of violence and despair to some extent, but I do tell them about the horrors of today in terms that a six-year-old and an eight-year-old can grasp. I live my values in the small stuff as well as the big issues and that will have to do.