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“What can we do to make a difference?”

That was the question coming from the floor at the ‘Thinking Mountains’ conference last December in Edmonton. The speaker, who had raised the issues of corporate environmental degradation, oil spills and mercury contamination, paused for a moment and then replied that he didn't think that there was very much that we could do, other than to vote for the people in government who will affect change.

The conference was part of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Mountain Studies Initiative and the audience was made up of students, faculty and members of the public who were interested in the mountain environment. The question was a fair one. These were the very people who could and wanted to make a difference. The answer though, voting for people who will lead change through good government, seemed to me, inadequate. It made me feel squirmy and uncomfortable. Sitting in the audience, I didn't have a better answer then, so I said nothing. Yet it got me thinking. How could it be that I didn't have a ready answer to such a simple question? Could it be that the answer isn't so simple?

I started looking for answers and came across the story that’s attributed to Loren Eiseley:

While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference for this one." I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.

One person can make a difference and, through their actions, lead others to effect change. That’s certainly part of the answer.

Then I came across a video titled ‘Recreating Eden, Garden of the Gods’ , featuring Freeman Patterson. I’ve come to think of Freeman Patterson as an old friend, though I’ve only met him once at one of his photography workshops back in the 70’s. Freeman is an iconic Canadian nature photographer and his work and his words have mentored my nature photography journey for over 40 years. In the video he talks of how it was his mother who taught him the importance of hearing the wind rustle through the grass. From that beginning came his love of gardening and nature and nature photography. Freeman’s words reminded me of the article I wrote about my Grandmother for the Nature Alberta audience, an article titled ‘Of Grandmas and Bighorn Sheep’. Mothers and Grandmothers and learning from our elders. Thoughts and ideas were beginning to percolate. It took a few more months though, before I remembered the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, ‘Teach Your Children’ .

Teach, your children well, Their father's hell did slowly go by, And feed them on your dreams, The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

The song, with lyrics by Graham Nash, became a counter-culture anthem of the 70’s when the issue was the Vietnam War. Forty years later, while we’re still sending young people off to war, we also face the issues of climate change and environmental degradation. Nash’s song lyrics, like the album it was part of - Déjà vu - come back to us fresh and poignant. Teach your children well and feed them on your dreams.

Individual actions, learning from our elders and teaching our children are then, are all pieces of the ’what can we do to make a difference’ puzzle. The words and ideas of Eiseley, Patterson and Nash came together to frame the answers I was looking for. And they’re things I've already been doing.

At a family barbecue this past summer, our grandson Noah and I explored the bulrushes and reeds around the pond at the back of our home. We watched the ducks paddling about in the water and then we blew dandelions fluffs into the air. Noah and I both laughed and giggled with delight. Noah’s only two and a half, but somehow I think, or I hope that he’ll remember dandelion fluffs as he grows older. Then, this past September, I took our three year old granddaughter Madeleine for a walk along the shore at Sooke, B.C. We found purple and orange starfish and she was fascinated. Together we were able to put a beached starfish back into the water. At the very least, it made a difference for that one, and for us. Then I took her out canoeing and we saw jelly fish and seals and otters. The migrating salmon were jumping all around our canoe and it was wonderful. Next year, our other two grandchildren, Grayson and Emma, will be old enough to go exploring and so I may also have the honour showing them bits of the wild and of “teaching them well”

The genius of the song ‘Teach your Children’ though, comes in the last two verses when Nash flips the lyrics and advises the children- ‘you of tender years’- teach your parents well and in turn, feed them on your dreams. Thinking about those words was a light bulb moment for me! Maybe that was the opportunity that was missed at the Mountain Studies conference. Could the question have been turned back to the audience, asking them what their dreams were, what they thought the answers might be, how they thought they could make a difference?

How can we make a difference? The answer isn’t a simple one and it isn’t any one thing. Voting for someone to represent our interests in government is part of the answer, but we can act on our own and we can show others. We can teach our children and, if we’re wise, we will listen to their dreams.

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